For the past four months, hundreds of thousands of voices demanding variations on a theme—democracy, human rights, an end to torture, a stop to corruption—have echoed from Morocco to Yemen, each with its own local variation. In the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven small semi-autonomous sheikdoms, that voice sounded a little hoarse. More like a whisper, you might say. And then it went silent.
Since April 8 the Emirati government has arrested five prominent Emiratis—activists, bloggers and an academic—for signing a petition calling for reform, and thrown them in jail, where they remain to this day. They are being held without charges, although they are in contact with their families and lawyers.
The five detainees are among over 160 professionals who on March 9 submitted what has to be one of the gentlest pleas for political reform in recent history, which included a request to make the Federal National Council, the UAE’s powerless legislative body, at least open to universal contestation. On February 24 President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced he was doubling the pool of eligible voters , to around 12,000. That is still less than 2 percent of the Emirati population.
(For the record, here’s what Emirati rabble-rousing sounds like: “Please We, the undersigned, a group of people of the United Arab Emirates, rise up to serve your Generous Highness and Their Highnesses Members of Supreme Council of the Federation of deep appreciation and respect…” the petition begins. “Out of our deep concern for this nation, and its people, who are your sons…” it continues. A fiery battle cry it is not.)
But even this was too much. On April 8, at 3 am, several police asked Ahmed Mansoor, one of the signatories, a blogger and a member of the Human Rights Watch advisory committee, to come down to “answer some questions about his car.” (Incidentally, this was the same approach that security officials used to take Naji Hamdan , a United States citizen who allegedly was tortured in custody.) Fearing a trap, he refused to come down, but was taken away by a second group of security officers that same afternoon.
Two days later Nasser bin Ghaith, a prominent Emirati economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, was also carted away. His ostensible crime was urging the UAE, on television shows and in panel discussions, to become more transparent, as a means to further economic development. In subsequent days, three other online activists, Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, were arrested. In the weeks that followed, the government dissolved the boards of two of the country’s oldest civil society organizations, the Jurists’ Association and the Teachers’ Association, for signing a similar petition.
According to Samer Muscati, UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch, these crackdowns are merely the latest in an ongoing campaign of repression against activists in the UAE. “Since the Arab Spring we’ve seen unprecedented actions,” said Muscati, although he noted that UAE activists have been calling for political reform well before uprisings began in North Africa. “You have these petitions signed by a wide range of people. The government realizes this is getting out of control, that they can’t have people just challenging them, and they have to make an example out of these five.”
Sharla Musabih is an American woman married to an Emirati, who lived in Dubai for twenty-seven years. She ran a woman’s shelter for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, and used to meet regularly with officials in the Ministry of Interior and other government offices, something she said would be difficult, if not impossible, today.
“It’s significant to see the way the government responds to human rights issues from the mid-2000s until about 2008,” she said in a phone interview from Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she is now based. “In some ways they are less transparent than they were back when I was doing my work.”
Musabih calls the crackdown “a knee-jerk reaction” instigated by a few misguided individuals in the security apparatus who believe that in locking up dissenters, they are safeguarding the country’s best interests. “There’s an element that thinks they’re doing what’s best for the country,” she said.
Muhammed Al-Mansoori, a lawyer and longtime human rights activist who also signed the petition, wishes they’d try another approach. “These people,” he said, referring to the security services, “are taking us backwards. They are creating hate between the people and their rulers.” Despite being subject to years of harassment, travel bans and even getting dismissed from a government post after criticizing free-speech restrictions on television, Al-Mansoori believes that speaking out is the only way forward.
“I love my country like my mother, and this is my government, ” said Al-Mansoori. “When I am criticizing my country it is because I want it to be number one in everything.” A former president of the Jurists’ Association, he is dismayed at the country’s lack of judicial independence, which he says has only worsened since the security services began meddling in judicial appointments.
