U.A.E. crackdown update

The RAND Corporation’s Abu Dhabi office has been shut down by U.A.E. authorities – the latest move by rulers to clamp down on what it believes is unacceptable speech. RAND has been in Abu Dhabi since 2010 and “facilitated evidence-based research and analysis by RAND experts in such areas as education, public safety and environmental health,” according to a Reuters story that quoted an email response from Jeffrey Hiday, director at RAND’s office for media relations.

The move follows the forced closure of Abu Dhabi outposts of Gallup, the National Democratic Institute and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung last spring. Since the start of the Arab Spring movements two years ago, the U.A.E. has aggressively pursued and detained individuals who it has said violated speech codes. Last month authorities here announced a new, tighter law on online dissent, saying they would impose jail terms on anyone who derides or caricatures the country’s rulers or state institutions online.

Yesterday, four people, including a former Emirati diplomat, were arrested and about 60 people in total have been detained relating to their calls for greater speech rights. Many, but not all of them, are members of Al Islah, a group that authorities say is conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the U.A.E.

Last summer, the U.A.E. expelled Matt J. Duffy, an American professor of journalism who had been teaching at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

Unlike Bahrain, there have been no mass protests in the U.A.E. For the vast majority of people living in the country, life is peaceful. Still, the government has taken strict measures against the minority of its citizens who are advocating for change. The Federal National Council, a quasi-elected legislative body with advisory power, announced that it would set up a committee to support the country’s human-rights efforts at home and abroad. Essentially, the committee will serve a public relations function for the government, defending its actions against those people whose behaviors are deemed unacceptable.

“If people badly use freedom of expression, and participate in demonstrations that impose religious intolerance or pushing others to commit anti- government crimes, the government has the right to interfere and limit those freedoms, and the parliament has the right to approve laws that run this,” the FNC report said.

The ‘Newsroom’

The first parallel universe I encountered was in the Abu Dhabi newsroom. Yesterday, American Journalism Review ran a story written by Tom O’Hara, an American editor who had spent two years there most notably, it seems, on the foreign desk.

On journalism:

“When the newspaper launched in 2008, its goal was ‘to establish an institution on par with some of the greatest newspapers in the world,’ according to its Web site. Well, that hasn’t happened. The mission statement should say: Don’t offend the government or anyone who has a link to it.”

On ethics:

“The censorship isn’t the only burden mainstream journalists must endure at the paper. The paper is basically a British publication with British spelling and style. But British ethics also rule – and they’re, ah, loose, shall we say.

The most flagrant abuse is putting staff bylines on wire material. It is routine practice. … The practice caused The National some embarrassment when someone sent an e-mail to media blogger/aggregator Jim Romenesko with details about systemic plagiarism in the business department. Here is part of the September 2011 post.”

A memo went out from the editor-in-chief instructing staff to comply with correct sourcing policies, which were, immediately ignored. ‘I know this because I did it myself several times a week,’ O’Hara writes.

On accuracy:

• “I would rather the readers be confused than offended.” Deputy Editor Bob Cowan, August 2010.

“Cowan, once a respected editor at the Telegraph in London, issued that guidance after telling an editor on the foreign desk to remove all references to religion from a fascinating story about an Iranian Shiite imam. The story made little sense without the religious details.”

• “This is no time to be intellectually honest.” (Editor-in-Chief Hassan) Fattah, January 2011.

“The editor shared this gem with the foreign desk after reading a story from one of our best correspondents about speculation that the revolt in Tunisia might spark other uprisings. As we all know, the speculation was accurate as the Arab Spring spread across the region in the months that followed.”

The U.A.E. media laws and free speech

The media law in the U.A.E. just got broader, and stricter.

Matt J. Duffy, a former journalism professor at Zayed University who has personal experience with the difficult balancing act regarding free speech in this part of the world, gave a good summary of the change here: “The revision, published in full in Gulf News, criminalizes anyone who uses a electronic means to ‘deride or to damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions, its President, the Vice President, any of the Rulers of the emirates, their Crown Princes, the Deputy Rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols.

The decree also offers penalties ‘of imprisonment on any person publishing any information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures that would pose threats to the security of the state and to its highest interests or violate its public order.”

