The Making of a Police State

Over the last few years, the UAE has become increasingly oppressive. The recent crackdowns show how bad it really is.

The arrests over the last week of three pro-democracy activists in the United Arab Emirates should come as no surprise. Having sent troops to participate in the Saudi-led crackdown in Bahrain and having supported Egypt's Hosni Mubarak until his final days in office, the UAE regime has already signaled its strong preference for the status quo and its fear of greater Arab freedoms.

Previously a collection of federated, tribe-based, traditional monarchies, led by the well-liked Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan until his death in 2004, the UAE has since been morphing into a sophisticated police state led by Zayed's two principal sons from their Abu Dhabi power base -- the UAE's oil-rich, wealthiest emirate. Unlike their father, who had to consult with other tribal elders and powerful merchants across the entire country, the new rulers now govern with zero accountability over an increasingly urbanized and Abu Dhabi-dependent population, the movements and communications of which are now carefully monitored and censored.

At first glance, it doesn't make sense that the UAE would be caught up in the Arab Spring. With massive oil exports and a GDP per capita rivaling that of Switzerland, the government has historically been able to distribute wealth, subsidies, and economic opportunities to its citizens in exchange for political acquiescence. Moreover, with nearly 90 percent of the population now expatriates, none of whom can aspire to citizenship and most of whom are in the UAE for tax-free employment or conditions better than in their home countries, there should be no political demands from that quarter either.

The real picture, however, is a bit different, at least regarding UAE nationals. Almost all of the UAE's economic opportunities are in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, while the five poorer northern emirates have been left to languish. Despite occasional "emergency" handouts from Abu Dhabi, including one last month, the wealth gap has continued to grow, year on year. Unemployment is increasing, and there are regular electricity blackouts. Discrimination is also more noticeable. Northerners, who account for at least half the indigenous population, have become more and more outspoken, their voices being amplified by blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other difficult-to-censor Internet communications.

But there is no stereotypical opponent in the UAE. Some are poor, and some are stateless bidoon -- people long denied citizenship despite generations of ancestry. Many are also from the richer emirates and are well heeled and well educated, but are simply appalled by the lack of transparent government, the repression of civil society, and the country's failing justice system.

The rallying cry for all groups has now become political reform, with the UAE's complete lack of democratic institutions becoming more painfully apparent as revolutions and protests have spread through the region, even reaching the Persian Gulf. Having no real need for a parliament, Zayed left this "gift" to his sons to introduce. But pure autocracy has proved too tempting, and all they have done is play around with the UAE's rather ineffectual mock legislature, the Federal National Council. In 2006 elections were stage-managed for half of the council's 40 seats, but only a few thousand handpicked nationals were eligible to vote. In early 2011, as thousands of Egyptians, Tunisians, and Bahrainis were taking to the streets, the UAE announced that fresh elections would be held. But once again, only a limited number of voters were to be allowed.

For activists, this was the final straw. Two petitions were drawn up in March and signed by 130 of the UAE's leading intellectuals, political activists, and human rights defenders. Their demands -- above all a fully elected parliament and universal suffrage -- were far from revolutionary, with the majority being happy to work toward a constitutional monarchy committed to human rights and other basic international principles.

The first arrest was of Ahmed Mansoor. A Dubai-based telecommunications engineer, he co-founded the website nearly two years ago. As the only free and fair UAE discussion forum, it was blocked by the country's proxy server about a year ago with no explanation. Its members have been repeatedly harassed by the security services ever since. A signatory of the petition and a prolific blogger, Mansoor said he was offered a well-paid position in Pakistan by his state-owned employer only a week ago. He refused to leave the UAE, and on Friday, April 8, he was taken from his family, along with his passport and computers, by approximately 10 officers, only two of them in uniform. In his final tweets on @Ahmed_Mansoor, he rather darkly predicted his arrest, suspecting the police would plant something in his car and detailing their attempts to call him down from the building. "They do not seem to have an arrest warrant and they want to take me in. It should be done the right way. I'm not going out to them," he wrote.

The second arrest, the following day, was of Fahad Salem al-Shehhi. Shehhi, who was taken from his home in Ajman, where his wife had been studying, was also a frequent blogger and had participated in the UAE discussion forum. The third, and perhaps most symbolic, arrest came on Sunday, April 10, when Nasser bin Ghaith was taken from his home in Dubai. Bin Ghaith, a noted economist, was a professor at the UAE Armed Forces College and a lecturer at the Sorbonne's Abu Dhabi campus. Most of his articles have focused on the UAE's economic development, some carefully critical of Dubai's many misadventures. But recently he turned his attention to the Arab Spring, with a blog post on Gulf rulers:

They have announced "benefits and handouts" assuming their citizens are not like other Arabs or other human beings, who see freedom as a need no less significant than other physical needs. So they use the carrot, offering abundance. But this only delays change and reform, which will still come sooner or later.... No amount of security -- or rather intimidation by security forces -- or wealth, handouts, or foreign support is capable of ensuring the stability of an unjust ruler.

