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The arrest and detention of 54 political and human rights activists in the United Arab Emirates has thrown the spotlight on one of the most autocratic and least institutionalised Persian Gulf monarchies. Championed by their western security partners as an oasis of relative stability in a sea of regional upheaval, Gulf rulers have in reality been profoundly shaken by rising participatory demands and calls for political reform. Initial policy responses focused on intensifying the ‘politics of patronage' by announcing massive welfare packages worth billions of dollars, and creating tens of thousands of new jobs for under- and unemployed nationals. However, these notably failed to quell dissenting voices or address the underlying socio-economic and political drivers of discontent. In all six Gulf States, rulers have instead turned to repression to compensate for the failure of redistributive measures to preserve their power and privileges.

This depressing turn of events has momentous consequences for the sustainability of the social contract binding states and societies in the Gulf together. It also calls into question the judgement of international institutions that bought into the benevolent ‘images' so carefully promoted by ruling elites. As a deeply-tribal and largely homogeneous society that has also engaged heavily both in state-branding and institutional partnerships in recent years, the security crackdown in the UAE holds particular resonance. Moreover, it raises fundamental questions about the future of authoritarian ruling families whose instinctive response to the appearance of domestic opposition is to suppress it and wish it out of existence. Failure to acknowledge the zeitgeist sweeping so powerfully across the region means rulers run the risk of losing control and ensuring that change, when it comes, will be sudden and violent, rather than incremental and consensual.

Waves of Arrests

With the Arab Spring well into its second year, the authorities in the UAE have consistently mismanaged the limited pressures for reform. Far from projecting a vision of strength, these missteps have exposed the regime's absolute mistrust of any political or democratic development. A collection of seven emirates dominated by Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the country has one of the least participatory political systems in the world. Elections to the (advisory) Federal National Council were held for the first time in 2006, but were excessively, even ludicrously, controlled. Only 6889 voters - less than 1 percent of the national population who were hand-picked by their rulers - were permitted to vote for half of the seats, with the remainder filled by appointed members. Lacking legislative power, the council resembled a talking shop until the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt empowered people across the Arab world with notions of political freedoms and public accountability.

By comparison with the momentous developments in North Africa and neighbouring Bahrain, early calls for political reform in the UAE were extremely cautious. On 3 March 2011, a petition signed by 132 Emiratis requested that all UAE citizens be given the right to vote and that the Federal National Council be vested with legislative powers. Yet even these most moderate of demands were too much for the leadership in Abu Dhabi, who responded by arresting five high-profile advocates for reform, for "breaking laws and perpetrating acts that pose a threat to state security, undermining the public order, opposing the government system, and insulting the President," the (unelected) hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.

The five detainees included a champion of human rights and free discussion of UAE issues, Ahmed Mansour, and leading Emirati economist, Nasser bin Ghaith. Mansour had founded the www.uaehewar.net website in August 2009 as a platform for the discussion of politics, development, and society in the Emirates. This online forum featured hundreds of postings on sensitive issues (such as the acquittal in January 2010 of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the half-brother of the President who had been captured on video allegedly torturing a South Asian man), before it was blocked the same month. Also in 2010, he stated that, "It's because I care for my country that I feel these issues need to be discussed." Bin Ghaith, for his part, had eloquently criticised the economic handouts as a tool for pre-empting calls for reform, just a week before his arrest: "They have announced 'benefits and handouts' assuming their citizens are not like other Arabs or other human beings... But this only delays change and reform, which will still come sooner or later."