UAE at 40: Beyond the Bubble of Dubai

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is often associated with Dubai, billed as the financial and liberal capital of the Gulf. But behind this bright facade lies a shaky national identity, a rocky relationship with neighbouring Iran, and a long term political and less talked about military alliance with the US.

In preparation for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the UAE’s founding on December 2, the current president and emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan ordered pay rises of up to 45 percent for all federal government employees and granted children of Emirati women married to foreigners theright to apply for citizenship, a move that is quite rare and seemingly progressive in the Gulf region.

On the other hand, during the same period five Emirati activists have been sentenced to three years in prison on charges of publicly insulting the country’s rulers and disrupting public order after a five-month-long trial, which included hunger strikes by the accused.

These two simple events in this month illustrate the contradictory nature of the country – on the surface, it presents a ‘modern’ liberal cosmopolitan face, while underneath, there exists a strict system of control against any demands for change.

Geopolitically, however, the UAE has a more coherent foreign policy. It has firmly aligned itself with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in working to contain the spread of the Arab Spring across their borders — particularly by sending forces to crush the Bahraini protests as part of the Peninsula Shield Force. It is also an unwavering ally of Western powers, taking stances that represent Western interests more than those of its neighbors in the region.

This theme of contradictory duality is at the forefront of the UAE’s identity struggle — domestically and in its foreign policy.

The radical change

From 1971 until the beginning of the 21st century, the UAE radically transformed from a small, mostly homogeneous, community to an international urban hub, where the non-native population dwarfed the number of locals by a magnitude of more than three. Profits from the development and export of oil allowed the country to rapidly urbanize and diversify. But by 2009 natural resource exports still accounted for 85 percent of the UAE’s economy.

Policies by the leadership, particularly in Dubai, allowed the country to link itself into the global financial market, becoming a major player beginning in the 1990s. Yet, the effect on the indigenous Emirate cultural identity has been hugely detrimental. The Dubai model of development and high-throttle globalization was both hailed and criticized for its impact on the country.

Sultan al-Qassemi, a renowned political commentator, noted this recently in an article for Al Arabiya. His concluding point underscores the duality that the country suffers from: “On the one hand, urbanization may turn out to be, as many fear, the fire that is slowly eating up Emirati culture, leaving many of us helpless to stop it and wondering what will be left to salvage. On the other hand, it may be the Emirati culture’s best chance of survival in a globalized world.”

Furthermore, going for globalization has established a socially paradoxical environment in the country. Culturally speaking, the UAE has moments of extreme conservatism and liberalism as it tries to reconcile between its role as a cosmopolitan hub and its own traditional identity. Sex and nudity, for example, are considered taboo, resulting in questionable censorship, yet sex tourism involving foreign women and directed at foreign businessmen is rife.

Due to its small population, the country has relied heavily on the importation of expatriate labor, which constitutes more than 90 percent of the work force. This relationship has been rife with abuse, mainly towards South Asians, as ethnic origin plays into forms of job and salary discrimination.

Construction workers, in particular, are subjected to severe abuse, as noted in a Human Rights Watch report in 2006. With the international spotlight on the country, the UAE did make some changes to its labor laws and allowed the formation of a few rudimentary unions; however, for most NGOs, the UAE is far from being a fair and free place for migrant workers.

The 2008 financial collapse hit the UAE hard, and ground zero of the earthquake was Dubai. Prior to this, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was so confident of economic growth that he was quoted as saying that by 2015, Dubai will be “an Arab city of global significance, rivaling Cordoba and Baghdad.” Dubai World, a massive conglomerate linked to the ruling Al Maktoum family, that represented the pinnacle of the Dubai development model was at the center of the fallout.

The collapse of the financial market, and subsequently the real estate market, shattered the sheikhs’ dreams. When the dust settled, Abu Dhabi, which followed a more gradual form of development, bought off Dubai’s massive debt. Interestingly, one of Abu Dhabi’s first moves was to cap Dubai’s trade with Iran — the UAE’s biggest re-export partner accounting for 17 percent of the total re-export market.

