The UAE. A place famous for tax-free shopping, stunning feats of construction and beautiful beaches. So much so that one million Britons visit each year. Scratch beneath the aesthetics of opulent Dubai however, and a much darker story begins to emerge.
In the past, the rulers have distributed wealth amongst their citizens in exchange for political acquiescence. Following the advent of the Arab Spring, this has begun to unravel as the lack of democratic institutions has become clear. Of course, when the indigenous population makes up less than 10% of the population it is a little easier to ignore or suppress any whispers for democratic reform.
Last year, the case of the UAE 5 gained some traction in the West as five individuals were prosecuted for undermining state security after calling for increased democratic accountability in their country. After the international community's gaze fleetingly turned towards the UAE, the five were granted pardons and the focus swiftly moved onto other matters.
Now our attention must turn back towards the UAE. In the past months arrests by the security forces have been spreading, best exemplified by the case of the UAE 7. Like the five before them, these seven individuals became disillusioned with the democratic falsity of the Federal National Council. Elections in 2006 exposed the farcical nature of this pseudo-democratic body, where half of the forty seats on offer were elected by a few thousand handpicked citizens chosen by the authorities.
Taking to social media sites, the seven men began to call for democratic reform in the shape of a Federal National Council that possessed full jurisdiction over the law making process with the body being fairly elected by universal suffrage. After organising a petition calling for this the seven were stripped of their citizenships without any legal process being carried out by the authorities.
This took place at the end of 2011 and until recently the seven have been suffering the kind of state anonymity usually associated with a Hollywood film. Unable to access bank accounts, lacking a license to drive their cars and unable to travel because their passports have been confiscated, the group have been cut off from society and essentially deleted by the state.
Having returned only last week from visiting the UAE, I was able to gain some insight into the dire situation these men have been living in. The sad consequence of their situation has meant some have not seen their young children in years or have lost businesses, all as a result of having called for a reasonable dialogue with the authorities.
Whilst in the UAE, I learnt about the latest shocking development in this case. The seven have now been detained in custody by the security services since 9 April. In that time there have been no charges brought against them by the state. The authorities have, however, demanded that the seven seek another nationality immediately or face 'dire consequences'. The men have, quite rightly, refused as their citizenship revocation did not involve a trial nor involve any of the legal processes set out by the UAE constitution. Quite what those 'dire consequences' entail is yet to become clear.
If this was not enough to demonstrate the disregard with which the authorities are treating the law, the arrests have been spreading.
Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qasimi, cousin of the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, has been arrested for
supporting the call for democratic reform via Twitter. When he was arrested his whereabouts were unknown for the proceeding 24 hours, before he was transferred to the home of Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi, the ruler of the Emirate. Negotiations are ongoing regarding Sultan's potential extradition to Abu Dhabi, all of this taking place outside the realm of a judiciary system.
Running alongside this case, is the one of Judge Ahmad Za'abi. Za'abi is a retired judge who is respected throughout the UAE for his knowledge of the legal system. Indeed, since his retirement he has taught at Sharjah University in law. Recently, he was arrested whilst in the presence of Ahmed al-Suweidi (one of the UAE 7), having demanded the security forces produce a warrant for the arrest of al-Suweidi.
Za'abi was then imprisoned for two weeks before a court ruled he must be released. Za'abi was not released, at the request of the security services, and his current whereabouts remain unknown. A particularly disturbing story in light of the man's standing amongst the legal community in the UAE.
Combine this with the hundreds of individuals who have either lost their job or, more commonly, had their salaries witheld for supporting calls for democratic reform and a sufficiently grim picture is completed.
So, where do we go from here? Well, the lawyer representing the seven, Mohammed al-Roken, appears to be taking a reasonable line. He is working hard to bring the case to the courts of the UAE, demanding that the legal process is respected.
The international community must stand up and be counted. We all must demand that the rule of law is respected in the UAE and that legal processes are what govern the fate of not only these men, but all those who are calling for democratic reform.
Finally, consider the requests of those at hand. They want to elect a legislative body that has jurisdiction over the law making process in their country. They do not want regime change. They want to protect the future of their country. Surely the rulers of the UAE will abandon the naivety that has plagued so many of the Middle Eastern autocrats and realise that unless they heed these calls their futures are doomed.
If you are one of the million Brits who will visit the UAE this year, think about this as you are seduced by the Lionel Richie-led dancing water fountain in Dubai. Think about it and realise that we as human beings have a collective responsibility to demand that each and every one of us are treated equally no matter the tax free rewards on offer.
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