FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Emirates Crackdown

by VIJAY PRASHAD

Rarely reported in the West has been the concerted repression of democracy activists on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia, the first among equals in the peninsula, has been ruthless against any suggestion of democratic reform. Most recently, the Saudi authorities arrested the Qatif-based cleric Nimr al-Nimr, shooting him in the leg and killing several people during the operation in the village of al-Awwamiyya. Interior Minister Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz said that al-Nimr is “the spreader of sedition” and “a man of dubious scholarship and dubious mental condition, and the issues he raises and speaks about show a deficiency or imbalance of the mind.” In the Kingdom, to champion democracy is a mental illness. Al-Nimr is not alone. The authorities have arrested Ra’if Badawi, editor of Free Saudi Liberals, and activists such as Mohammed al-Shakouri of Qatif, the hotbed of unrest. The Saudis cleverly use blasphemy laws to hit the democracy activists hard. The activists are “those who have gone astray” (al-fi’at al-dhallah), and it is the truncheon that is tasked with bringing them back to their senses.

For a year, the Bahraini authorities have been unrelenting in their crackdown against democracy campaigners. Most recently Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a veteran of the al-Khalifa prisons, was arrested for an insulting tweet. On June 22, about thirty activists of the al-Wefaq party, led by their leader Sheikh Ali Salman, marched east of Manama with flowers in hand. The police fired tear gas and sound bombs, injuring most of the demonstrators. Things are so bad in Bahrain that the UN Human Rights Council passed a declaration calling on King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to implement the recommendations of his own appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. Unsurprisingly, the United States, the United Kingdom and seven European Union states (including Sweden) sat silently and did not endorse the declaration.

Matters have taken a turn for the worse in the United Arab Emirates (of the seven emirates in this union the most famous are Dubai and Abu Dhabi). There the authorities have shown no mercy to al-Islah, the Association of Reform and Social Guidance. Since March of this year, the UAE has arrested at least fifty activists, including the human rights lawyers Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed Mansoori as well as Khaifa al-Nu`aimi, a young blogger and twitter user. The attack on al-Islah began in December 2011, when the full enthusiasm of the Arab Spring reached the gilded cities. The government promptly arrested its main leaders, and stripped seven of them of their UAE citizenship. The UAE Seven, as they fashioned themselves, released a statement calling for reforms “in the legislative authority so as to prepare the climate for a wholesome parliamentary election.” Nothing of the sort has happened, and indeed the crushing blow to the activists has been swifter and more powerful.

On July 24, University of Sharjah law professor and a former judge, Ahmed Yusuf al-Zaabi, was sentenced to twelve months in prison for fraud. The government alleged that he had impersonated someone else (his passport said he was a judge even as he had been dismissed from the bench for his support of the 2003 call for political reforms). The recent arrests are a piece of this general policy of intolerance for political diversity, and for any call to reform. On August 1, Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork called upon the US and Britain to “speak out clearly, in public as well as in meetings with UAE officials, about this draconian response to the mildest calls for modest democratic reforms.” There is silence from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said, in February 2011, that the US would “support citizens working to make their governments more open, transparent and accountable.” The asterix to that statement said the following: “citizens of the Gulf need not apply.”

Arab Desert Democracy.

John Harris, the architect of Dubai, wrote in a 1971 master plan that the UAE’s political system was a “traditional Arab desert democracy [which] grants the leader ultimate authority” (this is quoted in Ahmed Kanna’s fabulous 2011 book Dubai: The City as Corporation). The term “desert democracy” had become clichéd by the 1970s. In 1967, Time ran a story on Kuwait as the “desert democracy,” a title the magazine reused in 1978 for its story on Saudi Arabia. The idea of “desert democracy” refers to the Gulf monarchies allowance of a majlis, a council, to offer advice to the monarch, at the same time as the oil-rich monarchs pledge to provide transfer payments to the citizens for their good behavior (in 1985 the leader of the illegal Saudi Communist Party said that these payments made the Saudi workers “the favorites of fortune”). If this basic compact is violated by the call for greater democracy, for instance, the monarch is enshrined to crack down. It is almost as if the Gulf Arab monarchs had read their Bernard Lewis, the venerable Princeton professor, whose What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Modernity and Islam in the Middle East (2001) notes that the “Middle Easterners created a democracy without freedom.” All the usual Orientalist props come tumbling in: tribal society, Arab factionalism and so on.

The fog of culture is convenient, but it does blind one to much simpler explanations. The emirs of the Gulf have no interest in sharing power with their people who might ask embarrassing questions about the extravagant living of the royal families off the petro-dollars. No elite willingly submits to democracy, the “most shameless thing in the world,” as Edmund Burke put it. It has been piously hoped since the 1950s that the “next generation” of the Gulf Arabs will be more moderate then their forbearers, that distance from their Bedouin tents will turn them into Liberals. The Saudi King Abdulla is 87, his crown prince Salman is 77 and sick. Their younger descendants have not shown any eagerness to move a reform agenda. The costs would be catastrophic to their family’s control of the wealth. The US government is well aware of this situation. A 1996 State Department cable points out that the “Royals still seem more adept at squandering than accumulating wealth… As long as the royal family views (Saudi Arabia) and its oil wealth as Al Saud Inc., the thousand of princes and princesses will see it as their birthright to receive dividend payments and raid the till.” Reform is a distraction to their plunder.

