Early Warning Signs in United Arab Emirates Indicate Troubling Crisis Over Press Freedoms

As the world is further immersed in social and digital media, the rulers of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have become more aggressive in arresting and deporting people for expressing their opinions, as one of the victims of this crackdown, I have learnt how freedom of expression is recently categorised as a crime and threat to the country. The halo effects of the Arab Spring have definitely shaken UAE rulers who previously had taken a less antagonising approach compared to their GCC neighbours but still essentially were always mindful of the powers of sustaining the repressive stance that always has existed. Despite the absence of any coordinated uprisings in their countries, the rulers have decided on a strict regimen of preventive medicine in the hopes of avoiding the cure which could unleash a new democracy movement.

Expressing one’s opinion in private or public has escalated into a punishable offense, with consequences ranging from imprisonment without trial to outright deportation. The latter is the punishment I received for publishing a book that calls attention to the deplorable state of migrant workers in the emirates, who make up some of the most disenfranchised laborers in the region, if not the world. Whereas I was forced to leave the place I have called home for ten years, I am only one of many victims who have suffered similar, even much worse fates. Many intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, university professors and others languish in unknown detention centers, denied their legal rights to a fair trial as well as access to their families, for expressing opinions that either counter official discourses or critically reveal the effects of state policies.

The realm of the permissible in the United Arab Emirates, as in many other authoritarian monarchies, is neither codified nor always clear, and ambiguity is part and parcel of a strategy of silencing and punishing those who risk taking it too far. For journalists, the risks of reporting have expanded beyond scandals involving the numerous members of the ruling family, whether they involve the Al Nahyans, Al Maktoums, or Al Qasimis, to broader, far more politically sensitive, significant matters of immigration and foreign intervention in geopolitical conflicts. Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, the list of topics that cannot be addressed has grown and state security officials in the otherwise placid, stable UAE have since arrested at least 94 people who were accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the Emirati regime.

As the inherent unfairness and corruption in the Emirati legal system received more attention from the international community, the regime’s intolerance of discussions concerning political prisoners intensified. Writing or blogging about political prisoners brought more arrests and deportations for journalists, for journalists, including those native to the UAE. Among those arrested were Emirati reporters Waleed Al Shehhi and Abdullah Al Hadid, along with expatriate colleagues Anas Fouada of MBC Television, Mohammed Ali Mousa of Al Khaleej and Ahmed Jafar who worked with Al Ittihad, the Arabic daily owned by the Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National newspaper where I previously worked. Alongside these journalists, activists who tweeted or blogged on the trials of the “UAE 94” were also targeted. Hitham Jassim and Khalifah Rabia were both arrested and held incommunicado because they criticised the trials on their Twitter accounts. The most recent arrest is of Osama Hussain Al Najjar, who was arrested, tortured and sentenced to three years in prison along with a fine of 500,000 dirhams for writing tweets defending his father, Hussain Al Najjah, who is among the 94 accused of treason.

Reporting on the UAE’s involvement in international affairs has also become increasingly difficult as the regime cracks down on negative press. Of special concern has been the documentation of the Emirati regime’s involvement in funding and even fueling various conflicts in other Arab countries and Africa. In August, the UAE secretly bombed targets in Libya, apparently without the knowledge of their American allies. It has similarly been involved in coups and unrest involving Egypt, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and, of course, Iraq and Syria.

The rulers believe they can carry out these military interventions with the same expectations of secrecy they demand in their domestic affairs. While this small Gulf state begins to play an outsized role – militarily, financially, and diplomatically – in these theaters of unrest, its citizens and expatriate residents find themselves increasingly constrained, with little political voice and no right to offer their opinion in any medium. This is how Iyad El Baghdadi, a popular “Arab Spring” blogger and journalist, landed in trouble in April 2014. El Baghdadi, who was born and raised in the UAE, was detained, imprisoned, and deported. He is unable to return to Palestine, his parents’ birthplace, because of Israel’s occupation and has been in Malaysia since his expulsion.

As with all state affairs, the regime neither consults on nor informs Emirati nationals of its political decisions, such as its various regional interventions that have surfaced in the last few months. Many nationals, however, are concerned about how the once widely admirable image of the Emirates, faulty as it might always have been, is being tarnished. Social media channels percolate and crackle with discussions about how the wealth of the Emirates is now a curse to their poorer Arab neighbors. Many contrast the newer generation of aggressive Emirati rulers with the first president, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who led a mostly peaceful country and fostered diplomacy to end regional conflicts such as the 1990 Gulf War. Sheikh Zayed is remembered for his personal plea to the international community to end sanctions on Iraq after he witnessed the grave illnesses and suffering of malnourished Iraqi children. In contradiction, the current rulers’ policies have contributed to, if not exacerbated, the suffering of people in the region, from Libya to Syria.

