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Between the shopping malls, is there space in Dubai for dissent?

The United Arab Emirates has arrested more than 100 alleged dissidents since 2011 in a bid to maintain the Gulf state's reputation for stability.

By Phillip Walter WellmanContributor / May 16, 2013

A tour bus passes near the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, in Dubai, May 9. The United Arab Emirates projects an easy-going image of luxury housing built on palm-shaped islands, airports with Fifth Avenue glitz, an artificial ski resort in the desert. Is there space in Dubai for dissent?

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Luxury housing built on palm-shaped islands, airports with Fifth Avenue glitz, an artificial ski resort in the desert: This is the easy-going image that the United Arab Emirates projects to the world. But Dubai resident Ahmed Mansoor sees things much differently.

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“The UAE has become a full-fledged police state,” Mr. Mansoor says. “That kind of benevolent state isn’t here anymore.”

From his apartment on the dusty outskirts of the city, Mansoor spends most days monitoring alleged human rights abuses in the country and says a growing number of violations can be attributed to a relentless government campaign to suppress political dissent.

More than 100 perceived dissidents have been arrested in the UAE since 2011 in an apparent campaign to prevent any hint of the Arab Spring unrest from spilling over into the country. The Gulf state is trying to preserve its reputation as one of the most stable places in the Middle East, but analysts caution that the heavy-handedness could backfire on the government. 

“Now you have nearly 100 political prisoners, you have allegations of torture and so forth and there is a risk that while that may put off some of the political activism it will make other people angry and perhaps create new opposition,” says Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House.

A coalition of international rights groups in March said there was credible evidence detainees had been subjected to torture and that they could have been arrested simply for expressing their political views. A number of prisoners are reportedly being held incommunicado at secret locations.

Mansoor, who documents his findings online and has become one of the government’s most vocal critics, was the first person taken into custody after signing a petition at the height of the Arab Spring calling for greater democratic reform in the country. He was later convicted of anti-state crimes and sentenced to three years in jail, but was quickly pardoned by the president. The most recent arrest, on Saturday, was of online activist Waleed al-Shehhi, whose whereabouts are still unknown.

“In reality, none of these individuals who are arrested pose a threat to national security,” says Mansoor, “Asking for political reform isn’t a security threat.”

Officials wary of Brotherhood

But Emirati authorities have argued the situation is much more complicated.

“We are aware that there are groups plotting to overthrow Gulf governments,” Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim announced last year, referring primarily to the Muslim Brotherhood

The UAE has become increasingly wary of the group since its rise to power in post-revolution Egypt, with Mr. Tamim recently suggesting its ultimate aim is to impose Islamist rule across all Gulf States.

Authorities have said they have evidence the Brotherhood had intended to use the UAE’s home-grown Islamist organization, al-Islah, as a conduit to infiltrate the country. Al-Islah believes strict Islamic ideology should guide society and in the past has been critical of the Emirates’ religious tolerance and relatively liberal ways.

Dozens of the group’s members who had championed political reform online have since been arrested and are among 94 people charged with attempting to orchestrate a coup with the help of “foreign entities” in the largest trial the county has ever seen. The defendants deny the allegations and say they have been denied due process; some claim they were physically abused in custody. Court proceedings are set to resume on May 20.

The government did not respond to repeated interview requests for this report, and officials are tight-lipped about the arrest of activists and the ongoing trial. 

Arrests around the Gulf

Similar crackdowns on political dissent are unfolding across the region. 

In an apparent bid to fortify their sovereignty, all six Gulf Arab monarchies – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman – have launched their own offensives against domestic opposition.

A Kuwaiti opposition leader earlier last month was sentenced to five years in jail for comments deemed offensive to the emir, one in a string of related cases.  

A Qatari poet is serving a 15-year prison term for penning seemingly seditious verses.

Each nation in the bloc of American allies has also issued or drafted new laws that curtail free speech in the name of state security. Much of the legislation has been revised to include controls on online comments.

While there is no accurate measure of public opinion in the UAE, it is widely agreed that most citizens approve of the way the government is handling its internal issues.

Activist takes long view

Back in his study, Mansoor looks to the future and concedes that substantial reform does not appear to be on the horizon.

“I think it is a long way ahead of us,” he says, “it’s not that we are at the end of this period. I think we are still at the beginning of the curve and things could go worse.”

But, he says, despite continued death threats, intimidation by authorities, and minimal support from his compatriots, he will continue to expose what he calls injustices holding his country back and push for change.

“I don’t have any intention to stop and I seriously think the work I am doing is patriotic work and I am driven by that,” he says. “It’s very difficult terrain that I’m going through, but it’s noble and I think people will realize that maybe at a later stage.”

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