UAE boot to Western groups shows wider Gulf unease

April 1, 2012 - 11:56 AM
Mideast Saudi Arabia Clinton

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, right, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Hamad Al-Sabah chat prior to a group photo before a US- Gulf Cooperation Council forum at the Gulf Cooperation Council Secretariat in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, March 31, 2012. Secretary Clinton is visiting the region to speak with leaders about local and global issues including Iran as well as attend talks aimed at ending the violence by the Assad regime towards its citizens in Syria.(AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — It could seem a bit of overreaching by a local official: Dubai's police chief offering hard-line advice to Gulf rulers about how to deal with opposition such as street protests or anti-state comments on Twitter.

Yet it's a vivid lesson in the growing unease across the Gulf as authorities target dissenting voices and pull the welcome mat out from under international groups seen as potential pro-reform sounding boards, including the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute whose Dubai office was abruptly closed last week.

"Be watchful," warned Dubai's Police Chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, in an interview published Sunday in Bahrain's pro-government Al Ayam newspaper.

His comments ranged from encouraging withering crackdowns on Shiite-led protesters in Bahrain to raising alarms about Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, using social media for outreach. The wider message, however, reflects the hardening views among the Western-allied Gulf states as they band together to try to fend off any possible Arab Spring-inspired challenges.

Gulf leaders have endorsed closer alliances on security matters and intelligence sharing. A Saudi-led Gulf force — which came to the aid of Bahrain's monarchy after protests erupted last year — is now viewed as an option if unrest flares anywhere from Kuwait to Oman.

And the UAE — once the most receptive regional hub for think tanks and other political-minded groups — suddenly looks tough minded.

In the span of a week, the UAE closed the Abu Dhabi office of the German pro-democracy group, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and the Dubai branch of the National Democratic Institute, which also had faced pressure from authorities in Egypt along with other Western rights and watchdog groups.

Abu Dhabi also decided to cut ties last week with the Washington-based polling organization Gallup, which opened in the UAE's capital to much official fanfare in 2009.

Last year, the independent Gulf Research Center relocated from Dubai to Geneva after its license was revoked in the UAE, a collection of seven semiautonomous emirates that include Dubai and the capital, Abu Dhabi. At the time, the group said the UAE had objected to "various aspects" of its work, which included political analyses and studies.

"We very much regret" the closure of the National Democratic Institute's Dubai office, said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia on Saturday. She said the issue was raised with the UAE's foreign minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. But there has been no official comment from the UAE on the closures.

"It really shows the nervousness of authorities about anything that could be seen as opposition or encouraging free speech," said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs at Britain's Durham University. "The UAE was supposed to be a place where foreign companies and groups could set up camp without fear of this type of interference. The Arab Spring changed that."

There's also the potential chill factor on prominent academic and cultural institutions that chose the UAE for its relative openness.

State-run universities in the UAE now must get state security clearance for all outside lecturers, said Davidson, who has seen the application forms. Such measures have not been imposed on foreign-affiliated schools such as New York University's Abu Dhabi campus.

But the Paris-based Sorbonne became embroiled in a crackdown last year after one of the lecturers at its Abu Dhabi branch was among five activists convicted — and later pardoned — of anti-state crimes for joining an online petition calling for constitutional changes and free elections.

Two major museums, the Guggenheim and Louvre, plan Abu Dhabi galleries in coming years that also could test the limits of free expression. Current exhibitions around the Gulf carefully avoid works that could suggest political changes or discontent with the ruling systems.

"They have taken out any room for critical expression," said Davidson. "This means that any criticism is seen as a loss of face for the leaders themselves."

While closing offices can be done by just a ruler's decree, the web is a moving target. The Internet's central role in Arab Spring uprisings — including Bahrain's 14-month-old unrest — has brought scattershot attempts in the Gulf to muzzle opposition outlets.

Twitter activists and many political blogs remain accessible, but some have brought sharp reprisals from authorities. Since February, at least four UAE bloggers have been arrested on charges that include "spreading ideas that damage national unity or social peace." One of the suspects was posting a comment as authorities moved in. "Dear brothers," he wrote, "the police are arresting me now from my home."

The Dubai police chief, meanwhile, has given a series of interviews — certainly with official blessing — claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions are using social media to spread calls to undermine the Western-backed leaders in the Gulf. His campaign suggests further clampdowns on the web.

"These attempts to close off free expression are a complete reversal for a place like the UAE, which invited the think tanks and other groups into the country," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University. "Clearly, it shows the leaders are anxious. But they must explain their concerns and policies and put these guessing games to a rest."