Gulf Emirates throb with student unrest, political disputes

Around 2,000 school students joined protest demonstrations in this tiny Gulf emirates in mid-February. It was the most serious display of political activity many emirate nationals have ever seen in the area.

This particular state exported 660 million barrels of oil in 1978 and about the same amount since then. The protest by its nationals was over gasoline prices. the problem is that, for their own use, Sharjah and its neighbors have to buy refined oil products on the world market.

But several of those in close touch with the students say their taking to the streets in a swirl of traditional long robes and protest banners was also a sign of a far wider dissatisfaction with the situation in the Emirates as a whole.

Several reasons other than gasoline prices are responsible for the growing unease, residents of Sharjah and the Emirates' capital, Abu Dhabi, report.

In some of the seven Gulf Emirates (princedoms) that form the union, drilling for water has continued so fast that all wells are now threatened with salinity. Residents of remote villages in the desert or mountain hinterland complain that vital services are restricted to the booming cities. Moreover, serious quarrels have erupted over the distribution of the fabulous oil wealth.

But two problems are increasingly in the thoughts of many Emirates nationals. There are:

* What will be the final shape of the Emirates' union -- a federation hastily stitched together when the British left the Gulf in 1971?

$ How will a new society be fashioned in an age when, in theory, the citizen is assured the latest and best of literally everything from cradle to grave?

The political question is the one that attracts most attention from Western analysts now desperately concerned about the security of the entire Gulf area.

The tension between Abu Dhabi's federalist instincts and Dubai's tendency toward freewheeling liberalism have dominated the politics of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ever since the union was formed in 1971. In early 1979, Dubai put aside a threat to withdraw from the union only when its ruler, Sheikh Rashid , was promised the premiership of the federal government. (Abu Dhabi's ruler, Sheikh Zaid, remained the UAE president.)

But the bitterness remains. Some observers interpreted the gas-price demonstrations in Sharjah and neighboring Ajman emirates as muffled protests against Dubai's Sheikh Zaid, whom critics blamed for the price hike.

Businessmen in Dubai, meanwhile, continue to rail against what they consider "interference" from the central government in Abu Dhabi. And Dubai's armed forces still refuse to integrate with federal forces commanded from Abu Dhabi.

Politicians on both sides also are disputing contributions to the federal budget (supposed to be divided equally between Abu Dhabi and Dubai) and the content of the new constitution to replace the "temporary" five-year Constitution promulgated in 1971.

When the United Arab Emirates was first formed, it brought together two key princedoms, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with radically different characteristics, along with five smaller, poorer emirates, some of them little more than fishing villages.

Abu Dhabi, with its extensive desert hinterland and signs of an oil boom, was seriously concerned about building up a credible emirate state structure -- and perhaps was hoping to dominate it.

Dubai, a longtime trade center ruled by a five powerful merchant families, was concerned with guaranteeing its own liberal regime, which attracts trade from throughout the Arab world and the Indian subcontinent.

Since then, oil has been discovered in relatively small quantities in Dubai and neighboring Sharjah. the other emirates have had to rely on the largesse of Abu dhabi for their development.

Many of the young emerati nationals now are asking where the petrodollar-funded development boom is leading. Official statistics put the proportion of nationals at just over one-quarter the number of resident immigrants in the UAE. The nationals, according to some intellectuals here, are beginning to feel a distinct "minority complex."

"We have to ask where the current process is going," says an editor of the left-leaning Al-Azmena Al-Arabiyya magazine. "Will it be for the benefit of the UAE people, or for the foreigners who are increasingly influential with the rulers here?"

"And what do we want to become as people? he asks. "We have foreigners doing everything for us. Are we just to become a society of consumers? No, we must seek a deeper meaning to life than that."

Youngsters throughout the Emirates and at the elite United Arab Emirates University at Al-Ain are starting to ask these questions, this older-generation intellectual says.

Answers to the questions may come from a number of sources: From Islam, as is the case in Iran. From the Arabism, which all emiratis earnestly profess. From a return to roots, as expressed in their preference for traditional dress. And from a cutting back on the ultrafast development process that is taking place in the UAE.

Some of these ideas find a response in Abu Dhabi. An adviser of Sheikh Zaid says there is a trend toward investing in economic projects in neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, rather than importing Pakistani workers to vas economic projects here. Islamic restrictions on drinking alcohol have been tightened throughout the UAE in recent weeks.

But in the potential tinderbox of the Gulf today, such steps may be too little or too late. And with Dubai continuing to hold out for Western-style entrepreneurism, the flashpoint could well be here in the UAE.

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