Trouble in Paradise: How U.S. Ally UAE Crushes Dissent

04/28/2015 07:55 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015

Abu Dhabi -- Backed by an impressively lavish lobbying and PR machine -- more expensive than any other middle eastern country -- the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is eager to show that it's a safe and stable business environment, and a dependable U.S. military ally. "United in Security" with the U.S., declared the UAE state media this week, reminding readers it's the "only Arab country to join the U.S. on six military operations over the last 25 years" (First Gulf war, Afghanistan, Somalia, Kosovo, Libya and ISIL).

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan met with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Defense Secretary Carter in Washington last Monday to discuss, according to him, "new steps to enhance the already deep security between the U.S. and the UAE."

Sheikh Mohammed is a regular visitor to DC, commanding red carpet treatment and access to the highest possible levels of the U.S. government. He is likely to be back in a couple of weeks representing UAE at the Camp David conference of Gulf leaders.

He's also head of the feared state security system, the UAE's Stasi, which regularly suppresses freedom of speech and ruthlessly suffocates civil society voices of those who are critical of the regime. In recent months, the attacks on dissidents have intensified. In November 2014 the UAE cabinet announced a list of 83 "terrorist organizations." These included two American NGOs, the Council on Islamic-American Relations and the Muslim American Society.

Previously tolerated local civil society organizations have been disbanded, including the Association of Teachers and the Association of Jurists. Former heads of the Jurists Association are now political prisoners, including renowned constitutional scholar Dr. Mohammed al Roken. He's one of dozens serving long prison sentences after being convicted in a mass unfair trial in 2013. Reports of torture in custody have intensified in recent years, and only a tiny handful of dissidents are currently in the country and out of jail. These include prominent Human Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor, named this week as a 2015 finalist for the internationally prestigious Martin Ennals Human Rights Defender Award. Nearly all peaceful dissent in the UAE is silenced, both on and offline. Abuse of migrant workers' rights persists, and no labor union is allowed to exist to protect them.

Meeting me in secret this week in the UAE, human rights activists told me there is now a zero tolerance policy for peaceful criticism of the Emirati regime. "It's got so much worse in the last few years," said one. "Ten years ago arrests without warrants or disappearances happened but they were rare. Now they're common." Even relatives of political prisoners have been targeted in recent months, some hit with arbitrary travel bans that prevent them from leaving the country.

They blame Shiekh Mohammed's state security for tampering with official government files holding their ID and other information. They said that dates of birth have been changed so that adults are officially registered as children, or other details modified, making it impossible for them to get drivers licenses and other essential documents. This administrative harassment has sent people into an endless bureaucratic loop, preventing them from getting or renewing passports, applying for school, opening bank accounts, and generally operating normal lives. The denial of a security clearance amounts to a denial of a job. Many activists are unable to support themselves financially, some are sleeping rough.

"It's a soft repression but very effective," one activist told me. "State security basically runs the country, no matter who the official government is. It's unaccountable, omnipotent, and scares everyone."

Families of detainees live in fear of reprisals by the state security apparatus. Three sisters who were summoned to a police station in Abu Dhabi in mid-February have not been heard from since. The three women are sisters of Issa Khalifa al-Suwaidi, a political prisoner convicted with Al Roken and 67 others, who is serving 10 years in jail. These three women are part of a pattern of forced disappearances by the authorities.

Crushing dissent in the UAE is typically done in the name of anti-terrorism. The UAE regime presents a false stability versus democracy binary as justification for its crackdown. Officials claim a modern country has been built in a generation because strict authoritarianism has enabled galloping economic development. They point to the United States as a key part of this boom -- the UAE is America's largest trading partner in the Middle East with a 90 percent growth in trade over the last decade and over 1,000 U.S. companies in the country.

Washington has continued to support the dictatorship politically and militarily, arming it with a vast array of weapons as the repression has intensified. As part of the White House's Countering Violence Extremism initiative, there are plans for a U.S.-UAE social media partnership based in the Emirates, where criticizing the regime on Twitter typically means a long jail sentence. The irony seems lost on Washington, where President Obama has rightfully identified a key problem in the Gulf autocracies as "a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances," and has promised to raise it with the leaders at Camp David next month.

"Those might likely to turn to extremism here are those under pressure from the government, those who living conditions are threatened, those without hope and those not allowed to live normal lives. Repression will create radicalism," said one activist.

President Obama said "America's support for civil society is a matter of national security," but that's not how it seems to dissidents in the UAE. Those I met this week are largely scared into silence, feeling abandoned by Washington and cynical that the U.S. means what it says about protecting is values of free speech.

"It's all talk, American talk, supporting human rights. They never back it up, just keep selling weapons to our government while it puts lawyers in jail," said one Emirati rights activist.

When they meet next month, President Obama should look beyond UAE's fancy PR campaign and ask Sheikh Mohammed why peaceful critics are in jail, why their lawyers are intimidated from representing them and their witnesses harassed, and why the UAE thinks the best way to fight terrorism is with repression.