Political activism in the Gulf

The UAEʹs policy of zero tolerance

The repression of political dissidents such as Ahmed Mansoor belies the UAEʹs well-publicised attempts to brand itself as a promoter of tolerance, argues Joe Stork. Yet the West's staunch ally in the Gulf has little to fear in the way of criticism

Wednesday 29 May marks one year since the State Security Chamber of the Federal Appeals Court of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sentenced Ahmed Mansoor to ten years in prison and imposed a fine equivalent to more than a quarter of a million dollars. He was convicted for allegedly insulting "the status and prestige of the UAE", including its rulers, and publishing false reports on social media intending to harm the countryʹs relations with neighbouring countries.

Prior to his arrest in a midnight raid on his home on 20 March 2017, Ahmed Mansoor used to quip that he was "the last man talking" in the UAE, reflecting that over the previous several years the authorities had jailed almost all other Emirati rights activists and their lawyers.

For more than a year, Mansoorʹs whereabouts were unknown. Since the Federal Supreme Court upheld his conviction and sentencing on 31 December 2018, according to people familiar with his situation, he remains in solitary confinement in a 4-metre by 4-metre cell with no bed or water – conditions that led him to undertake a hunger strike in mid-March 2019.

On 7 May, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and six other UN human rights experts condemned this situation, noting that "the poor conditions of his detention in the United Arab Emirates, including prolonged solitary confinement, may constitute torture."

In the weeks before his 2017 arrest, Mansoor had criticised the UAEʹs prosecutions of other activists for speech "crimes" and tweeted about rights violations in Egypt and Yemen. At the time, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs said he was arrested for "inciting hatred and defaming the country online" and promoting "false and shaded" information.

This is the same country whose ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, declared 2019 as the year dedicated to "solidify[ing] the UAE as the global capital of tolerance." When Pope Francis visited in early February as part of an "interfaith" display, Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum proclaimed the UAE would not allow "ideological, cultural and religious bigotry." Obviously, this proclamation does not include tolerance of peaceful dissent.

Political repression in the UAE escalated sharply in 2011, in the wake of Arab uprisings in the region. There were no demonstrations in the streets of Abu Dhabi or Dubai or any other Emirate even though, as one scholar wrote in 2012, "the country has one of the least participatory political systems in the world."

Seeking political enfranchisement

Ahmed Mansoor and a handful of other Emiratis addressed a petition to Sheikh Khalifa, signed by 132 people, asking that all adult Emirati citizens be allowed to vote for the Federal National Council (FNC), not just the fewer than 7,000 enfranchised at the time. They also called for the FNC to be empowered to legislate, not merely discuss legislation proposed by the rulers.

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