Last month, the government of the United Arab Emirates issued a decree replacing the board of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah organization and putting 94 of its current members on trial for conspiracy to overthrow the government.
The prosecutions and crackdowns came as a shock to many, as the U.A.E. was one of the few countries in the Middle East that was able to almost totally avoid populist, democratic, or Islamist uprisings during the heat of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and 2012. Unlike Libya or Syria or even the U.A.E.’s Persian Gulf neighbor of Bahrain, the political situation in the U.A.E. seemed comparatively calm.
However, to a certain extent, that silence was bought. The U.A.E. has the eighth highest of both production levels and proved reserves of crude oil in the world, and is also ranked eighth globally for proved natural gas reserves. This has led to an extraordinarily high national income, with GDP (purchasing power parity) per capita at 49,012 international dollars in 2012, ranked just below the United States. Thus, the U.A.E. is one of the premier rentier states in the world, with its revenue derived from renting internal resources—in this case, oil and natural gas—to international clients. This has allowed the U.A.E. to obtain extraordinary income from sources other than its citizens, meaning that the government of the U.A.E. does not technically owe its citizens anything, but will buy its peace.
This is the traditional thought when it comes to petrostates like the U.A.E., and up until recently, it appeared to be working.
But the feeling has always remained in the U.A.E. and other Gulf states that the government is being bought by foreign powers, and the citizens are being bought by the government. After all, right after the Arab Spring began heating up in spring of 2011, the government commenced a $1.6 billion infrastructure development project for poorer areas.
However, for members of Al Islah and other dissident organizations, being bought quickly ceased to be acceptable. Soon after the infrastructure project was announced, activists petitioned for the Federal National Council to be elected freely and imbued with the full powers of a national legislative body. The next day, the activist community was flooded with arrests.
Al Islah, an Islamist organization recently headquartered in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, was at the epicenter of the arrests, which quietly continued for the next two years. Even Sultan al-Qasimi, the nephew of Ras al-Khaimah’s emir, Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi, was not immune to detainment. This was surprising for a country where wasta, or clout, is often one’s only source of power or protection.
Despite the insistence of many Al Islah members’ friends and relatives that the organization was not wholly political or misaligned with the Emirati government, over 65 of the 94 accused of conspiracy to overthrow the government were handed down prison sentences today, some carrying jail time of 15 years. As the verdicts were read, the defendants proclaimed thanks to God as the simmering Emirati political situation reached its boiling point.
By Laura Gates
Source: New York Times, Reuters, World Factbook, International Monetary Fund, The Guardian