In short, Duffy writes, these restrictions, of course, are incredibly broad and will surely lead to even more self-censorship in the United Arab Emirates. Any legitimate criticism of the government could conceivably violate ‘public order.’ Better to just stay quiet while on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube lest one step across this nebulous line set up by the new law.

A friend posted on Facebook asking if comments against Du or Etisalat, the country’s two telecom providers which have inspired many a social media rant over poor service, would also count as forbidden speech. I think it might be – both are government entities.

The new provisions came out just as state media issued an edict updating media laws just as the Abu Dhabi Federal Appeals Court upheld a decision by the U.A.E. Ministry of Interior to strip seven Emiratis of their citizenship earlier this year.

The men had been agitating on Twitter and other online sites calling for greater political participation. Nearly 70 Emiratis have been detained by authorities since the start of the year and many of them are members of Al Islah, an Emirati Islamist group that seeks to have Islam play a more dominant role in everyday life in the U.A.E., which has long aimed to be a crossroads of East and West.

You can read my coverage for The New York Times on the detentions here, here, here and here.


Dubai’s ‘Mad Men’

For a recent feature for Gulf Life, the in-flight magazine for Gulf Air, I chatted with some of Dubai’s advertising executives. Some were part of the migration 30 years ago from Beirut – then the region’s ad hub – and were the founding fathers of the industry here today. Back then there was only one TV station, in Kuwait, and they communicated with clients via telex. And I’ll let Mr. Raad tell you about the Saudi commercial and the porn star.

The crackdown expands

My latest story in The New York Times about an escalation this week in arrests of Emiratis who are calling for more political freedoms and free speech rights. U.A.E. state security authorities say the men are a threat to the country’s stability.



Detentions of activists are reported in U.A.E.



In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Mohamed al-Roken drove toward his local police station here to report that his son and son-in-law were missing. Along the way, he found himself surrounded by plainclothes security officers and detained, according to his family.

Mr. Roken, along with his son, Rashid, and son-in-law, Abdulla al-Hajeri, are 3 of at least 14 Emiratis who have been arrested since Monday morning by the United Arab Emirates state security apparatus, human rights advocates and family members said. Nearly two dozen activists are now being held by the authorities.

The arrests are part of a widening crackdown on U.A.E. citizens, some of them Islamists but also academics and stateless people known as bidoon.

“This may be a way to frighten opposition on all sides,” said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf issues at Durham University in England.

This week’s crackdown comes days before the expected start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and highlights an increasingly public conflict in the Emirates.

Unlike many Arab countries, the Emirates have emerged largely unscathed from the unrest that has spread across the region from the Arab Spring that began 18 months ago.

But a debate on free speech and political freedom among Emiratis has emerged, as the leaders here try to maintain a balance between the more conservative character of their neighbors and a desire to preserve their status as a Western-style business hub.

While the trend among natives is still to keep quiet and enjoy the comfortable life provided by the rulers, a small group of activists is agitating for greater political participation — and drawing the attention of the authorities.

Bushra al-Roken, Mohamed al-Roken’s daughter, said the family received a phone call from her father at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

“We couldn’t understand that much,” she said, “but we could hear voices and my father saying, ‘They’re taking me.”’

On Sunday, the state media issued a statement saying the authorities were investigating “a group of people who established and ran an organization which aims to commit crimes against the security and constitution of the country.” Members of this group have “connections with foreign organizations and agendas,” the statement added.

Mr. Roken, a lawyer, was defending several Emiratis who had been arrested on charges of threatening state security. Many of those arrested are members of Al Islah Reform and Social Guidance Association, which holds beliefs similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamic organization.

Many of these activists say they would like to see Islam play a more prominent role in everyday life in the Emirates, and they have also called for a more democratic political system in the country, a group of seven principalities ruled by hereditary emirs.

The authorities regard Al Islah as a homegrown proxy for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that they see as gaining influence in the region — especially after the recent election of a Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as Egypt’s president.

The families of those detained are scrambling to find them. Asma al-Siddiq said her husband, Omran al-Redhwan, was arrested Monday morning at the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank in Sharjah, where he works as a legal consultant. Ms. Siddiq said she had not heard from the authorities about the reason for her husband’s arrest or where he was being held.

“I am looking at social media sites, Twitter to try to find information,” she said.

The arrests followed the deportation to Thailand on Monday morning of Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, a resident of Ajman, the smallest of the emirates, who was one of the original activists arrested and tried last year.