What will happen to the detainees? There is hope that they will be released soon, as the new realities of Internet communication means that millions are now aware of their arrests. But as of this writing, no official statement had been released by the government, and the local media and usual local pundits have been too frightened to offer an opinion. In the past, activists were usually accused of being party to ill-defined criminal or terrorist plots, being an "Islamist," or having possessed drugs or alcohol. If they were released, they would usually be dogged by a smear campaign. But such crude strategies are unlikely to work this time. If anything, the arrests will only intensify demands for political reform, though many activists will be forced into anonymity.

What could be the broader, international implications of the crackdown? Following the UAE's role in Bahrain, questions should have already been asked by those world-leading institutions -- many of which are based in democratic states -- that cooperate closely with the current regime, in return for generous wealth transfers and other benefits. Perhaps now their question mark will be a bit bigger. The UAE's rulers draw massive legitimacy from these external links, both in the international community and in the region. Leading institutions such as New York University and even the Sorbonne -- with which bin Ghaith is affiliated -- deal directly with the ruling elite and are establishing substantial campuses in Abu Dhabi. The Louvre, the Guggenheim, and other major museums and galleries committed to democratic principles and human rights are also setting up camp, despite boycotts having been staged by artists over workers' conditions in the UAE.

From the UAE population's perspective, more of a spotlight could also fall on the role of leading expatriates seen as inhibiting people's freedom of speech and prospects of peaceful reform. Many of them are Westerners. Some help staff the UAE's state-controlled media, while others hold key positions in the UAE's security services, Interior Ministry, chief censorship bodies, and other repressive components of the state.

Overall, the UAE regime seems to be following Saudi Arabia's direction on the Arab Spring. No protests or dissent of any kind will be tolerated, even if that means political prisoners have to be taken and the country's international reputation damaged in the process. The arrests have broken several clauses in the UAE's Constitution, notably Article 26, and have served to warn the entire national population that nobody is above reproach. The move is ill calculated and dangerous, and smacks of poor leadership, as any remaining space for communication and honest dialogue between the ruling elite and the population has now been closed off. As such, the UAE's future political stability is now a little less certain than it was a week ago.



Is Bahrain Creating a New Terrorist Threat?

By leaving no room for peaceful dissent, the Bahraini monarchy is creating the conditions for a violent revolt.

On April 4, the Saudi cabinet issued a statement claiming that "peace and stability" had returned to Bahrain "as a result of the wisdom of its leadership in dealing with its internal matters and because of its people giving priority to national interests." Nearly three weeks earlier, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had sent some 1,200 troops across the 16-mile causeway linking the two countries. Their official mission was to secure key government facilities from the thousands of protesters who had taken to the streets since Feb. 17. Unofficially, they were there to send a chilling, unequivocal message: Game over.

Since then, the government of Bahrain has instituted a total crackdown, beating teenagers in the streets, clamping down on press freedoms, and hauling online activists in for questioning. The daily demonstrations, overwhelmingly by Shiite protesters demanding equal political and civil rights, have indeed stopped. Yet, far from ensuring "peace and stability" in Bahrain, by apparently eliminating all other political options, the ruling Al Khalifa family has established the conditions for a potential outbreak of urban terrorism by Shiite extremists. Long-standing Gulf Sunni fears of a sectarian rebellion in Bahrain and the possibility of major Iranian interference in the island nation have informed an extreme overreaction that is developing all the signs of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This can't end well.

It's virtually impossible to overstate the totality of the closure of political space in Bahrain. It didn't have to be this way. Initially, protests were not entirely sectarian and seemed amenable to reforms toward a constitutional monarchy. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa attempted to initiate a productive dialogue, but the opposition was not forthcoming and hard-liners within the regime centered on his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, clearly won out. The more the regime responded to peaceful political demands with violence, the more both government and opposition extremists gained the upper hand.

