Why Activists

are Failing in the UAE

On Tuesday morning, the government in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) arrested and detained dozens of Islamists, scholars, and stateless activists. This situation is familiar from countries all over the Middle East during the recent unrest, but the reaction of the UAE’s population is rather unusual. In a recent article, political commentator Sultan Al Qassemi noted that UAE citizens on social media voiced overwhelming support for the government’s crackdown and some criticized it for not acting earlier. This is in striking contrast to the protests that have sprung up both on the Internet and in the streets in support of detained activists in countries like Egypt and Iran. It is also strikingly different from the way the event is portrayed in the western media. For example, a recent New York Times piece on the crackdown on activists features interviews with understandably distressed relatives, but does not the mention the public backlash.
One might assume that this reaction on Internet forums is due to pro-government “trolls”, but Al Qassemi also mentions conversations he has had an in-person with citizens across the political spectrum. The consensus of opinion was that activists, Islamists in particular, which trying to upset a system that already works well for most people. An April Gallup poll showed that UAE residents for the most satisfied with their lives of all residents of the Middle East. 55% people said that they were “thriving”, as opposed to 46% of Saudis and 27% of people in Bahrain. Obviously, if people feel that they are thriving in the current situation, they have been reluctant to change the status quo. Al Qassemi, who supports the cause of reform, considers that the Islamists have not offered an attractive alternative to the current political environment.
The stateless “bidoon” activists come in for particularly harsh criticism because many of an app and granted citizenship by the UAE, and after gaining the citizenship they have gone on to protest against the government. Many of their fellow citizens consider this to be very offensive and ungrateful. In fact, the father of one of the stateless activists was distraught that “my son would be implicated in subversive activities of any nature and ends this country that welcomed US.”
What does this say about the success of its Islamists in other countries? Egypt, a country where Islamists have recently enjoyed success, has major socioeconomic problem, including rampant unemployment. So Egypt’s government was not only authoritarian and repressive, it was also failing to provide for its people with the resources and employment, and when the Islamist parties but suggested a complete change they met a receptive audience. However, as long as the citizens of the UAE feel that their country is providing for them economically, however unequal the political situation may be, then lately to support any parties that call for major change.
This is not to defend the government crackdown, or to say that reformers activists have nothing to offer the UAE, but it’s important to realize that not all Middle East activist moments are the same, and they don’t all evoke the same reaction from the communities. It is a mistake to use a one size fits all perspective when looking at these issues.