Protests fail to garner support in the UAE

24 May 2011

With its wealth shielding it from the upheaval witnessed in other parts of the Arab world, the UAE is taking a gradual approach to democratic reform

Key fact

The UAE was ranked the 35th most-globalised country in the world on the KOF Index of Globalisation

Source: KOF

The 2011 Arab uprisings have swept rulers from power in Egypt and Tunisia, triggered a civil war in Libya, and provoked brutal crackdowns in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. International markets looked on nervously as Saudi Arabia appeared to teeter on the brink of revolt, a development that would have seen the oil price spiral out of control and undermine the global economic recovery.

The government has the trust of the people … social liberty has compensated for any … political freedom

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Emirates University

At a time when the attention of the world’s media was focused on the Middle East, two countries went largely unmentioned. One was Qatar, the hydrocarbon-rich emirate stable enough to give its state-owned Al-Jazeera television station a free reign in covering the turbulent events unfolding around the region. The other was the UAE, where a planned ‘Day of Rage’ on 25 March, a powerful tool for the opposition movements elsewhere, failed to garner support.

UAE state subsidies

There are several obvious reasons why popular discontent was near absent in the UAE. The country has immense hydrocarbons wealth and a small indigenous population. Subsidies, used across the Gulf as a way of securing support for the government, are firmly in place. UAE residents pay prices well below the cost of production for electricity, water, food and petrol. Government handouts for Emiratis extend this generosity, as do an abundance of well-paid government salaries. Per capita gross domestic product (GPD) averages about $40,200.

[The middle-class] are the forces of change, but are also in bed with the regime

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Emirates University

This situation contrasts sharply with Arab countries that have witnessed upheaval. In Egypt, per capita GDP is $6,200 and 20 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. UAE citizens are generally pleased with their lot and are frequently described as apolitical.

“There will be no great clamour for political reform as long as the economy is going well,” says David Hartwell, analyst for the Middle East and Africa at UK-based security consultancy IHS Jane’s.

In a country where power lies exclusively with the ruling sheikhs and political parties are illegal, there are other factors at play that also supress the call for democracy.

Gulf countries do not have a history of democratic participation, and the UAE’s inhabitants until recently lived in small communities, subject to the old tribal bargain, that means the sheikh’s rule will not be challenged by his subjects if he provides material wellbeing and a safe life. This bargain still holds.

“The government has the trust of the people,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at Emirates University in the UAE. “There is this consensus culture, a tribal culture and a deep-rooted respect for the royal family.”

Jeopardising stability and material comfort for more democratic representation makes little sense from this perspective.

In addition to wealth and stability – a prized commodity in a region that has experienced war and revolution in its recent past – UAE citizens enjoy a range of freedom’s not evident in other Gulf states. “An abundance of social liberty has compensated for any demand for political freedom,” says Abdulla, who ranks the UAE as the most socially liberal of the GCC states.

The UAE might be lacking the fundamentals for mass movements calling for radical change, but the country was ranked the 35th most-globalised country in the world on the 2008 KOF Index of Globalisation. The democratic nature of key allies and trade partners, such as the US and Europe, will not have passed by unnoticed.

The sole democratic element in the UAE constitution is the Federal National Council (FNC) – a 40-strong body that can review, but not change or veto legislative decisions. In 2006, 20 of its members were elected for the first time by a caucus comprising about 7,000 Emiratis, hand-picked by the rulers of the seven emirates.

Heavy response

In March, a petition was signed by 133 politically minded citizens calling for the government to invest legislative powers into the FNC, in effect, turning the body into a functioning parliament.

The authorities did not respond kindly to the mild-mannered request and arrested five political activists, three of which were signatories of the petition. The heavy-handed response showed not only how unwelcome any open challenge to the regime is, but also revealed a level of discontent with the current system of government.

In the absence of surveys on this sensitive subject, it is impossible to ascertain just how deep this discontent runs in the population. Abdulla believes the mood is finely balanced, with as many citizens looking for democratic reform as there are those that want the status quo to remain unchanged.

