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.