From the members of Al Islah who were stripped of their citizenship – and then detained – to the sudden expulsion of Western non-governmental organizations, the tolerance in the U.A.E. for unfettered expression has been reduced. I write about this shift in my latest story today in The New York Times.



Gulf States Cast Dim Eye on Reform After Tumult


ABU DHABI — Governments in the Gulf Arab states may not have been overthrown by revolutionary forces, but there are signs that leaders are concerned about the power of the Arab Spring movement.

The latest indication of unease is the abrupt expulsion from the United Arab Emirates of foreign-sponsored groups that promote political reform.

In March, the authorities expelled the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German foundation that provides civic and political education.

The U.A.E. also showed the door to the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based pro-democracy organization, and the Abu Dhabi branch of the American polling group Gallup.

The move against the Adenauer group, which is close to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, is likely to prove particularly awkward because a European parliamentary group will shortly arrive in the U.A.E. on a previously scheduled visit and promises to raise the matter with the authorities.

The Adenauer group was an administrator of a €2.1 million, or $2.75 million, grant given by the European Commission with the intent to foster cultural, trade and research exchanges between Europe and the Gulf states. Now the question is how the exchange can take place given the crackdown on free speech.

“We have to clearly state on behalf of the E.U. that this is not the right way tomove forward,” said Angelika Niebler, a German member of the European Parliament. “N.G.O.’s should be accommodated, not fought against. That will be the message.”

The U.A.E. says these organizations breached the agreements under which they were permitted to work. “Some foreign institutions that were operating in the U.A.E. have violated the terms of the license,” Abdul Rahim al Awadhi, assistant foreign minister for legal affairs for the Emirates, said following the closures, according to state media.

In recent months the U.A.E. has displayed a new vigilance about potential sources of dissent. The Emirates did not see regime change or even the political turmoil witnessed in nearby Bahrain. Yet the authorities do not seem to want to take any chances.

The U.A.E. may be following the example of the Egyptian authorities who have cracked down hard on groups from the West that engaged in activities like promoting democracy and providing media training. Though the raids generated international outrage, the United States government has not cut aid to Egypt.

“The momentum is shifting. The Arab regimes are emboldened,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “They look at what Egypt did and are encouraged by it.”

The authorities in the U.A.E. first targeted domestic organizations. A year ago, the boards of several professional associations were disbanded, including the Jurists Association, an influential lawyers’ group. A few months later, the U.A.E. also refused to renew the license of the Gulf Research Center, an organization that sponsored social science research and held conferences.

The center, which had been headquartered in Dubai for 10 years, closed those offices and shifted most of its operations to Geneva in June 2011.

At about the same time, five Emirati citizens were arrested for insulting the country’s royal family and threatening state security. Last November, the men were sentenced to three-year prison terms but were pardoned days later. Then, late last year, the government announced the revocation of the citizenship of seven Emiratis, who are all members of Al Islah, or Reform, an Islamist group. They are fighting the move in court.

The Konrad Adenauer foundation, which had been invited by Abu Dhabi to open its office here in late 2008, will eventually find another foothold elsewhere in the Gulf, perhaps in Qatar.

Belabbes Benkredda founded Dubai Debates just over a year ago, intending for it to be a platform for discussing the most important issues facing the Arab world today. Funded by groups such as KAS and Vital Voices, he held discussions on a range of topics, including the future of energy in the Gulf.

But today Mr. Benkredda has decided to indefinitely suspend Dubai Debates and turn his efforts to creating a sister organization called Munathara, the Arabic word for debate, in Tunis. A post-Arab Spring Tunisia has created a hospitable legal environment for nongovernmental organizations, one very different from that in the U.A.E. today, he said.

Mr. Benkredda said he had lined up another sponsor, Freedom House, another U.S.-based pro-democracy group. Munathara’s first event is planned for June 27 in Tunis. The topic is “Free Expression in the Arab World.”

3 thoughts on “The state of free speech in the U.A.E.

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