UAE’s “Year of Tolerance” at Odds With Continued Human and Political Rights Abuses
Pope Francis’ visit to the United Arab Emirates from February 3-5 is meant to be an event upholding the values and ideals promoted by the UAE’s “Year of Tolerance.” Announced by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan in December 2018, the Year of Tolerance is meant to advance “a decades-long dream of creating a tolerant and cohesive society, open to peoples of varying cultures and religions from around the world.”
A statement from the UAE government’s website says that Dubai’s International Institute for Tolerance “will encourage open dialogue and highlight the honest and peaceful essence of Islam against extremism, fanaticism and intellectual repression.” Although it is important to create a better narrative and global understanding of Islam and Arab nations in the Middle East, the UAE is failing in many aspects to uphold its purported values.
Amnesty International highlighted the UAE’s crackdown on freedom of expression, pointing in particular to jailed human rights defenders. The organization’s Middle East Research Director Lynn Maalouf said that “Since 2011, the authorities have systematically cracked down on their critics, including activists, judges, lawyers, academics, students and journalists by way of arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearance, torture and other-ill-treatment.”
Emirati security forces began viewing human rights advocates as a threat to “national stability” after the start of the Arab Spring protests and ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Ahmed Mansoor is one of many human rights activists who have been imprisoned. Mansoor, based on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, was convicted of spreading “false information, rumours and lies about the UAE, [damaging its] social harmony and unity,” and was sentenced to ten years in prison and fined approximately USD $270,000.
A Reuters article gives information on Project Raven, a “clandestine team that included more than a dozen former U.S. intelligence operatives recruited to help the United Arab Emirates engage in surveillance of other governments, militants and human rights activists critical of the monarchy.” By using an espionage platform called Karma, Raven operatives hacked into the iPhones of hundreds of activists, political leaders, and suspected terrorists. Rori Donaghy, a 25-year old British journalist, was a key target in 2012 because of his various articles that criticized the UAE government’s crackdown on activists.
In addition to the crackdown, a 2017 article by Human Rights Watch outlines how the UAE “arbitrarily detains and forcibly disappears individuals who criticize authorities,...continues to play a leading role in the Saudi-led coalition...in Yemen,” exploits migrant construction workers, and bans representatives from international human rights organizations from visiting.
Contrary to their human, political, and labor rights violations, UAE leadership continues to claim that the country leads in tolerance and respect for a diversity of ideas, cultures, and religions. In an interview with Arabian Business, Sheikh Khalifa discusses the importance of the family and youth in creating a tolerant society: “They need to be...good human beings. Global in their thinking, respecting others and understanding that there are many people in this world with different cultures and different religions. They should respect them, as they want to be respected.” The UAE’s official positions appear surface-level, meant only to create a positive image. Their use of “tolerance” indicates a dynamic in which the Emirati government has the power to choose who they can tolerate, and whose ideas stand too much in opposition to the country’s laws and authorities’ established power.
The seeming disconnect between policy and practice is not unique to the UAE. Saudi Arabia’s efforts to appear progressive by reforming social rights and increasing women’s role in society is at odds with their involvement in Yemen, as well as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The United States, a supposed champion human rights and democracy, helped establish Project Raven which enhanced the UAE’s ability to collect and use information on activists and dissidents, and continues to provide Saudi Arabia with arms that are used in the war in Yemen. Rather than merely building an image of inclusivity and respect for diversity, all countries should be held accountable to create and uphold laws that grant all people political, economic and social rights.