Whether or not his sentiment is widely shared by his compatriots remains open to debate. The United Arab Emirates is an odd place, say many, a small country of just over 8.1 million people, only one out of eight of whom are Emirati. Many are expats on the make, many more are low-wage laborers who build the country’s skyscrapers or work as domestic help.
Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, which also has a branch in Abu Dhabi, points out that UAE citizens, particularly from the wealthier Emirate of Abu Dhabi, get numerous “goodies” from the state: cradle-to-grave healthcare, free education and housing benefits. Fear of losing these goodies has led some sectors of the population to voice their support of the crackdowns. Multimillionaire businessman  Khalaf Al-Habtoor penned an obsequious op-ed for Gulf News titled “Trouble-making is no human right .” In a May 4 article in the state-owned English-language newspaper The National, a member of a prominent tribe was quoted as saying , “Having free elections and more elected Emiratis won’t make a difference in our daily lives. We get everything we need with the way the system is now.”
“Even among that privileged minority of citizens,” said Professor Lockman, “there are those who would like at least some participation, transparency, or some guarantees of civic rights. But even that is too much for the ruling elite.”
The signatories to the petition were for the most part elite professionals themselves: doctors, educators, lawyers, academics and businesspeople with plenty to lose. Notably, even the defendants’ lawyer, Abdel Hamid Al-Kumaiti, was reported to have signed a statement condemning “false statements recently made by small groups in the foreign media and social networks,” in a May 3 National article titled “Lawyers pledge loyalty to Rulers ” (not to be confused with a subsequent National article, published May 30 , also titled “Lawyers pledge loyalty to Rulers”).
Dr. Christopher Davidson, a reader in Middle East politics at Durham University who specializes in the politico-economic development in the Gulf, believes that by arresting people like Professor bin Ghaith, a high-profile academic, the government hopes to show that no one—no matter how connected they are—is beyond the government’s reach. Even Professor bin Ghaith’s connections to Paris-Sorbonne couldn’t save him, although Davidson chalks that up to the Sorbonne’s notable lack of response.
Reached by e-mail, Michel Fichant, a professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and a board member of its Abu Dhabi branch, responded that the institution was “concerned not at all by some arrests” that recently took place. He stressed that Professor bin Ghaith had merely been invited to present at some conferences, but was not an employee. The response from NYU was equally dismissive: “The school itself does not take public stands on issues and policies that fall outside of its core mission of operating a world-class university.”
According to NYU sociology Professor Andrew Ross, who has been an outspoken critic of the university’s involvement in the autocratic city-state, NYU president John Sexton recently told a group of concerned faculty members that he had reason to believe those arrested were a genuine threat to national security, something that Professor Lockman finds “particularly shocking.”
“He suggested that these people were genuinely subversive and deserving of arrest, although human rights organizations, of course, have a different take,” said Lockman. “This kind of toadying to the crown prince and his ilk shows the hollowness of NYU’s role in this place.”
Ross and his colleagues at the New York chapter of the American Association of University Professors sent a letter addressed to Dean Sexton and Vice-Chancellor Al Bloom, warning that “Silence on this serious issue will set a precedent that could also have ominous consequences for the speech protections of NYUAD faculty.” At the Sorbonne, the student union AGEPS (Association Générale des Etudiants de Paris Sorbonne) presented a motion that was adopted by the Conseil des Etudes et de la Vie Universitaire (CEVU), an academic advisory body, denouncing the Sorbonne’s lack of response and calling on it to defend the values of the French Republic. Neither action has resulted in any change in either university’s stance.
Unfortunately, those working on behalf of the detainees have few other options. Local avenues appear closed, and international pressure is all that remains.
“Their Achilles’ heel is the soft-power partnerships and ventures set up with international partners: NYU, the Sorbonne, the Louvre, the Guggenheim,” said Dr. Davidson. “If these institutions were to collectively say, ‘We’re not going to do business with a country that takes political prisoners,’ it’s a no-brainer. But their complicity is a form of violence.”