The geopolitics of the UAE

Since its independence from the British, the UAE has had an intermittently rocky relationship with its neighbors.

During the mid-1950s, Abu Dhabi had territorial disputes with Oman over areas in the south of the emirate that were not settled until after the British arrived. The border with Oman has yet to be settled, but an agreement was reached in 1999 to delineate the borders. Last January, Oman uncovered a spy network that it says is linked to the UAE, although the latter denies any connection. Some commentators have mused that the spy network may be related to Oman’s warm relationship with Iran.

As for Saudi Arabia, an agreement to settle a border dispute was reached in 1964, but it has not been ratified by the UAE nor recognized by Saudi Arabia. Like other Gulf countries, the UAE has always struggled against the influence of Saudi Arabia — politically, culturally, and socially.

On the other hand, the UAE has generally been aligned with the Saudis and other Gulf countries on a number of issues: it was one of the founders of the GCC and, more recently, whole-heartedly joined the Peninsula Shield Force intervention in Bahrain. Also, the UAE has worked with its Gulf neighbors in trying to contain and direct the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

As for its Iranian neighbor across the Gulf, antagonism has marred relations ever since the British departed in 1971. Iranian forces quickly claimed ownership of three islands between the UAE and Iran: Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb. The British seemingly promised both Iran and the UAE ownership over the islands and it remains a source of contention and ill-will between the two countries to this day.

Even though Iran is a major economic hub for the Emirates, the main rulers of the UAE have been concerned by its growth in the post-Iraq War environment and have slowly tried to cater to some of the economic sanctions placed on the Iranian regime. Furthermore, cable documents released by WikiLeaks have revealed that UAE officials have privately prodded the Americans to consider invading Iran over its nuclear program.

On a grander scale, the UAE is a staunch ally of the West and actively promotes their interests in the region. For example, the UAE has taken action against the so-called “resistance bloc,” who are linked loosely to Iran, by expelling Lebanese Shia and Palestinians from Gaza in 2010.

Meanwhile, the UAE has begun a behind-the-scenes normalization process with Israel, whether by meeting with Israeli politicians, or allowing Israeli products into the country, among other actions.

When the Mossad assassinated a Hamas official in Dubai, the UAE authorities were not so much outraged about the assassination as they were by it taking place in one of their star cities.

Also in service of the West — and the United States, in particular — the UAE and Jordan provided limited military support in Afghanistan in 2001. It also strongly supported the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, and has signaled its willingness to host an American missile defense shield in the area. This year, the UAE has announced that it would like to be the first Arab country to host a ‘NATO embassy.’

Additionally, the UAE is a major importer of weapons from the West — ranking as one of the top five major arms importers between 2005 and 2009. This past November, it started negotiating a major deal with the US for precision-guided bombs, including ‘bunker busters.’ The Emirates is also an active participant, along with its Western allies, in military action in Somalia and along its coast.

Perhaps the most powerful indication of the UAE’s close alliance with the West is its relationship with Erik Prince and his mercenary firm, Xe (formerly known as Blackwater). In May, news broke that Erik Prince has been tapped by the ruling families in the UAE to set up a ‘desert force’ composed of 800-some foreign fighters. The contract between the private military firm and the UAE has recently been leaked.

Dissent in the UAE

The Emirati sheikhs’ policy choices, however, have not been completely supported by the local population. Vocalizing dissent has been a rare phenomenon due to a combination of a comprehensive social service and benefits provided by the government, and gradual economic and social liberalization. But on the political front, the UAE leadership is quick to crackdown on any threat.

Last year, a public spate occurred between the UAE and the Canadian firm, Research-in-Motion, over Blackberry’s encryption system. For the UAE government, it felt that the Blackberry phone was a threat because it could be used to organize protests.

Throughout the years, any public criticism has been met quickly with jail sentences. Last spring, a number of activists and academics have been arrested for calling for economic and political reforms. This was followed by a crackdown on civil society groups in the country over their support for reform. According to Sultan Al Qassemi, the crackdown on the petition and other civil society groups stems from a fear that it would allow a resurgence of a Gulf Muslim Brotherhood.