The men, who were convicted in November of threatening state security and insulting the country’s leaders, were sentenced to three years in prison before being pardoned days after the verdict.

Mr. Khaleq was born in the Emirates, but he is a bidoon, or stateless Arab.

Estimates of the number of bidoon range from 10,000 to 100,000, human-rights advocates say. They belong to families with ties to other parts of the Gulf or Iran, or that failed to obtain citizenship when the United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971. They say they are cut out of the Emirates’ generous social welfare system and complain of discrimination in jobs.

Last month, Mr. Khaleq was given a choice of where to be deported — Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan or Thailand. He chose Thailand, though he had no relations there, said Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist and blogger who was among the group arrested with Mr. Abdul Khaleq last year.


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


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.

Continue reading “Crackdown”

The state of free speech in the U.A.E.

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.”

Continue reading “The state of free speech in the U.A.E.”

U.A.E. Islamists, update

The #UAE7, members of the Islamist group al Islah, were detained Monday, a week before a scheduled hearing concerning the men’s petition to have their U.A.E. citizenship reinstated. They were stripped of their citizenship quietly in December after being deemed threats to national security. “There has been no court, no trial, not even a single meeting” to explain the reason, said Shaheen al-Hosani, one of the men, in an interview I had with him last month.

They denied they were doing anything to destabilize the U.A.E. and said they were loyal citizens to their country. “We don’t believe in anything that is terrorism,” Dr. Ali al Hammadi, a lecturer and owner of training centers who lives in the emirate Sharjah told me.

“We are a very peaceful people,” he added. “We don’t believe we have to change our government.” He said he and other members didn’t want change as in regime change a la Tunisia and Egypt. “We want reforming, not changing.”

On Monday, a daughter of one of the detained men said her father, Muhammed Abdel Razzaq al Siddiq, was detained by police that day after refusing to sign a declaration to seek a new nationality within two weeks or face imprisonment. “My father called us. … He refused to sign the declaration as now he is stateless, so he was detained along with the other five men,” Alaa al-Siddiq said, according to a Reuters report.

Mohammed al-Roken, a lawyer defending the six, confirmed the men been detained for refusing to seek an alternative citizenship and said they have been transferred to prison, Reuters reported.

NGOs expelled from the U.A.E.

No soldiers carried out raids like in Egypt but this week the U.A.E. shut down the local office of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based pro-democracy non-governmental organization.

Mark Toner, deputy spokesman at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, told me in a phone interview early Friday that officials are “talking with the U.A.E. government” to find out what prompted the decision. He said the NDI plays a “pivotal role” in the communities in which it works.

His remarks follow those of German leaders who on Thursday criticized the decision of leaders in the Persian Gulf emirate to shutter the Abu Dhabi office of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), a German think tank that promotes democracy abroad and has close ties to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Also, the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, a branch of the American poll and research firm, was shuttered Thursday. Its U.A.E.-based website is now blank and directs readers to its Muslim Studies department in Washington. Dahlia Mogahed, the executive director of the Abu Dhabi office, was in Washington this week.

These expulsions from the Gulf come after these groups and other human rights and pro-democracy organizations were shut down in Egypt last year. “After our experiences in Egypt, we not only regret this decision, but consider it an alarm signal if non-governmental organizations and political foundations are increasingly unwanted in the Arab world,” KAS chairman Hans-Gert Poettering said in a statement.

While the U.A.E. has not seen revolutionary protests or a change of government like other Arab countries since the beginning of last year’s Arab Spring, authorities here have clamped down on dissident activity.

Last November, after a six-month trial, five Emiratis were sentenced to three-year prison terms for insulting the U.A.E.’s rulers and threatening state security. The men 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.

A year ago, the elected boards of several professional associations, including the Jurists Association, a 32-year-old influential group of lawyers, have been disbanded. Authorities last year also refused to renew the license of the Gulf Research Center, which conducted social science research and held conferences in the U.A.E. Having been based in Dubai for 10 years, the group now works from Geneva.

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Merkel herself said she regrets the closure of KAS but said that Germany would try to “continue close cooperation” with the U.A.E.

Officials at the Germany foundation began working in the U.A.E. on the basis of an invitation issued by the Emirates in 2008, and opened its office in Abu Dhabi in June 2009.

UAE officials could not be reached for comment late on Thursday evening, which marks the start of the weekend here.