April 25, 2011
Democracy in the United Arab Emirates
The Emirates are promising reform while at the same time suppressing dissent
By Jenifer Fenton

Last week the United Arab Emirates dissolved the elected board of directors of the Jurist Association, a prominent civil rights organization, replacing the board with state appointees, according to Human Rights Watch.

The group was one of four nongovernmental organizations that signed a petition to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the members of the Supreme Council of the seven Emirates on March 9 asking for direct elections. The petition also asked that the Federal National Council (FNC) be granted legislative powers. The body is only an advisory one.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Jurist Association was said to have violated the UAE’s Law on Associations, which bans NGOs from interfering “in politics or in matters that impair State security and its ruling regime.”

Four activists have also been arrested recently. Three are still in detention and one has been released, according to activist Mohammed al-Mansoori.

There are seven emirates, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Each is ruled by an Emir – and together they choose a President for the UAE. Analysts say they appear to be adopting a twin-track approach to political activity – clamping down on dissent while promising reform and taking steps to stave off the potential for unrest. The UAE have not seen street protests, but are sensitive to the unrest sweeping the Arab world.

The UAE have said they plan to hold elections in September to select representatives for the FNC. The last elections were in 2006. Currently there are 40 members of the FNC: half are elected by the electoral college and the other half are nominated by their Emirate. The electoral college, which includes a small percentage of women, is chosen by the rulers of the UAE and its members are the only ones allowed to vote or run for office. The UAE have also said that they plan to increase the size of the electoral college, which has 6,689 members.

“We are confident that increasing the number of electoral colleges will promote political participation,” said Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said in a statement to WAM, the Emirates’ news agency. “It reflects the spirit of the political program of UAE and we expect that the electoral colleges will bring in more expertise, representing the significant evolution of the UAE society. The latest developments in the region validate the wise approach adopted by the UAE leadership to make sure that change is in perfect harmony with progress.”

Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati blogger who signed the petition to the UAE president asking for direct elections was the first known activist to be detained. Mansoor is being held in Al Wathba prison in Abu Dhabi, according to his wife Nadia. He has not been charged with a crime.

Fahad Salem al-Shehhi, a friend of Mansoor’s who helped him with his website, and Nasser bin Ghaith, an Emirati writer who also maintains a website, have also been detained, according to al-Mansoori.

A fourth activist, Abdullah al-Shehhi was taken from the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. Al-Shehhi previously served in the UAE armed forces and has been arrested three times before, al-Mansoori said. He was released due to ongoing health problem, al-Mansoori said.
None of the activists has been charged yet, according to al-Mansoori.

“The prosecution in the UAE has sent subpoenas to a number of people,” Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, said last week at a press conference. “This is fully in procedure with the laws and rules of the UAE. We have full trust that our laws are clear and transparent,” he said. “I do not believe that any person is above the law.”
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Professor of Political Science at Emirates University, said he believed that it was time for the Emirates to change. An ideal situation would be one were “there will be complete elections for everybody. There would be an elected
FNC,” Abdulla said. “The sooner the better for the UAE.”

When asked about the arrest of the activists Abdulla said, “It shows that the UAE probably is not in their political reform mind. They are falling behind. I think they are sending messages that they are not buying into this reform that is sweeping the Arab world. And they think that we are happy with the stability that we are in. That we are happy with the way things are.”
More than eight million people live in the Emirates, but Emiratis account for only 11.5 percent of that number. Most are migrant workers.

Recently the UAE has announced changes meant to improve the lives of Emiratis.
In March, the Emirates ordered a 70 percent increase in pensions for retired military personnel. The WAM statement said “The President’s generous gesture is given as part of his keenness to ensure ways of decent living for the citizens.” The same month the UAE president ordered that $1.55 billion be invested in the expansion of water and electricity supply sector in the northern emirates, which are less developed and less affluent.

Other recent directives have included: approving the construction of hundreds of villas for citizens throughout the UAE and increasing job opportunities for Emirates.

But as events elsewhere in the Middle East have shown, such largesse has not always mollified those whose grievances are principally political.