The United Arab Emirates’ ruling families are beginning to be challenged directly by a few brave citizens, some of whom are  even publicly calling for regime change. The unprecedented detention of dozens of political prisoners (along with a marked crackdown on civil society) highlights the government’s heaviest restrictions on free speech and the media in the region. Frustration among the educated class is growing—toward corruption, lavish spending on western-branded museums and universities, lack of transparency, and human rights abuses. Among the less educated (particularly those in the north), there is a widening wealth gap which is leading many to voice their discontent, and although the government embarked on a massive Saudi-style spending splurge in order to appease the national population in the wake of the Arab Spring, it has not been nearly enough—especially as concurrent political reforms have yet to manifest. 

The roots of the UAE’s current opposition movement predate the Arab Spring and can be traced to the summer of 2009 when a number of activists, including university students and bloggers, launched a discussion website entitled [Editor's note: UAEHewar is no longer accessible]. Soon visited by thousands of UAE-based Internet users and featuring hundreds of posts, the site quickly gained a reputation as being the best place to put forward grievances, challenge the authorities and discuss the country’s future. Within weeks, lively debates were taking place on a number of issues—including the ruling families’ growing personal wealth and the sustainability of the UAE’s overseas investments and prestige projects. By January 2010, the website’s most controversial debate had gathered pace: thousands of users accessed posts related to the acquittal of member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family who had been accused of torture and sodomy. Most of the threads touched on the concerns of nationals regarding the application of the rule of law to the ruling families and the broader impact of the verdict on the UAE’s international reputation. Within days, UAE-based visitors to the site were no longer able to gain access, and were greeted with a peculiar “server problem” message that appeared when they tried. 

Unable to block the site outside the Emirates, the website survived well into 2011, with mirror sites used to allow UAE-based users to gain access. Discussions included the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, the lack of a proper parliament, and the shortcomings of the UAE’s rulers. Emboldened by Mubarak’s fall and the demonstrations in Bahrain, the website’s founders (along with many other activists) began circulating petitions in March 2011 which were eventually forwarded to the ruler of Abu Dhabi. One of these (signed by 130 intellectuals) demanded a fully elected parliament and universal suffrage, asking that the UAE work towards becoming a constitutional monarchy committed to human rights and other basic principles. Four of the UAE’s civil society organisations signed the petitions as institutional actors and thus added their weight to the demands. They soon afterward published their own joint statement arguing that  “civil society in the UAE considers that the time has come to ensure the right of political participation of every citizen, with direct elections for a council with full federal oversight and legislative powers,” and lamented “the lack of involvement of citizens to choose their representatives, decades after the establishment of the state.” 

The reaction of the authorities to the petition took many Emirati nationals by surprise, as most had not expected such a heavy handed response. In early April 2011 five men—later referred to collectively as the  “UAE Five”—were taken from their homes seemingly at random from among the signatories. Although the men were eventually convicted of  “publicly insulting the UAE's leaders,” sentenced to three years imprisonment, and then pardoned within 24 hours—one suspects as an effort to portray Abu Dhabi's ruler as being magnanimous—though their names were not cleared of the supposed crime. Soon after their release, the UAE Five immediately resumed their online activities stronger than before. They renewed most of their demands and were quickly followed by thousands of UAE nationals on various social media platforms. By the end of the year, opposition seemed to broaden, and the government faced further criticism for stripping seven Islamist critics, including a judge, of their citizenship. This group—referred to, similarly, as the “UAE Seven”—claimed they were “unjustly targeted for their political views” after having earlier signed a petition which called for an end to “all oppressive measures against advocates of reform in the country” on behalf of an Islamist organisation called the Reform and Social Guidance Association.

The situation continues to deteriorate; a young Emirati national was arrested in March for tweeting about the Arab Spring. He was accused of “damaging national security and social peace” and handed over to a state security court, before being rearrested at a mosque in April. In May, a prominent “stateless” person (better known in the Gulf as bedoun, or those “without”)—one of the original UAE Five and well-known in his own right for his website detailing the plight of the UAE’s stateless population—was arrested, stripped of his residency papers, and deported to Thailand. By the end of July, dozens of activists had been arrested, bringing the total number of political prisoners to 54. These included academics, human rights activists, Islamists, and one ruling family member. The former director of Abu Dhabi’s educational zone, Dr Issa al-Suwaidi, and the former president of the UAE Jurists’ Association, Dr Mohamed al-Mansoori were both arrested along with a number of other prominent lawyers. Interestingly, the 54 detainees represent all seven Emirates; almost all had active Twitter accounts prior to their arrests and represent more or less the full spectrum of the opposition front. Most are now being held without charges and several have reported incidents of torture—some having been beaten or followed by plain clothes security prior to their detainments. One detainee, originally accused of being a member of a terrorist organisation, was subsequently accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood before his official indictment of embezzlement.

With no signs of the current police state strategies will soften—and with little suggestion that opposition demands will quiet—the future of the UAE’s ruling families is thus a little less certain. Tellingly, a recent Reuters report revealed that several UAE students planned to upload videos onto YouTube and Facebook regarding the need for political reform and intended to meet in secret to discuss democracy and how the country’s oil wealth should be spent. Referring to the economic benefits received courtesy of her nationality (but also adding how it was no longer sufficient) one student interviewee stated: “I'm well off. I don't need a revolution because I'm hungry. I want my freedoms, my dignity.” Having provided the journalist with an alias, she explained this was because of her “fear of pursuit by security forces.” Meanwhile, other students refer to the inevitability of the Arab Spring coming to the UAE, explaining  “It's like wave. If the whole world is changing and this wave is coming and taking everyone with it, well, it's somehow going to cross this place as well.”

Christopher Davidson is a reader of Middle East Politics at Durham University. He is the author of several books on the Gulf States including Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success and Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond, and the forthcoming After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.