Others sit between those camps with potential to sway either way.

Some analysts believe momentum is shifting towards change. “In the past, the UAE was a tribal monarchy, but time has moved on, and we are in the 21st century now,” says Christopher Davidson, a Middle East analyst at Durham University in the UK. “People certainly have a tribal identity, but they have many other identities too. They are living in a more urban environment in more nuclear families, doing professional jobs.”

Middle classes

The main driver for political change is a worldly, educated middle-class. The second generation of this middle-class, which grew up with a modern state administration and a burgeoning economy, is even more reform-minded than their parents. But this middle class is also an integral cog in the state machinery, manning the desks at ministries, state-owned companies and municipal departments.

“They are the forces of change, but are also in bed with the regime,” says Abdulla. “They benefit from another and reinforce each other. The middle-class is usually not revolutionary, they are a moderate kind of people.”

Given the extent of interdependence, it is unlikely this segment of society would turn to radical thinking. There is greater risk of discontent in the northern emirates, such as Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah, which get a much smaller slice of the oil wealth. They have not been able to emulate Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s success in growing a diversified, strong economy.

“The UAE has a substantial population of Emiratis who are not rich. There are more Ras al-Khaimah nationals than Dubai nationals and many of them are very poor people,” says Davidson.

Abdulla agrees wealth is not spread evenly across the UAE. “There are people in [some] emirates feeling disadvantaged and left out. And when you see extravagance in the other emirates, that’s something to be watchful of,” he says.

The UAE government has taken the lessons of the Arab uprisings on board and launched a $1.6bn infrastructure investment programme for the northern emirates. It has also introduced bread and rice subsidies across the country, increased military pensions and plans to raise the percentage of UAE nationals that private businesses must hire.

Throwing money at a problem is an easy option when backed by Abu Dhabi’s immense oil wealth. Implementing political change is a more delicate matter.

Yet, there are several factors that could persuade the ruling sheikhs to consider a more representative government, says Abdulla. He believes the elite have a strong track record at gauging the mood of their subjects and assuaging grievances before they undermine their legitimacy.

There have been strenuous efforts to increase the efficiency of the bureaucracy and to modernise the state apparatus. A wider franchise would help in those efforts. “If they are really serious about institution building, structural legitimacy and building of modern government and state, then they have to go that way,” says Abdulla.

Democratisation of the UAE also depends on developments in neighbouring countries. The malfunctioning democracy in Kuwait has long-served as a bad example, dissuading decision-makers from political reform. This could change if an Arab state, such as Egypt, started serving as a positive role model.

“Once you’ve got a good democratic role model, which is homegrown, not imposed like the one in Iraq, or is far away like in Turkey, that will persuade them that democracy is not always as messy, as is the case in Kuwait, or as divisive, as is the case in Lebanon,” says Abdulla. “If there is a regional trigger, then it is the development of a democracy around us that is authentically Arab.”

Davidson also believes events in the region will have an influence. If Saudi Arabia were to face upheaval, the repercussions would be felt across the border. “Whatever happens in the UAE over the next few years will really come down to what is happening in the immediate environment, in particular, in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “If Saudi Arabia faces crisis, the UAE won’t be shielded from that.”

Nontheless, change is likely to be incremental and taken at a measured pace.

Slowed process of democratisation

“The decision will always come from the elite, from the government, from the ruling family. Demand for political reform is not going to sway them or pressure them into more democratisation,” says Abdulla.

The recent arrests might have slowed down this process. The uncompromising response to the petition carries the danger of driving the existing political discourse underground. By cracking down on moderate calls for reform, the government also risks the formation of an organised political opposition.

Political discourse will increasingly take place over the internet. Usage of social media in the UAE is the highest in the Arab world and disgruntled university students are already reportedly planning online campaigns to call for political reform.

So far, the UAE’s leaders have used sites such as Facebook to their advantage, cementing their popularity by providing glimpses of their private lives, but social networks have taken on a new potency in the Arab world since the start of the year. While older Emiratis may be used to the slow pace of change in the UAE, the internet generation expect reforms to move much faster.

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