My latest article in TIME:

Monday, Jul. 18, 2011

Why the Arab Spring Never Came to the U.A.E.

By Angela Shah / Abu Dhabi

To understand why the Arab Spring has largely passed by the United Arab Emirates, take a moment to listen to Naser Al Hammadi. “What more do we need?” says the 30-year-old electrical engineer. “Here, everything is taken care of. Our education. Our health care. We have free housing.”

Hammadi’s sentiment was echoed by a group of about 150 men gathered outside the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi in a rare public demonstration Monday morning. In the 110° heat, the government supporters rallied in a park across the street from the court, chanting in support of the U.A.E.’s ruler, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and passing out national flags and scarves featuring the ruler and the crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Inside, five Emirati intellectuals, jailed since April, were appearing for their second day in court, fighting charges that they were “perpetrating acts that pose a threat to state security, [by] undermining the public order, opposing the government system and insulting” the U.A.E.’s rulers. “We Emiratis rarely speak to the media, but we have come here to enhance our voices,” says Khaled Al Hosani, another Emirati who joined the gathering. “[The accused] are not allowed to speak on behalf of us.”

Pro-government Emiratis gather outside the Supreme Court building where five dissedents are being tried.

The U.A.E.’s wealth shields it from the sort of economic pressures that have sparked unrest in Egypt and Tunisia. The country’s per capita income is among the highest in the world, and fat government coffers make sure the needs of locals are met, including free housing, health care and education and heavily subsidized energy. A relatively small and close-knit citizenry with close ties to the ruling families has also staved off mass discontent with how ordinary Emiratis are governed.

So as protests and bloodshed drifted from Egypt to Bahrain and next door to Yemen, all was peaceful on the Emirati street. Beneath that stability, however, were small fractures that led to the government’s cracking down on efforts it perceived to be a threat. Authorities blocked a website, UAE Hewar, where many of the bloggers had posted calls for a constitutional monarchy and more direct democracy, culminating in a petition signed by 133 Emiratis in March. By the next month, the U.A.E. government also dissolved the elected boards of the Jurists’ Association and the Teachers’ Association, among the most prominent nongovernmental groups in the country, after members signed the petition calling for reforms.

Police then arrested the five dissidents currently being tried: Ahmed Mansour, an engineer who is also a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East advisory board; Nasser bin Ghaith, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Sorbonne University; and the activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul Khaleq and Hassan Ali Al Khamis. Monday’s proceedings heard several witnesses in a session lasting five hours. The trial will resume July 25.

For the government supporters gathered outside the court Monday, what stung most was an assertion that the U.A.E.’s rulers have bribed the masses into silence through the generous social-welfare pact. “I can say what I want,” says Ali Saleh Al Mansoori, a 28-year-old who works at the Abu Dhabi International Airport. “I am not being bribed.”

A poll commissioned last month by the Doha Debates, a Qatar-based public forum, reported that many Persian Gulf Arabs are afraid to speak out against their rulers in any capacity. That contrasted with the perspective of Arab respondents living outside the Gulf in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, who said they felt they now had a more open political environment.

A family affair

In defense of the Gulf sheiks, one Emirati among the pro-government demonstrators, who asked not to be named, points out that the U.A.E. has a type of democracy that works well for Emiratis since their rulers’ offices are open to citizens seeking a hearing. “Sheik Khalifa has his majlis for the nationals every Friday and Sunday for locals,” he says, referring to the traditional tribal court where Emirati citizens can petition their rulers. “Feel open to criticize, but do it the right way and respect the culture.” In September 2011, nearly 130,000 Emiratis will be eligible to vote for the members of the Federal National Council, a largely advisory body. In 2006, only 7,000 voters could participate.

Human-rights groups have called for the U.A.E. to drop the charges. “We consider all five men prisoners of conscience and call on the U.A.E. authorities to release them unconditionally,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International. Christopher Davidson, a professor at Durham University in England and author of several books on the U.A.E., said, “I know two of the five people, and these are not two who would insult anyone.” In Abu Dhabi, the bloggers did receive some, perhaps more quiet, support. “Yes, we have our basic needs,” says Noor Mubarak, a 30-year-old engineer. “But this is not enough. I want the right to express myself. They should have the right to express themselves.” But on this day, at least, her view was the exception.

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