The case of five individuals who created and signed a petition for reform have been on-going for seven months. The verdict came out at the end of November and a sentence of up to three years in prison was served for each.

UAE: Where to next?

The celebrations for its 40th anniversary came and went with much pomp. Fireworks, balloons, parades, and music were abundant. A long weekend and pay raises were granted and some progress was made on women’s rights.

However, the narrative above is that of mainly two emirates that have directed an entire country — economically, socially, and politically — with still undetermined costs that continue to take their toll on the indigenous culture and soul of the Emirates.

So far, the leaders of the UAE have placed their eggs mainly in a Western basket and hope that such a relationship will help them maintain their hold in these volatile times. The creation of a foreign legion, the widening crackdown on small pockets of dissent, and the country’s geopolitical alliances are all intended to help the UAE’s rulers maintain the status quo.

The voice of the Emiratis themselves has yet to be heard, or completely understood, when analyzing the country. Even in Dubai, with its cosmopolitan allure, Emiratis and the expats rarely mix. Few platforms exist where the locals can articulate their own views. But as the regional uprisings continue to spread and local Emirati activists become more confident about voicing their concerns, the next forty years will surely be interesting to follow.

The formation of the UAE

The UAE is officially defined as a federal presidential system with an elective constitutional monarchy based on the 1971 Constitution. In theory, the president is supposed to be agreed upon by the emirs of the constituent emirates of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain. In practice, however, the position of the president has been in the hands of the largest emirate, Abu Dhabi, beginning with Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who became ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966 and president of the UAE in 1971 until his death in 2004.

His son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan took up the position as the second president of the Emirates. The vice president and prime minister position was given to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, also the absolute monarch of Dubai. The latter’s appointment came after the death of his elder brother Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum in January, 2006.

The emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the real centers of powers in the country. The history of the UAE is dominated by the history of these two emirates.

Prior to the discovery of major oil reserves in the 1960s, modern-day UAE was composed of a number of sheikhdoms along the Gulf that were under the influence of the Ottoman Empire prior to the 16th century. These sheikhdoms were important port centers — along with Oman — that facilitated shipping and trade eastward to India and to the coast of East Africa.

During the 16th century, the territories were penetrated and controlled by European colonial powers, first Portugal — which had expanded greatly along the Indian Ocean — followed by the United Kingdom in the 17th century. For the British, the area was notoriously known as the “Pirate Coast,” due to it being a hub for pirates and raiders against British trade in India.

Various naval military campaigns were initiated, leading to the signing of a treaty in 1853 between the British and the sheikhs of the area that established the Trucial Sheikhdoms. The ties became closer in 1892 with the signing of another treaty that essentially monopolized British colonial control and influence.

The Emirates’ status as a British “protectorate” continued well into the 20th century, until the discovery of oil in the 1960s. Oil exports began in 1962 from Abu Dhabi, with Dubai following suit in 1969.

This led to three major changes in what later became the UAE. Pearl diving, the primary source of income and employment for most of the people along the coast, was gutted with the discovery of oil and the creation of synthesized pearls.

Secondly, oil exploitation gradually fell into the hands of the Americans, signalling the beginning of American influence in the country. Finally, the Trucial States Council, predecessor to the UAE, was established by the various sheikhs in order to coordinate development and investments flowing from the growing oil profits.

When the British announced the end of its protectorate system in 1968 — reaffirmed again in May 1971 — nine sheikhdoms, including Bahrain and Qatar, began discussing unification.

The first two emirates to push forward with unification were Dubai and Abu Dhabi, both of which wrote up the terms of the constitution together and then went to the other sheikhdoms to convince them to join. A day after the treaty with Britain ended, on December 2, six of the sheikhdoms agreed to join together and the UAE was formed (Ras al-Khaimah joined in 1972).

All the emirates have a degree of autonomy in terms of how their rulers run their allocated territory. Yet, the major decisions are in the hands of rulers of Abu Dhabi.