UAE and Human Rights: A case of ‘treat them mean, keep them keen’?

By: Suzanne Noori

‘Look around you and be grateful’ is often heard in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in response to any hint of criticism amongst its locals, who have seen their country transform from endless desert dunes to one of today’s most fashionable destinations. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, then the UAE certainly was; like Rome, the UAE has multiple citizenships existing within its borders. The UAE represents an area that problematizes the concept of citizenship for the ruling family as well as their subjects.

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Although there is little sign of a revolt happening in this country, which is still taking down its decorations for its 40th year celebrations, the Arab Spring has brought to the forefront the issue of human rights, especially those pertaining to citizenship in the UAE.

As Egyptians celebrated their revolution, the UAE detained and later sentenced five local political activists between two to three years imprisonment on security related charges, which were later dropped after the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan pardoned the activists. Despite the pardoning, the men are still faced with a number of restrictions and have not been able to retain passports.

For those that thought the President’s pardoning was to be taken as a sign that the country was moving towards reform, the stripping of six locals following their calls for political reform of their citizenship and heightened restrictions on Non Government Organisations at the end of 2011, served as a reality check.

Locals joining the movement for better rights may be a new phenomenon in the UAE, but the authorities have long heard demands for better treatment made by the expatriate community which makes up almost 90 percent of its total population. This is the same population that the UAE, like others in the Gulf Cooperation Council, relies heavily upon for its financial wealth and economic stability in its retail, real estate and tourism sectors. Are we asserting that recognizing the human resource effects of the expatriate population produces an incentive to grant them some sort of increases status or citizenship? Yes i assert this below where i start with ‘there is little doubt’ or does that need to be made clearer here too?

A national majority who at best will never gain citizenship, buy property in their name (with Dubai as an exception) or be able to stay in the country without the sponsorship of a local or a work permit as well as constantly trying to avoid the possibility of deportation or imprisonment on ‘offense’ charges ranging from insulting religion, consuming alcohol or offending people by way of any public display of affection.

Whereas, at worst, a resident in the UAE will have their passports confiscated upon arrival, live in camps, work excessive hours under poor conditions for a miserable wage, if paid at all. This is the harsh realities of migrant workers, who make up 80 percent of the total UAE expatriate population. A recent study carried out by the UAE University found that it was common for workers to experience depression, and thoughts of self-harm. In the same year, the Jakarta Post reported that 204 migrant workers were sent home by the Malaysian Consulate General’s office after complaints from its citizens of sexual harassment and physical abuse at the hands of their keepers.

There is little doubt that the UAE heavily relies on the presence of expats and tourists for its economic stability and therefore needs to respond to calls for political reform and human rights with greater urgency. A view shared by the UAE’s Federal National Council in its report to the Government in early January of last year, which warned that ‘long-term expatriates would eventually demand ‘political rights’’.

If the UAE has any real chance of sustaining its economic growth and realising the Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s ambitions of attaining the rank of “number one” in growth, it must first ensure that the rights of both citizens and non citizens are upheld and treated as number one.

The Government and its supporters too must ‘look around and be grateful’ that the Arab spring has not touched them… yet.

Follow Suzanne Noori on Twitter as: @MsMiddleEast!


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