My latest story in The New York Times looks at the continuing struggle between U.A.E. authorities and some of their citizens who are pushing for reforms.
Emirates Step Up Efforts to Counter Dissent
By ANGELA SHAH
ABU DHABI — The United Arab Emirates have intensified their effort to quell political dissent, with 15 men now being detained by the security forces, according to human rights groups and family members.
All but two are members of Al Islah Reform and Social Guidance Association, which holds beliefs similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamic organization. The men have called for a more democratic political system in the country, a group of seven principalities ruled by hereditary emirs.
Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Durham University in Britain who is an expert on Gulf issues, said the Emirates were following the example of Bahrain, which has cracked down harshly on dissidents. Leaders of the Emirates are “emboldened” by the Bahrain government’s actions against protesters “and the lack of any significant condemnation of the Bahrain regime by the international community,” he said.
“The U.A.E. authorities want to govern over a nonpolitical country and a depoliticized population,” he said. “They want to be guardians of an economy that makes money for everyone.”
One stick that the U.A.E. government is using against dissidents is the threat of taking away their citizenship. In December, a group of seven Emiratis, all of whom are members of Al Islah, were stripped of their citizenship. They were arrested in March when they refused to seek out alternative nationalities, their families say. A court ruling on the authorities’ actions is imminent.
“This is aggressive in nature and so vicious in a way that has never been done before,” said Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist and blogger. He was among the first group of Emiratis arrested and put on trial last year for calling for democratic reforms.
In November, Mr. Mansoor and four others were convicted of threatening state security and insulting the Emirates’ leaders and sentenced to three years in prison. But days after the verdict, the men were granted a pardon.
Many Emiratis say that their leaders’ governance has provided them a prosperous and easy life and that there is no need for political change. For many, public criticism of how the Emirates are governed or their rulers is unacceptable.
The Emirates’ Western-oriented business climate and position as a safe haven have lifted the local economy. Leaders want to preserve that status, even if it means a crackdown.
The authorities are monitoring the internet and social media closely. On May 21, the Emirates News Agency reported that four people were arrested by Abu Dhabi on charges of “tribal instigation and libel” through Internet postings.
“Some people do not understand the grave consequences of their conduct on social networking sites or over the Internet in general,” the agency reported, citing an unidentified official from the Abu Dhabi attorney general’s office.
In the first three months of this year, the Dubai police said they had shut down 15 Facebook or Twitter accounts that they considered defamatory, following complaints that led to electronic patrols of social media and other online activity.
The most recent detention came last week when the authorities rearrested Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, an activist and blogger who was one of the U.A.E. 5, first detained in April 2011 along with Mr. Mansoor and the others. They are not members of Al Islah, but they, too, called for more direct democracy.
Mr. Khaleq, who is his family’s sole source of support, was born in the Emirates, but he is a bidoon, or stateless Arab. His family said he was summoned May 22 to the immigration department in Ajman, where he lives. The day before, the family were told they would be issued Comoros Islands passports under a 2009 economic agreement between the Emirates and that nation, which is near Madagascar, Mr. Mansoor said.
Reporters Without Borders announced last week that Mr. Khaleq and his family were told by the authorities that accepting Comoros citizenship under that agreement would be a first step toward becoming naturalized Emirati citizens. Instead, the group said, Mr. Khaleq is being threatened with deportation.
Even prominent people have fallen into the net. In addition to the seven members of Al Islah who were detained in March, the authorities have targeted the group’s chairman, Sultan bin Kayed al-Qasimi, who is the cousin of the ruler of Ras al Khaymah, a northern emirate. Mr. Qasimi is apparently being held in the ruler’s palace, according to rights groups.
In the meantime, Mr. Mansoor said, the government’s actions are not silencing its opponents. Instead, they are bringing liberals and the more conservative members of Al Islah closer together. “Absolutely to the contrary, people are now becoming more aggressive, even using their real names,” he said.
“If they arrest me, they arrest me,” he added. “The only thing I can be sure of is that I will not back off from activism and defending our rights and freedom.”