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Blogger Trial Will Test UAE's Approach to Dissent

Lenient verdicts expected as Emirates authorities appear more assured of maintaining stability.
By William Shaw

Analysts say five bloggers detained in the United Arab Emirates, UAE, are likely to receive clemency when a verdict is announced at the end of their trial this weekend, in a sign of increasing confidence among officials that they will avoid the kind of unrest seen in other Arab states.

On November 27, the supreme court in Abu Dhabi is due to announce its verdict on the five, who have been detained since April on charges of “publicly insulting” top UAE officials by calling for political reform on an internet forum.

Experts note that when Fahad Salim Dalk, Nasser bin Ghaith, Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Mansur were arrested, it was shortly after the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, at a time when the UAE feared for its own stability.

Mass protests failed to materialise, however, and the case has become increasingly embarrassing to the federation of seven monarchies, which would rather be known for their wealth and commerce than for locking up dissidents.

The accused have gone on hunger strike and have been dubbed “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International in London.

Amnesty International researcher Drewery Dyke says the consensus view is that at least four of the men will be released after their trial.

According to Taufiq Rahim, a political analyst in Dubai, the mood in the UAE is much less sensitive than in April, the authorities are more confident, and harsh sentences now seem “highly unlikely”.

“The government sees the population… is comfortable with the direction of the country,” he told IWPR. “The people are very supportive of the progressive political transformation that the rulers themselves have chosen.”

These measures have included an increase in the number of voters eligible to elect the Federal National Council to 129,000, although this still only accounts for around 12 per cent of UAE citizens.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch, HRW, has been closely following the trial, and has observed a gradual change in the atmosphere surrounding it. Samer Muscati, a researcher with HRW, said that in the early stages, well-organised demonstrations were held outside the courtroom, websites and blogs were used to discredit the defendants, and regime supporters called for the execution of one of them, Ahmed Mansur, whom they accused of being a traitor. Mansur faces additional charges of calling for protests and incitement.

But the smear campaigns appear to have died down, some monitoring of the hearings – were initially closed to outside scrutiny – has been allowed, and lawyers have been given greater access to their clients, Muscati said. In addition, more sympathetic posts about the detainees have appeared online.

Nonetheless, rights workers remain highly concerned about the case, which Dyke says has had an “almighty chilling effect” on opposition in the UAE.

In a statement issued from prison, the five said the case had transformed the UAE from an oasis of stability into “something like a police state”.

Wealth from trade and oil, of which the UAE has the world’s sixth largest reserves, have helped create a stable environment.

Theodore Karasik, research director at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, says the authorities in UAE have responded cannily to turbulence elsewhere in the Middle East by raising wages and benefits and speeding up development.

“The likelihood of instability is extremely low to non-existent,” Karasik said.

Observers say that for the West, the UAE is far too important an ally in terms of security and trade for serious diplomatic pressure to be applied on rights issues. Karasik doubts that Emirates officials would pay much attention to outside pressure anyway.

Others say it may be premature to conclude that the Emirates are immune to unrest.

Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University, said that while citizens of the richest emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are prosperous and have little incentive to disrupt the status quo, the same is not true of the other five smaller monarchies – Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Qaiwain.

“The five northern emirates are poorer and never had oil, and rely on handouts from Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” he said. “There are lots of disaffected youth in the north, and movements have been trying to form with social media.”

In addition, the UAE is home to thousands of stateless people from countries such as Yemen, who have never been granted passports. “They're a relative hotbed of opposition,” Davidson said.

Some commentators argue that preventing people from airing grievances and instead allowing dissent to smoulder could be counterproductive.

“It’s a fallacy that increased repression actually guarantees security – the reverse is true,” Muscati said. “We have seen this across the region.”

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All five defendants were sentenced to jail terms on November 28 - Mansur to three years, and the others two years, with no right of appeal. The following day, however, they were all pardoned by Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the emir of Abu Dhabi and president of UAE. 

William Shaw is an IWPR editorial intern in London.

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