THE BLOG
08/26/2015 01:49 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2016

What the West Should Understand About Human Rights in the Emirates

Henglein and Steets via Getty Images

Human rights observers have recently gone on the offensive against the United Arab Emirates again. This time it was for arresting 41 Islamists who were suspected of "carrying out terrorist attacks on UAE territories" and "attempting to establish a caliphate." The authorities in the Emirates produced evidence that the group was linked to Takfiri ideology, was in possession of guns and explosives, and had been in touch with militant groups abroad. The human rights observers did not produce any evidence that would help establish the group's innocence but they did produce a statement that the arrests "cemented the UAE's reputation as a serious abuser of basic human rights."

Human rights have been a curious case when it comes to the UAE and the other Gulf Arab states for quite some time. The most widely reported concerns in the Emirates have had to do with workers in Dubai, the UAE's second city. The economic miracle of the city would not be possible, the story goes, without the hard work of a huge number of poorly paid workers from the Indian Subcontinent. This line is not without its truth but it warrants a more rigorous and, frankly, dispassionate acknowledgment of the fact that a large majority of these workers, driven by poor economic conditions in their home countries and the knowledge that they can earn more for their work in the Emirates, are contracted and understand the terms of their contracts before leaving their nations of origin.

We should also remember that the skyline of Manhattan was not raised without a fair number of immigrant workers who, living in squalid conditions on New York's Lower East Side, worked brutal hours and in terrible conditions. The conditions of workers who realized the vision of the world's current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, were considerably better than those who built the Empire State at great cost including the loss of life.

Times are different, to be sure, and there are certainly questions that must be raised about the conditions of foreign workers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi but we must steer clear of the double standard of lionizing the construction of Manhattan while demonizing the construction of Dubai. And we must give the Emirates the benefit of the doubt that questions are being asked and profound steps forward have been taken in a remarkably short period of time. The hard fact is that the central part of any solution to the plight of desperate Pakistani, Indian and other workers who flock to the Emirates has to consist of economic improvements in their countries of origin.

Another concern has to do with the freedom of the press in the Emirates. Human rights groups condemned the Emirati government in 2007 for shutting down the operations of Geo News and ARY One, two Pakistani channels. But few of these groups reported the fact that their closure was the result of a request from Pakistan's military government at the time headed by General Pervez Musharraf essentially making the issue a diplomatic one between Pakistan and the Emirates.

These human rights organizations would also do well to note that many media organizations including Bloomberg Television, CNN International, BBC World News and The Financial Times report freely from Dubai Media City. Yes, there is a lack of criticism of the ruling families in the UAE media but this must also be understood within a cultural context. The UAE is a fundamentally tribal bedouin society with a small local population who, as a matter of tradition, have access to the royal families (read tribal leaders). The system of attending a majlis (sitting) with tribal elders has been at work in the Arabian peninsula for centuries if not millennia. In these sittings, concerns are voiced to the leaders in the fashion that Emirati men and women prefer to voice their concerns: privately and behind closed doors. This might change over time but, as with all changes in the Gulf states, the local population will make these changes in their own time and at their own pace.

The positive elements of the UAE's development have been underreported: the huge investment in an ambitious cultural development on Saadiyat Island; the presence of Masdar City, a low-carbon, low waste city that relies entirely on renewable energy; the construction of one of the worlds most iconic skylines crowned by the tallest building on earth. But the focus has recently been squarely on the arrest of the 41 Islamists. So let's try to understand these arrests that "cement the UAE's reputation as a serious abuser of human rights."

The idea of establishing an Islamist caliphate is odious to the Emirates which is why the country has been involved in an air campaign agains DAESH (IS) in Iraq and a military campaign against Islamists in Libya. To understand this we have to remember that the fight against DAESH and the forces that inspire it is not just a strategic one for the UAE as it is for the Emirates' closest ally, the United States. As a liberal, inclusive Arab nation, the people of the Emirates view DAESH as a threat to their way of life.

Most recently the Emirati air and ground campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen has been painted as an all-out invasion of a neighboring Arab state as opposed to the reality on the ground: that a rebel militia, in blatant violation of all conventions governing nation states, unseated the internationally recognized government of Yemen and took control of the capital and Yemeni military equipment. The UAE has sent in air and ground troops, and has lost troops in this Saudi-led operation, because of the fact that the Emirates, its Arab allies and the world community cannot condone such a threat to world order. Also the fact that Yemen, with its extensive and open sea border would become a strategic nightmare if taken over by militants to say nothing of the fact that the Houthis were on the brink of taking over major Yemeni military assets including air force assets and I cannot, in my readings of history, find a single example of a rouge militia in command of an air force. The prospects were frightening.

These conflicts that the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council nations are involved in have been depicted by Western media as a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia groups in the Middle East. This depiction is flawed. The UAE has a well-integrated Shia community. Saudi Arabia has a sizable Shia minority as do the other Arab Gulf states. The overwhelming majority of the Shia populations in these countries consider themselves Emirati, Saudi, Kuwaiti etc and take pride in their Arab and national identity. The conflict would be more accurately represented as one between Arab states attempting to maintain their stability and prosperity in the face of Iran, one of the largest state-sponsors of terror in the world, meddling in Arab affairs through direct support of terrorist organizations or dictators such as Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. It says a lot about the UAE that, despite decades of Iranian occupation of three Emirati islands in the Gulf, it has only pursued peaceful action by asking the case to be referred to the International Court of Justice so that it may be resolved in accordance with the UN Charter. Iran has vehemently resisted this time and again.

Finally, let's not forget that there is immense history in the Arab World that will play a role in informing the actions of Arab nations today. Why Emirati soldiers would fight and die to defend the legitimacy of Yemen against Iranian interference by taking part in a Saudi-led Arab coalition cannot be understood without understanding the centrality of the concept of Arab unity to Arab identity. This intense, and at times very dark, recent history requires an understanding of figures as diverse as Salah Jadid, Michel Aflaq, Pierre Gemayel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saad Zaghloul, Ibn Saud, King Faisal, Zayed Al-Nahyan, Kamal Jumblatt...the list goes on and the strands of thoughts are as diverse as the personalities themselves. But the underlying commonality is an Arab identity that is built on an arid land that gave birth to civilization itself. Let's not forget that the Middle East was once home to the worlds tallest buildings millennia before the Burj Khalifa, that it was the region where the first orchestras came into existence as described in the Old Testament millennia before Saadiyat Island was envisioned, that it was the area where the first cities were built and the first written alphabet was developed. For many Arabs, the UAE, as the only functioning federation of Arab states, represented the best hope that the Arab World would once again host great orchestras, the most impressive towers, awe-inspiring skylines and great libraries. This hope has not been misplaced and for that the UAE deserves credit.

To be clear, the UAE is not a paradise. Like the United States, the Emirates have a long way to go. There are questions to ask and critiques to be made and it is for the Emiratis to have that discussion. As for the arrest of those 41 Islamists, we can and should ask our legitimate human rights-related questions but lets at least represent the facts for what they honestly are: these Islamists are not Enlightenment-style champions campaigning for the human right to free speech.

They are, if proven guilty, dangerous extremists who cling to a violent worldview and the perilous idea of the establishment of a "caliphate" in the place of modern nation-states. Their spiritual brothers in DAESH have already succeeded in wreaking considerable havoc on countless civilians in other Arab states. The United Arab Emirates is giving these individuals a chance at a trial in a court of law before prosecuting them in any way. This is a courtesy that their spiritual brethren have not extended to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children that they continue to brutally terrorize in Iraq and Syria.