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 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.

 

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.

DUBAI

By ANGELA SHAH

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.

Crackdown

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.

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

By ANGELA SHAH

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.

Islamists and the U.A.E.

I’ve written before how and why the Arab Spring has largely passed by the U.A.E. In fact, what protests there have been were against the group who became known as the #UAE5, men who were calling for a more direct democracy in the Emirates. My latest story for The New York Times is about members of Al Islah, an Islamist group, who were stripped of their Emirati citizenship last December and the questions that action raises about due process, free speech and a government’s right to preserve its security.

 

 

Emirates keeping tight rein on activists

By ANGELA SHAH

SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — More than a year after the Arab Spring first convulsed the ruling order of the Arab world, its effects have come home to roost for Shaheen al-Hosani.

He and six other men were stripped of Emirati citizenship 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, he said.

Three months later, the men are now waiting for an answer to a court case they filed in January alleging that the government had illegally revoked their citizenship. “This has really damaged our life,” Mr. Hosani said.

Last March, as protests and violence began to spread from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, including the neighboring Gulf emirate of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates remained largely quiet. The Emirates’ wealth has served as a shield against the economic pressures that have provoked unrest in the Arab world, and leaders here further expanded generous social welfare programs that provide housing, education and medical care for free for citizens.

Still, within that stability, cracks emerged.

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 Mr. Hosani and the six others, all members of Al Islah, or Reform, an Islamist group.

The conflict between these men and the government illustrates a debate about free speech in the Gulf as the Emirates tries to maintain a balance between the more conservative nature of their neighbors and a desire to preserve their status as a Western-facing business hub. In the Gulf, the overwhelming tendency has been toward preserving the collective societal fabric, one that does not tolerate unfettered dissent.

“Security can trump free speech in the U.A.E.,” said Matt J. Duffy, a journalism professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. “This is a huge debate everywhere: What is the appropriate balance between individualism and society?”

The political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolution elections — especially in Egypt, where it has been a dominant force — has raised red flags about related Islamist groups in the U.A.E.

“The worry is these guys are extremist, and it’s the duty of the government to protect the citizens from extremists,” said Mr. Duffy, who is writing a book on media law in the Emirates.

That was the sense in the state news media when Saleh al-Dhufairi, general manager of the Holy Koran Foundation in the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, was arrested this month at his home and accused of using Twitter to “stir sedition and abuse religion to instigate members of the public to perpetrate acts that pose threats to state security.”

Mr. Dhufairi had repeatedly criticized rulers’ decisions, including one to deport about 30 Syrian expatriates who had staged a protest outside the Syrian Consulate in Dubai without a permit.

An article in The National, a state-owned newspaper, juxtaposed a report about Mr. Dhufairi’s arrest with a quotation from the Dubai chief of police, Dahi Khalfan Tamim, that “some in the U.A.E.” — not identified — “are in direct contact with the Muslim Brotherhood and are being controlled by them.”

“Since Muslim Brotherhood has become a state, anyone advocating its cause is considered a foreign agent,” Mr. Tamim was quoted as saying. The article further said, without citing any evidence, that Mr. Dhufairi was “believed to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Mr. Dhufairi has not been publicly heard from since his arrest. The newspaper 7Days quoted his brother-in-law, Dr. Mohammed al-Mansouri, as saying Mr. Dhufairi “does not believe he did any bad things.”

Ali al-Hammadi, who also lost his citizenship in December, denied that he or other members of Al Islah were taking orders from groups outside the country. “The Islamic movement here in the Emirates is different than the Brotherhood in Egypt or Tunis,” he said.

Mr. Hammadi, a lecturer and owner of training centers, said Al Islah’s activities were peaceful. “We don’t believe in anything that is terrorism,” he said. “We are a very peaceful people. We don’t believe we have to change our government.”

“We don’t want to change as what’s happened in Egypt and Tunis,” he said. “We want reforming, not changing.”

For example, he said, the men from Al Islah want to see Islam play a more prominent role in everyday life in the Emirates. Mr. Hammadi also said it was unfair that Islamists were shut out of the electoral process in the U.A.E. last year, in which only a small portion of Emiratis were approved to vote and run for office.