This year, the fate of the current president and his succession has been an issue of significant political sensitivity for the regime. In January 2014, regime officials suggested that President Khalifa bin Zayed was was recovering from a stroke, but he has now been absent from the public eye for nearly an entire year. Mohammed bin Zayed, the younger brother and crown prince, appears to be acting as de facto president. In the aftermath of US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent public gaffe—having accused the UAE of financially supporting rebels who went on to form the Islamic State—it was notable that Biden apologized not to President Khalifa, nor to the vice president or prime minister, but instead to Mohammed bin Zayed, whose official position is deputy commander of the armed forces.

Some outside the UAE have tried to fill the information gap on Twitter by spreading seemingly reasonable yet unconfirmed information about the condition of the president, most of which contradicts the state’s version. Of course, this speculation is only enhanced by the state’s continued silence and by the fact that Mohammed bin Zayed has only appeared once in the state-run newspapers to dismiss the rumours. Most of the speculation was disseminated on Twitter by individuals who suggested, but without any solidly confirmed evidence, that an internal coup had occurred and Zayed had arrested his older brother and had taken over the ruling seat. However, no one would risk asking the Crown Prince for any confirmation or evidence to substantiate the public statements. In a couple of examples, these unconfirmed reports suggest the president was intentionally sidelined or, as one example suggests, the Sheikh Khalifa was referred to as an ousted (or former) president.

The documentation of the abuse of migrant workers in the UAE – in numbers that represent the fifth largest migrant worker stocks of any country in the world, according to United Nations estimates last year – also unsettles the ruling elites, because of potential rippling effects on the political economy. Any attempt to raise substantive discussion or investigation on this leads to the quick deportation for a journalist. I am not alone in my expulsion from the country for covering the violence and exploitation – from unsafe and unregulated working conditions, poor housing, and unpaid wages to rape, torture, and murder – with which migrant workers must contend in the UAE. Sean O’Driscoll, a New York Times stringer, was arrested and deported for a story he investigated about the plight of workers at the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi. The UAE also cancelled the publication of the local edition that day in the country so that the public would not have easy access to O’Driscoll’s article. The reporter posted a message on Facebook, as events were developing: “Detained as soon as I arrived in Dubai. Currently being deported as security threat to UAE. A mixture of disappointment and pride.”

A handful of stories describing the efforts of migrant workers to organize and advocate for their rights have made it to the public record, but countless others go unreported. Without exception, those reports are met with the same modus operandi by the regime: arrest and immediate deportation for the journalist. Numerous other journalists, many of whom cover beats that are usually considered as routine parts of a daily newspaper’s coverage, are arrested and deported in silence. A Palestinian colleague was summoned by UAE immigration officials before his visa was about to expire and told it was not being renewed. I have not revealed his identity or other discoverable details because his newspaper has agreed to continue taking his pieces from the Palestinian lands. Another Egyptian reporter for Al Ittihad was expelled without any public notice or attention after Ajman Police found that his stories were published before they had been cleared by their authorities.

There is a massive institutional crisis in the UAE when it comes to credibility and reputation. The UAE’s ruling elites have broadened censorship, prior restraint, and outright suppression, affecting not just individuals but virtually the entire media industry in the country. Compounding this, legal redress is becoming more difficult to obtain as the judiciary is effectively coopted by the pressures of the ruling elite. The UAE is disturbingly keen at compromising severely the credibility of its own media while at the same time willing to reach out to media-friendly and open countries to plant stories that often amount to little more than duplicating commercial propaganda with some noncritical journalistic enhancement. Or, the UAE has finessed its public relations agenda with the objective of competing for positive international press against its rival neighbor (Qatar), and in not so subtle ways either, which truly should invite a sharper investigatory eye from journalists. Foreign Journalists also come to the UAE Already tantalized by a hyper capitalist reality, espousing views that support the status quo there.

Regardless of nationalistic or ideological stances, a country’s politics do line up conveniently in ways that readily can tamp down the nuances of justifiable skepticism, even as they arise from a nation’s or leader’s natural critics who always disagree with prevailing geopolitical positions.

One can easily identify a reporter who likely has been coopted to some degree, some more visibly than others, and it seems to be the norm in a society that has taken a benign, if not apathetic, attitude toward the value and inputs of critical media literacy. The truth is that few citizens in the country care to read or consider their local media as serious informational sources. The ruling elites know this well, as they reach out to external media channels who are trusted and reputable but who also are tempted and tantalized by the idea of carrying reports from the UAE without vetting them as rigorously and as critically as they should for accurate context and for fair representation of actual accounts. All of these questions, of course, demand ex post scrutiny and one hopes that with journalists courageous enough to bring these circumstances to light, others will be emboldened to broaden their own investigative work.