Shortly after the GCC troops intervened, Shiite opposition figures from the mainstream al-Wefaq organization were arrested, along with more extreme sectarians such as Hassan Mushaima of its rival, al-Haq. (Mushaima has been categorical about the need for a full-blown revolution, saying, "The dictator fell in Tunisia, the dictator fell in Egypt, and the dictator should fall here.") On March 8, al-Haq and two other groups crossed a red line by announcing the formation of a "Coalition for a Bahraini Republic" -- a move that was understood, correctly or not, by Sunnis throughout the region as a commitment not only to the removal of the royal family but also the establishment of an Iranian-style Shiite "Islamic Republic." Between such provocative opposition statements and the GCC intervention, the crisis in Bahrain became irrevocably polarized along sectarian lines, with Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region taking sides with the government or the opposition based on religious identity.

The political crackdown is so complete it has extended to the nonsectarian and social democratic reformist organization al-Waad, whose moderate leader Ibrahim Sharif was also rounded up. In recent days, al-Waad has joined other groups in warning against Iranian interference in Bahrain, but the government's response has been to arrest another of its leaders, Abdulhamid Al Murad, and shut down its website and its two main offices.

Without question, however, the crackdown has largely focused on the Shiite opposition and community in general. The government and its allies have framed the protest movement as an Iranian plot, though to date there is scant evidence to demonstrate this. Opposition newspapers have been shut, though Al Wasat was reopened "under new management" after its main editors resigned, and journalists from that paper and others have been hounded and questioned by the authorities. Opposition leaders, both moderate and extreme, are in prison. Medical services have been targeted, injured patients rounded up in hospitals and often denied medical care, and doctors arrested. The Pearl Monument -- the focal point of the protests and the main landmark of the capital Manama -- has been demolished. A draconian emergency law was put in place that bans all protests, allows for arbitrary arrests, and imposes martial law for at least three months. At least 400 people have been arrested and at least 25 killed during the protests, as well as four deaths in custody that bear all the hallmarks of torture according to Human Rights Watch and other NGOs. A wide-scale crackdown on various economic sectors, including public employees and professional organizations, is under way, including mass firings, especially of Shiites. The big picture is extremely clear: There is no room for dissent of any kind in Bahrain anymore, above all if it comes from the Shiite majority.

Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC may be genuinely deluding themselves that "peace and stability" have actually been restored by this violent despotism and the fact that until now only one side -- the government and its allies -- has been using arms. But historical experience suggests that in any society this extent of repression, especially when directed against a disenfranchised majority with legitimate and historical grievances, is simply untenable, as evinced by examples as disparate as South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the Basque Country. If there is no space for nonsectarian reformists like al-Waad, moderate sectarian Shiite groups like al-Wefaq, or more militant but nonviolent ones like al-Haq, and no tolerance for dissent of any kind, how long can it be before a group of extremists, no matter how small, decides that "fire must be met with fire" and turns to violent resistance? (The crown prince continues to call for dialogue, but the basis for it seems completely absent. In the same breath he calls for reforms but vows "no leniency with anyone who seeks to split our society into two halves." The government's most recent move is to seek to legally dissolve al-Wefaq and another Shiite group, Islamic Action. So prospects for meaningful reform and dialogue therefore seem remote at best.)

A campaign of violence by opposition extremists might seek and receive support from Iran or other regional Shiite powers such as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. But it would not require it. Iran and Hezbollah might, for their own reasons, strongly urge any Bahraini Shiites considering such action to restrain themselves. But would all of them heed such a call? Modern urban terrorism only requires a tiny handful of people with rudimentary knowledge, armed with a combination of readily available household items and both deep ruthlessness and extreme recklessness, to begin the process.

Such a movement need not initially be particularly ambitious in its destructive acts to have a powerful impact. A handful of people with crude devices acting around the same time in strategic locations is capable of stoking extreme panic. The goal of a modest opening salvo of urban terrorism is typically to provoke an overreaction on the part of the authorities, and in this case that seems virtually guaranteed. The calculus would then be that the overreaction would seem to justify these violent acts in the eyes of many people who otherwise might have been disapproving, allowing the movement to gain strength and develop over time to the point that it becomes a real threat to national security and political stability. The Bahraini government and its allies have already succeeded in turning what should have been a manageable political situation into an unmanageable one. How likely is it that they would react in a more rational and prudent manner to a violent security threat, however limited and symbolic?

The total crackdown in Bahrain has plainly opened the door for just such a scenario. If this situation continues for an extended period of time, it is probably more a matter of when rather than if some group eventually walks through that door. Largely because of their own actions, all the worst fears of Bahrain's royal family and the Sunnis of both the island and the rest of the Gulf are perfectly positioned to begin to come true, and the opportunity to avoid this is dwindling by the day.