These sorts of sentiments have resulted in an outcry, including some physical threats, on social media Web sites. Many Emiratis see such dissent as an affront to the tribal system and the hereditary rulers who govern life in the Gulf. The relatively small number of citizens — about 10 percent of the population here — has resulted in a close-knit community that is very loyal to the ruling families.

“This is a monarchy — it doesn’t claim to be a democracy,” said Mishaal al-Gergawi, a prominent Emirati commentator who said he felt free to offer opinions in his columns in U.A.E. newspapers. “I don’t think we have an issue of criticism, but there are certain criticisms and certain positions that are outlawed.”

For now, the Islah members have the same status as the bidoon, residents of the U.A.E. who have not been granted citizenship and are thus stateless. “This means you cannot travel,” Mr. Hammadi said. “You cannot drive your car.”

Mr. Hosani said that he had been fired from his university job and that his children were being turned down for positions for which they were qualified. Without his documents, “I can’t even renew the health insurance card for my wife and children,” he said.

Ahmed Mansoor is one of those pardoned in November after being convicted of insulting the U.A.E.’s rulers, and he said the authorities had yet to return his passport. Fired from his engineering job after his arrest, he is focusing on law school classes he had been taking on the side while working, he said.

“The threats keep coming on Twitter,” he said. “Not just defamation, but threats of physical abuses.”

Mr. Mansoor said he did not agree with the Islamists’ philosophy but agreed that taking their citizenship in this way was a violation of their human rights. He said he had no regrets for pushing for more direct democracy. “It’s the price we pay for our legitimate demands for reforms,” he said.

Arab Spring backlash?

One by one, the Arab world is commemorating and marking the first anniversary since the uprisings toppled autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya a year ago, last year’s “Arab Spring.” Even in places where there wasn’t regime change, leaders paid attention and in many Gulf countries doled out pumped up benefits programs for their citizens.

But it seems that a spreading of protected free expression is not necessarily a part of the rebellions’ young legacy so far.

For example, I can’t imagine what’s going on in the mind of 23-year-old Hamza Kashgari right now. Let me explain. Kashgari was a 23-year-old Saudi columnist who, like many other writers, was a prolific user of Twitter. And according to many media reports, last month on the occasion when Muslims celebrate the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, Kashgari tweeted: “On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.”

Another post read: “On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”

Those sentiments set off a firestorm on Twitter, with tens of thousands of posts condemning him of apostasy, a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Someone even created a Facebook page calling for his immediate death. He apologized for his tweets but the calls for dire punishment continued. He fled Saudi to New Zealand but had to stop in Malaysia along the way. Even though Malaysia does not have an extradition treaty, it refused Kashgari entry into the country and he was put on a private jet back to Saudi Arabia.

The personal, almost casual, way Kashgari addressed his tweets to the Prophet was a red line that, if crossed, must be punished severely, according to his critics. He’s back in Saudi now, presumably awaiting trial in a religious court.

The concept of red lines that cannot be crossed played a part in what became the #UAE5. Emirati authorities last April arrested five bloggers for threatening state security and for comments about U.A.E. leaders deemed unacceptable. After a trial which resulted in  3-year sentences, they were pardoned last November.

Even Oman, which has been relatively peaceful in comparison to North Africa, the Levant and Bahrain, recently decided to detain  Muawiyah Al Rawahi for blog posts. The Gulf News in Dubai recently reported that Al Rawahi “had apparently written, in his now erased post, about him being working for the security agencies, being abused in the childhood and his sex escapades,” the newspaper reports. “He had also criticized the ruler as well as written about his lack of faith in religion. In 2009, he had created a storm by asking for alcohol to be made available freely to Omanis also.”

He was released last week after a 10-day detention. According to GN, he hasn’t  said anything publicly about the arrest or detention, only apologizing that “I regret that I let down many [people], and I regret that I let down myself.”

I’m not sure if exuberance over the Arab Spring prompted more candid postings from these writers or if governments are feeling more sensitive because of the changes the Arab world has seen in the last year. I wonder what impact this will have on writing going forward.