RAS AL-KHAIMAH, United Arab Emirates – Morning prayers had just ended. Worshippers streamed out,squinting into the rising sun and paying no attention to the knotof men wearing the traditional white robes of the Gulf standingnearby. "Can we talk?" one of the men said as they surrounded an activistwho was heading home for breakfast in the northernmost city in theUnited Arab Emirates. A moment later, the activist was maneuveredinto a waiting car. It was the last time Saleh al-Dhufairi was seenin public. |
The arrest April 29 — described by al-Dhufairi's son andrights groups — was another apparent pinpoint strike in oneof the far-flung frontiers of the Arab Spring: crackdowns on aloosely knit Islamist network advocating a greater public voice inUAE's tightly controlled affairs. At least eight people, including a member of the ruling family ofthe emirate Ras al-Khaimah, have been detained this year forsuspected links to the Islamist group al-Islah, or Reform. Fiveothers have been reported missing by rights groups, which claimundercover security agents took them into custody. Members of al-Islah describe their goals in purely populist terms,saying they want to open up political participation in a countrywhose seven emirates are governed by various tribal dynasties.
UAEauthorities view them as a dangerous undercurrent inspired by theArab Spring gains of Islamist movements elsewhere, such as Egypt'sMuslim Brotherhood, and a potential threat to the UAE'sWestern-friendly tolerance. "We hear today that there are some who are trying to tamper withthe stability of the UAE," said Shiek Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, theruler of the emirate Ras al-Khaimah's, whose cousin was placedunder palace guard last month for links to al-Islah. "I would say to them, 'The people of the UAE don't need lessonsfrom anyone,'" Sheik Saud said during a discussion on use ofTwitter and other social media sites to call for UAE reforms. In the broad tableau of the Arab Spring, the UAE's internalshowdowns can appear insignificant and relegated to the margins.But they illuminate some powerful themes brewing across the Gulf.Aiming to ride out the region's upheavals, the ruling monarchs andsheiks — all major Western allies — are stepping upcrackdowns and cooperation against any perceived threats to theirpower.
The UAE is a curious proving ground for this tougher stance. It'sbeen untouched by the street protests that have swept acrossmultiple nations since last year. The cosmopolitan tempo of Dubaiand Abu Dhabi barely missed a beat as other parts of the MiddleEast fell into chaos. That, however, has not stopped UAE authorities from applying muscleagainst any possible challenges to the status quo in a countrywhere political parties are banned and a parliament-style body,elected by a hand-picked pool of voters, has no direct powers.
In one of the first swipes by officials, five people were convictedlast year of anti-state crimes after signing an online petitionthat included appeals for a stronger electoral system. The group— including a prominent blogger and an economics professorwho has frequently lectured at Abu Dhabi's branch of the Sorbonneuniversity — was eventually freed on a presidential order,but the charges have not been officially dropped. Meanwhile, Dubai's police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, hasbecome the UAE's bullhorn.
His warnings include the perils ofsubversion via social media and fears that the Muslim Brotherhoodand others could seek footholds in the Gulf and try to chip away atthe ruling systems. He has a receptive audience among Gulf authorities from Kuwait toOman. Proposals for closer union are quickly gaining steam. Themotivation — as Saudi Arabia's foreign minister outlined lastmonth — is largely driven by insecurities.
They include:bonding together against rival Iran, protecting Bahrain's embattledmonarchy against a resilient uprising, and trying to keep otherArab Spring pressures at bay. "The Gulf states are doing everything they can to try to stoptime," said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs atBritain's Durham University. "The story of the Arab Spring is fromover and the chapters in the Gulf have yet to be written." In Ras al-Khaimah, the jumble of concrete-facade buildings andsleepy street-front markets still resembles what Dubai and AbuDhabi looked like decades ago. But its rulers have clear ambitions,such as expanding its namesake airline, RAK Airways, and boostingfree-trade zones modeled after its now more glamorous cousins.
Members of al-Islah meet in coffee shops and homes. They are waryof going to the group's offices and community centers, worried theyare now monitored by security forces. The group claims it hasthousands of members. "Here is a country that welcomes people from all over the world towork and live and be part of the society," said Salem al-Tenaiji, aself-described rights activist and member of al-Islah. "But the UAErulers won't listen to their own people." During an hour conversation, his mobile phone rang every fewminutes.
"It's work. They are checking up on me as usual," said al-Tenaiji,who claims he was shifted from his teaching post to a do-nothingpost at the Health Ministry in 2010 because of his links to thegroup. "They just want to keep an eye on me," he said. Seven fellow activists, all believed to be members of al-Islah, arebeing held by UAE officials after being stripped of theircitizenship for criticizing the country's rulers. The London-based Emirati Center for Human Rights says at least fiveother men — some of them al-Islah members — have beenapparently detained since early April and their whereabouts havenot been made public.
They include a former chairman of the UAE'sJurist Association, Ahmed Zaabi, and Saleh al-Dhufairi, theactivist led away by apparent plainclothes agents after morningprayers. Government officials did not reply to requests for comment by TheAssociated Press. "The right to freedom of association is under attack, with anyoneassociated with reform calls at risk of being arrested," said astatement from the Emirati Center for Human Rights. "Authoritiesare attempting to cultivate unfounded fear at the rising tide of'Islamism' when it is the suppression of calls for democraticreform that should be feared." Al-Islah carefully tries to keep its message on political inclusionand democracy.
But its website offers hints of Islamic views thatcould clash with the UAE's relative openness and acceptance ofWestern lifestyles. One posting described "freedom" as an inherent goal of Islam, butstressed the need for "controls" on women's dress and criticizedWestern societies for permitting gambling, drinking andhomosexuality. "Certainly we have Islamic views. This is an Islamic country," saidthe activist al-Tenaiji. "But we have no desire to limit women ordrastically change the way of life in the UAE.
We just want to beheard.".
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