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The Emirates Crackdown


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).

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