Demonising the opposition

Delighted at the overthrow of President Morsi, several Gulf monarchies have been swift to offer aid to Egypt. Saudi Arabia has pledged $5 billion, Kuwait $4 billion and the United Arab Emirates $3 billion. 

Clearly, there is more to this than a simple desire to help Egypt through its economic crisis, and the UAE's involvement is a particularly interesting example.

Last week, just a day before Morsi's ousting, verdicts were announced in the "UAE 94" case – a mass trial of Emirati activists which has been condemned by human rights organisations asfundamentally unfair. Of the 94 accused, 69 were given jail sentences of between seven and 15 years, while 25 others were acquitted. Many – but by no means all – of them are members of al-Islah, a local Islamic movement which the authorities have been eager to link to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The timing of these verdicts was probably no coincidence, according to Christopher Davidson, a Gulf expert at Durham University. During a discussion yesterday organised by the Emirates Centre for Human Rights, he suggested the end of the trial had been deliberately timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Brotherhood taking power in Egypt. 

"It didn't take a genius to predict that anyone taking the reins in Egypt last year was going to face a difficult time," he said, "so at the very minimum Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would have been facing severe criticism in both the regional and international media."

Davidson, author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, said the "UAE 94" trial provides a useful example of how these monarchies deal with opposition. He continued:

We have seen many different opposition groups over the years. These have been dealt with in different ways but one particularly effective strategy has been demonisation – essentially trying to make any opponents in your kingdom, sultanate or emirate part of a distinct "other" that the rest of your population will hopefully bandwagon against, to help the ruling elite and the regime ostracise them. 

When we look at the Gulf states they have tended to pick upon what's likely to be the most effective demon to get the bulk of their population on board and connect that opposition to some kind of external threat – the threat that's likely to alarm the west most at that time. 

It's why most opposition groups back in the 1960s and 1970s were described as Communist in the context of the Cold War. We also had the Arab nationalist threat – all these Arab schoolteachers and doctors working in the Gulf who were linked to the revolutionary movements elsewhere in the Arab world, and Gulf rulers were very uncomfortable about this. 

For example, after the Suez crisis, according to [British] Foreign Office archives, we even had Sheikh Zayed, the first president of the UAE, remarking to British political agents: "Why didn't you do to Nasser what the Russians have done to Budapest?" That was the level of antagonism they were hoping to generate. 

More recently, of course, we've seen political Islam and in particular militant political Islam, terror linked to al-Qaeda, becoming the obvious demon to create, connecting domestic opponents including human rights activists, intellectuals and academics to supposed terror organisations. We've seen this particularly in Saudi Arabia. We've also seen it in the UAE. For example, a number of people who were part of the UAE 94 were actually accused back in 2009 of being part of a terror cell to bring down the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai.

We've also seen the Shia fifth columns, especially in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia being used very effectively to demonise opposition and generate links with Iran. 

Since the Arab Spring began these opposition containment strategies have had to be ratcheted up a few notches because the Gulf monarchies all face a range of increasing pressures. Of course their own populations are very much experiencing a demonstration effect from the rest of the Arab world, with people rising up against autocratic systems. This is coupled in something of a perfect storm with the declining ability of all six of the Gulf monarchies – or at least five of them – to keep up their wealth distribution strategies and the allocative state that has historically formed their social contract with the bulk of their citizens.

We've also seen the Gulf states being impacted very heavily by modernising forces such as communications, social media and so on, and other tools of protest that have proved effective in the Arab world. 

The other thing that has caused increasing discomfort and more alarm over opposition groups in the Gulf is the clear leadership deficit now – we have many aged rulers who seem to be disconnected with their youthful populations and seem over the last 18 months at least to have more or less chosen the wrong path at every turn.

As for the demonisation strategies they have been using right now, obviously in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain the Shia populations have borne the brunt of this – it is the most effective way of convincing the US that the ruling families of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are very much on the west's side.

In the UAE it has been much trickier. The Shia population, although fairly substantial in the emirate of Dubai, has historically been very well integrated into the ruling establishment – in particular the merchant population in Dubai. As with Kuwait, we have seen the Shia form something of a loyalist backbone here, so the UAE has had to look a bit further, perhaps for something less plausible to link their opposition to. Al-Qaeda of course remains a good one. We still see people being arrested on security warrants, which is very effective. We have also seen this link to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. 

In fact the opposition in the UAE goes back quite far in time. I first became interested in it several years ago when the internet started to be used much more for debate by oppositionists. 

There was a website created – UAE Hiwar – a few years ago. Many Emiratis were using that to criticise the leadership, talk about the ruling family, talk about the lack of rule of law, and so on. It reached fever pitch early in 2010 when there was a very controversial trial of a member of the ruling family, Sheikh Issa, who ended up being acquitted. The website was shut down shortly after, probably as a result of that.

A lot of the discussion, as with al-Islah and the "UAE 94", was not about overthrow of the ruling family. It was about making the UAU honour sections of its constitution – that the UAE should be moving forward in an evolutionary manner towards a multi-party elected democracy. 

This is why the minister of state for foreign affairs is also breaking the UAE's constitution ... he has made it quite clear that he does not believe the UAE should be a democracy and that it's a different kind of political system rooted in various eastern ways connected to tribe, religion and tradition. But that's not what the UAE constitution says.

In 2011 we saw a cross-section being arrested. We saw the UAE Five (not members of al-Islah per se), we saw a noted economist, we saw a blogger, etc -- essentially a cross-section of the population which the leadership expected would be enough to create a sufficient red line to put off other UAE nationals from discussing these topics more. 

Then, in 2012, we had this massive crackdown. This was very much linked to the indigenous al-Islah organisation which has its origins all the way back in the early 1970s and was even sponsored by a member of the Dubai ruling family at that time and then also Ras al-Khaimah's ruling family. What we've seen with al-Islah is that the entire opposition in the UAE which actually has many shades and colours is being lumped together with al-Islah.

We are supposed to be making this explicit link with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which is tenuous at best. 

This is very difficult to portray as just a single episode, as something the UAE can write a line under. Far from it, it seems to be just the beginning. Although conditions in the UAE are incomparable to the large chunks of poverty-stricken Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, etc, nonetheless we have a significant wealth gap. If one were to do a good empirical study of the UAE's economy we'd find the five poorest emirates now contribute less to the UAE's GDP than they did in 1971.

Something's going badly wrong. There's a wealth gap, a corruption problem. We also have different strands of opposition emerging beyond political Islam, beyond the liberals in 2011. 

We even have senior members, including ruling family members, including members of the old Zayed administration who are now beginning to write letters to opinion-makers in the west (I have seen some of these myself). These are major figures often, who served in key roles in the Zayed administration up to 2004 and have very serious misgivings over the direction the UAE has been taking.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 11 July 2013