Last week, the United Arab Emirates banished the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Konrad Adeneur Foundation, two international democracy promotion groups that recently, along with others, ran into trouble in Egypt.
Les Campbell, NDI's regional director, told CNN: "Our office was simply a regional hub which supported programs in places like Qatar and Kuwait ... While we are disappointed at this turn of events and disturbed by the arbitrary behavior in Dubai, we do not have programs in the UAE, so it has no serious ramifications for our work."
The actions in the UAE were handled far more deftly than in Egypt, where armed police raids were conducted on those and other NGOs and arrest warrants issued, leading to a US government standoff with Egypt over the more than $1 billion in annual military aid that Washington sends to Cairo. Egypt finally backed down, with a number of American NGO workers who had been holed up in the US Embassy allowed to depart the country for home.
But the cancellation of the licenses for the groups in the United Arab Emirates are reminders of two things. First, despite all the change wrought by the Arab uprisings of last year, anti-democratic impulses run deep. And second, the missions of these groups are threatening to many regional regimes.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the groups. "We are ... strong believers in a vibrant civil society, and both NDI and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation office play a key role in supporting NGOs and civil society across the region, and I expect our discussions on this issue to continue."
But countries like the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Egypt under its current military rulers, are hostile to "vibrant civil society" groups. And for good reason: They want to maximize their ability to control their populations.
In March, according to Reporters Without Borders, the UAE took steps to silence democracy and civil society activists. Saleh Al-Dhufairi, an activist who has taken up the cause of the "UAE 7," a group of activists who had their citizenship cancelled for calling for freer elections and political reform, was arrested last month. Mr. Dhufairi was held for 11 days, then released on bail, facing charges of "inciting sedition" for posts he made on the social-networking site Twitter.
"The continued close monitoring of the Internet is evident from the immediate reprisals against anyone posting content that is not to the government’s liking. The police do not hesitate to intimidate opposition bloggers and netizens using social networks," Reporters Without Borders charged.
The US has close ties to the UAE. After a US request, authorities in Dubai recently shut down dealings between a government-linked bank and Iran. The bank had emerged as a major financial conduit for Iran in response to US-backed sanctions designed to open up Iran's nuclear program to greater scrutiny. And the country is a major US weapons customer, placing $14 billion in orders in 2010 and 2011.
It will be interesting to see if other regional countries will follow Egypt and the UAE's lead in shutting down foreign NGOs.