US Ambassador James Smith wrote to Secretary Clinton in February 2010 that the US-Saudi relationship has “proven durable.” Much the same has been said of the US and European relationship with the rest of the Gulf. Oil is of course key, but it is not the only thing. Political control through the military bases is equally important. Of the many bases, the most significant are the Naval Support Activity Station in Bahrain, the air base at al-Dhafra in the UAE, and the air base at al-Udeid in Qatar. Democracy and other such illusions can be squandered by the West to forge a realistic alliance with the Gulf Arabs who share, as Ambassador Smith put it, “a common view of threats posed by terrorism and extremism [and] the dangers posed by Iran.” One of Iran’s great threats is its attempt to export its style of Islamic democracy, anathema to the Gulf Arab monarchies. The US has lined up behind aristocracy against democracy.

The power of the Gulf sovereigns is increasing, although the sovereigns are less stable. The people have already been through the stages of al-mithaq (the pact) and al-hiwar (the dialogue). Far more is wanted. Night descends. The mukhabarat (political police) and the mutaween (religious police) are on the move. There is gunfire. There are shreaks. There is silence.

Vijay Prashad’s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press.

 

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 09, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Second Gilded Age: Overcoming the Rule of Billionaires and Militarists
Andrew Levine
Trump’s Chumps: Victims of the Old Bait and Switch
Erin McCarley
American Nazis and the Fight for US History
Lewis Lapham
Hostile Takeover
Joshua Frank
This Week at CounterPunch: More Hollow Smears and Baseless Accusations
Paul Street
The Democrats Do Their Job, Again
Vijay Prashad
The Cuban Revolution: Defying Imperialism From Its Backyard
Michael Hudson - Sharmini Peries
Orwellian Economics
Mark Ames
The Anonymous Blacklist Promoted by the Washington Post Has Apparent Ties to Ukrainian Fascism and CIA Spying
Conn Hallinan
India & Pakistan: the Unthinkable
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Nativism on the Left – A Realer Smith
Joshua Sperber
Trump in the Age of Identity Politics
Brandy Baker
Jill Stein Sees Russia From Her House
Katheryne Schulz
Report from Santiago de Cuba: Celebrating Fidel’s Rebellious Life
Nelson Valdes
Fidel and the Good People
Norman Solomon
McCarthy’s Smiling Ghost: Democrats Point the Finger at Russia
Renee Parsons
The Snowflake Nation and Trump on Immigration
Margaret Kimberley
Black Fear of Trump
Michael J. Sainato
A Pruitt Running Through It: Trump Kills Nearly Useless EPA With Nomination of Oil Industry Hack
Ron Jacobs
Surviving Hate and Death—The AIDS Crisis in 1980s USA
David Swanson
Virginia’s Constitution Needs Improving
Louis Proyect
Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness
Paul Atwood
War Has Been, is, and Will be the American Way of Life…Unless?
John Wight
Syria and the Bodyguard of Lies
Richard Hardigan
Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Senate Bill Criminalizes Criticism of Israel
Kathy Kelly
See How We Live
David Macaray
Trump Picks his Secretary of Labor. Ho-Hum.
Howard Lisnoff
Interview with a Political Organizer
Yves Engler
BDS and Anti-Semitism
Martha Durkee-Neuman
Millennial Organizers Want to See An Intersectional Understanding Of Gun Violence
Adam Parsons
Home Truths About the Climate Emergency
Brian Cloughley
The Decline and Fall of Britain
Eamonn Fingleton
U.S. China Policy: Is Obama Schizoid?
Graham Peebles
Worldwide Air Pollution is Making us Ill
Joseph Natoli
Fake News is Subjective?
Andre Vltchek
Tough-Talking Philippine President Duterte
Binoy Kampmark
Total Surveillance: Snooping in the United Kingdom
Guillermo R. Gil
Vivirse la película: Willful Opposition to the Fiscal Control Board in Puerto Rico
Patrick Bond
South Africa’s Junk Credit Rating was Avoided, But at the Cost of Junk Analysis
Clancy Sigal
Investigate the Protesters! A Trial Balloon Filled With Poison Gas
Charles R. Larson
Review:  Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls: the Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria
December 08, 2016
John W. Whitehead
Power to the People: John Lennon’s Legacy Lives On
Mike Whitney
Rolling Back the Empire: Washington’s Proxy-Army Faces Decisive Defeat in Aleppo
Ellen Brown
“We’ll Look at Everything:” More Thoughts on Trump’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan
John Stauber
The Rise and Fall of Obamacare: Will the Inside Story Ever be Told?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail