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.

‘Educate A Child’

I traveled to Doha last week to attend the WISE conference sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. In its fourth year, the conference aims to be a Davos of education, bringing together non-profits, governmental organizations, educators and for-profit groups to discuss ways to improve education for children around the world.

What’s clear is that is an awful lot of effort on the part of a lot of people especially in working with disadvantaged students. Still, it was hard to get any depth into any one topic as the conference was broadly focused to include communities around the world and with different sets of needs. I was interested to find out groups like Pratham, which have focused on India and would’ve liked to have seen similar activities in the Arab World.

Perhaps those will come about from a new initiative announced by Sheikha Moza, the Qatari emir’s wife, called “Educate A Child.” It aims to bring about 61 million children in the world’s poorest communities who aren’t in any kind of schooling into the classroom. No doubt, some of those will be impoverished Arabs. I wrote a brief story for The New York Times on the initiative, below.



Qatari Spearheads Efforts to Educate 61 Million Children



Sheika Moza bint Nasser, wife of the emir of Qatar, has created a program that seeks to educate the 61 million children worldwide who have no access to formal schooling.

The Educate a Child initiative, which was announced at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha on Wednesday, has partnerships with five global development organizations, including Unesco and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. It seeks both to support new education efforts and to improve existing ones, especially those tied to getting more girls into schools.

“Millions of children are being robbed of their fundamental right to quality education,” Sheika Moza said at the conference, which was sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. “Right across the world, because of disaster, because of poverty, children are being denied a chance to change their destinies. We can change this, and because we can, we must.”

The groups together plan to invest $152.6 million on 25 projects in 17 countries over the next three to seven years, with an emphasis on some of the world’s poorest communities, conflict zones and nomadic societies. These initiatives include “floating boat” schools that serve as both bus and schoolhouse for poor children in the flood-prone delta of the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh and efforts to provide primary education for children in refugee camps in South Sudan.

A spokeswoman for Sheika Moza declined to say how much Educate a Child was investing in the venture.

Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister who is the United Nations’ special envoy for education, said at the announcement in Doha that Educate a Child’s efforts tied directly into the U.N. Millennium Development Goals on education. He added that the U.N. would have a plan in place by April for countries not on track to meet those goals.

“It’s our duty to make sure resources are allocated to meet this objective, and it’s important that new organizations and foundations are willing to support this,” Mr. Brown said. “Sheika Moza is the catalyst to ensure that we can and we will accomplish the U.N. development goal objective.”

Rakesh Bharti Mittal, vice chairman and managing director of the Indian conglomerate Bharti Enterprises, was also present at the announcement.

“I firmly believe that if you educate a girl, you educate a family,” said Mr. Mittal, who is also chairman of the Bharti Foundation, an Educate a Child partner. “You educate future generations.”

Though Educate a Child was formally announced last week, the foundation said that it started financing initiatives last spring and had reached 500,000 children so far. “For me, this is not enough,” Sheika Moza said.


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.


Afghanistan’s Olympic champion

My latest story in The New York Times, a feature on Rohullah Nikpah, Afghanistan’s only Olympic medalist.



No Longer Unknown, Afghan Athlete Has Eyes on Gold


KABUL — It was only by chance that a 10-year-old Rohullah Nikpah found taekwondo.

Unlike most Olympic athletes, Nikpah was not groomed from an early age to compete. Rather, he grew up in a refugee camp in Iran, and one day he accompanied his brother to a makeshift gym for a taekwondo sparring session.

The connection was immediate, a little like love at first sight.

“I just enjoyed practicing this sport,” he said simply.

He does more than enjoy it. Just four years after returning to Afghanistan from life as a refugee, Nikpah was standing on the podium at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a bronze medal around his neck. Unlikely as it may seem, that day produced Afghanistan’s first Olympic medalist.

Photo by Gabriela Maj

When Nikpah defeated the Spanish world champion Juan Antonio Ramos in the 58-kilogram, or 128-pound, category, he became a national hero in a place that has seen few in the past 30 years. To welcome him home, thousands of his countrymen gathered in Ghazi Stadium, which, until then, had been known more for the Taliban’s public executions, including stoning women to death.

When the preliminary round in taekwondo starts Aug. 8, Nikpah will no longer be an unknown but a returning champion. And this time he has his eyes on the gold. “I don’t have any stress for this competition, and I hope to Allah to go there and I will bring a good achievement back to the country,” he said.

Having moved up two weight classes since the Beijing Olympics, Nikpah is ranked 13th by the World Taekwondo Federation in the men’s 68-kilogram category.

If Hollywood is looking for its next hero, Nikpah fills the bill. Born two years before the Taliban took power in 1989, his family — ethnic Hazaras, a minority community that suffered discrimination under the Taliban — had to escape to Iran, where Nikpah grew up among fellow Afghan exiles and discovered taekwondo, a hugely popular sport there.

His family returned to Afghanistan in 2004. At age 21, Nikpah not only competed in his first Olympics, he took home a medal. He is tall, fit and blessed with movie-star looks. Even his haircut is popular with young men eager to imitate their hero. For a nation synonymous with the destruction of war, he is a welcome face of a new Afghanistan.

Photo by Gabriela Maj

“We are the young generation and can introduce our country to the world through the sports,” he said one morning at the Kabul home he shares with his family, a gift from President Hamid Karzai for his showing in Beijing.

Expectations are high in London. “He will definitely medal,” said Usman Dildar, an Afghan member of the London Organizing Committee who runs a large taekwondo studio in London. “What color? Inshallah, we’re hoping for gold.”

Continue reading “Afghanistan’s Olympic champion”

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 Gulf and the ‘New Silk Road’



A Modern Silk Road Between Asia and the Middle East


DUBAI — When Christy Lee, a South Korean investment banker, was dispatched to the Gulf four years ago to drum up business, her friends in Seoul had a hard time taking the assignment seriously. “They would say, Did you enjoy riding the camels?” she recalled.

Then the Gulf states’ oil earnings led to orders worth tens of billions of dollars for South Korean companies: The most noteworthy so far has been the deal for South Korea Electric Power Corp. to build four nuclear plants in Abu Dhabi, worth as much as $30 billion.

Now, when Ms. Lee talks about the Gulf, people listen. She has started her own firm, Daewon Advisory Services, with offices in Seoul and Abu Dhabi. In the past year she has brought 120 executives and leaders from the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf countries to South Korea, eager to figure out how it made its big economic strides. She expects these visits to bring in more deals.

Ms. Lee is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs and other people who have carved out roles as intermediaries between Asia and the Gulf, reviving in modern form — real estate projects, joint ventures, and investment deals — the centuries-old link between the Middle East and Asia known as the Silk Road.

Continue reading “The Gulf and the ‘New Silk Road’”

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.