If you’ve turned on a television in the past month, you’ve probably seen an advertisement for Emirates Airlines. Smiling passengers eat luxury foods, beautiful stewardesses play with toddlers and giggling children watch personal televisions. Come to the United Arab Emirates, it suggests, and let your worries disappear.
For professor Andrew Ross of New York University, his worries began at the terminal. Waiting at JFK Airport to fly to NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, he received word that he had been barred from entering the country because of “security concerns.”
Such “security concerns,” apparently a euphemism for Ross’s unkind remarks regarding the UAE’s exploitation of migrant construction workers, have increasingly defined the UAE’s relationship with its critics in recent years. Despite its attempts at disseminating a liberal and progressive image, the UAE has stepped up efforts to silence all dissent and criticism of the government, often justifying its oppressive measures as necessary to promote security and combat terrorism.
The UAE has touted its international activities in the fight against terrorism. Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba has become something of a favorite in national security circles in Washington, where he has participated in Pentagon strategy meetings at the invitation of the Defense Policy Board, a committee that advises the secretary of defense on major defense policy issues. Speaking about U.S.-UAE cooperation on the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Otaiba told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, “You can’t do this without us, and we can’t do this without you.” During President Barack Obama’s remarks at the Countering Violent Extremism Summit in February 2015, he announced that the United States would be working with the UAE to create a digital communications hub to counter terrorist propaganda. The UAE Embassy publicized the launch of the Sawab Center in July, and in President Obama’s remarks at the U.N. General Assembly last month on countering violent extremism, he recognized the center for “exposing ISIL for what it is.”
Much less attention has been paid to the UAE’s passage of several laws that ostensibly aim to counter domestic extremism. Rather than clamping down on extremists, the government has largely used these laws to detain its critics with impunity.
The UAE’s 2014 law on combating terrorism prescribes lengthy prison terms for broadly defined terrorist acts. The law defines a “terrorist result” as inciting fear among a group of people or “opposing the country” without requiring intent to cause death or injury. It likewise prescribes the death penalty or life in prison for anyone who commits an action that prejudices national unity. UAE authorities sentenced Osama al-Najjer, the son of a UAE political prisoner, to three years in prison under the anti-terrorism law after he called for an investigation into credible allegations of torture at facilities where his father was being held.
A 2012 cybercrimes law offers punishments for equally vague crimes, such as publishing information online that the government interprets as damaging to “national unity or social peace” or communicating with poorly defined “unauthorized groups.” It similarly criminalizes the publication of any materials that intend to “make sarcasm or damage the reputation” of the state or its rulers. The government defines many of the violations laid out under the law as “crimes against state security.”
Just this February, UAE security forces disappeared the sisters of a political prisoner for three months after they spoke out about their brother’s case on Twitter. Authorities have charged several other Emiratis under the cybercrimes law for sharing support for prisoners of conscience convicted in a 2013 mass trial. A UAE court additionally sentenced two Emiratis to five years in prison in 2014 for criticizing the state security services on Twitter. Far from inciting violence, these people simply sought to raise awareness of governmental abuses.
Few people either outside or within the UAE speak about the persecution of activists in the country. This stems from fear of government reprisals but also partly from the secrecy surrounding the security services: Emirati authorities often detain people for months without charge and without notifying their relatives.
More than two months ago, on Aug. 18, for instance, security forces disappeared prominent academic Nasser bin Ghaith allegedly in relation to his Twitter activity. He has not been seen or heard from since. And in 2012 and 2013, the UAE rounded up 94 activists who were later tried on charges of “inciting to overthrow the ruling system.” Security forces held many of the detainees incommunicado in the intervening months, and many reported they were tortured while in detention.
The repression does not end with an activist’s release from prison. UAE authorities detained Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent human rights activist, in 2011 for petitioning the president for reform. Though the government pardoned him by the end of the year, he remains under a travel ban. Earlier this month, the UAE had the opportunity to allow Mansoor to travel to Geneva to accept the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders. Despite numerous calls for the government to lift his travel ban, Mansoor was forced to accept the award via Skype. The impunity with which the security services regularly act has instilled a healthy dose of fear in many of the nation’s erstwhile activists.
These acts of oppression don’t solely affect UAE citizens. Security forces arrested an American engineer in February 2015 after he complained about his company’s sick leave policy on Facebook. Authorities additionally imprisoned American comedian Shezanne Cassim for nine months after he posted a video that made fun of Dubai teenagers online, accusing him of endangering national security. The UAE has quietly been holding two American citizens, Kamal al-Darat and Mohammed al-Darat, for more than a year without charge, ostensibly because of security concerns.
The UAE must stop couching its restrictions on free speech and expression in the language of national security and fighting terrorism. As ordinary citizens sit in prison in the UAE, the U.S. government must make it clear that silencing and criminalizing expression are not legitimate aspects of counterterrorism strategy.
Rather, as Obama stated in his remarks on countering violent extremism, “When dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.” By pursuing its current policies, the UAE may simply be adding more fuel to the fire.