It is tempting to regard the condition of all Arab states as one and the priorities of all Arab people as identical.
Even when discussing the Gulf, some analysts would like to treat the member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) as uniform. But they are not.
Look at the United Arab Emirates. It is unique in the Arab world in the sense that it was never meant to be, and its subsequent survival and flourishing has been nothing short of a miracle. While other Arab nations have been torn apart by succession crises and bloody feuds, often seeing them become more regressive, Emiratis have been able to enjoy the fruits of peace and relative progression.
The UAE has a history of virtually no terrorism or mass dissent. Yet that quiet is now proving a curse as well as a blessing: Emiratis stand accused of not responding to the Arab Spring in a way that other states have done and would like, leading to its anointment as an oppressive regime. This is ethical imperialism. The narrative widely accepted is that:
- 133 academics and intellectuals (Islamist and secular) publish a petition calling for universal suffrage and the granting of legislative powers to the Federal National Council;
- Five individuals (only one of them a signatory) are arrested, put in solitary confinement, not allowed to meet their lawyers or families, and charged with insulting the President and other members of the Royal Family on an online forum;
- They are held without a charge for many months and are finally tried, found guilty and acquitted by presidential pardon;
- Seven naturalised citizens (of which three were signatories) are stripped of their citizenship;
- More than 60 Islamists are arrested, tortured, put in solitary confinement, not allowed to meet their lawyers or families, and are charged with plotting against the regime and seeking aid from foreign organisations.
But this level of reductionism so much ignores evidence, nuance and history that it effectively paints a false image. First, the illogical assumption that solitary confinement and torture were used. Second, the failure of investigative journalism to try to understand what happened before, during and after those events leaves very little room for nuance. Third, the failure to investigate the history behind current circumstances. Reducing it to an “Arab Spring-inspired moderate Islamists versus a regressive state scenario” is too convenient.
What isn’t also mentioned is how this supposedly moderate group controlled the education sector and hijacked the nation’s collective psyche and its youth, in favour of regression and Islamic fundamentalism.
No one cares to explore how this is the culmination of an 18-year attempt to peacefully reintegrate members of this Islamist group into state and society – a group that continued to covertly operate as a political force after it was no longer licensed to undertake charitable activities. No one emphasises that this group has admitted on numerous occasions that it has continued to pay allegiance to a leader of a foreign movement.
None of this is relevant because the narrative is set. These are Davids, the state Goliath; if the former were supported enough they would be crowned kings.
In the light of the urgency and sensitivity of the case, I encourage the federal public prosecutor to multiply his efforts and submit his case to court as soon as possible and issue statements more often – rumours and false tales are rife. Yet I also understand the time and effort required to bring such a prosecution – especially one so many potential defendants.
Like any other state in the world, the UAE has areas for improvement: education, healthcare, housing, infrastructure and political participation to name just a few. However, I take solace in the UAE’s commitment to reform itself and its track record in making improvements until now. It should also be said that the respectability the UAE commands has never been derived from the praise of foreign diplomats or states – or any external parties for that matter – but rather its own, very well demonstrated, commitment to global peace, regional stability, cultural tolerance, women’s rights, economic development and sustainability.
There should be evolution, not immediate, wholesale revolution. And be it, political, economic or social, this evolution is already under way. As with the “Dubai bashing” articles three years ago, the negative coverage and hostility will also pass. The UAE will learn, adapt and change. The question is whether its progress will be reported objectively or from the standpoint of predetermined favouritism.
Mishaal Gergawi, is a commentator on UAE and regional issues