How to Counter Terrorism by Supporting Civil Society in the United Arab Emirates


President Obama recently made a series of commendable declarations supporting civil society and affirming its importance to securing stability and fighting extremism.

At the White House’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February 2015 he announced, “When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied—particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines—when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.”

The President added, “[W]e must recognize that lasting stability and real security require democracy. That means free elections where people can choose their own future, and independent judiciaries that uphold the rule of law, and police and security forces that respect human rights, and free speech and freedom for civil society groups.”

That same month he said, “My argument to any partner that we have is that you are better off if you’ve got a strong civil society and you’ve got democratic legitimacy and you are respectful of human rights.”

In April 2015, speaking specifically about the six U.S. allies that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—he noted, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading,” and warned of “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.”

A lack of peaceful outlets for political grievances does indeed drive extremism and instability, but the Obama Administration continues to provide seemingly unconditional political and military support for GCC countries that have actually increased their repression against civil society in recent years.

This contradiction at the heart of U.S. policy must be confronted and resolved, especially because it has a direct bearing on counterterrorism cooperation and U.S. national security interests. The president promised to have a “tough conversation” with the GCC leaders about their destructive policies. The \ White House and Camp David meetings with GCC leaders on May 13-14, 2015 provides the perfect opportunity to develop that conversation.

Human Rights First produced blueprints in 2015 for how the United States can support civil society in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to encourage reform and respect for human rights—advances that would help bring stability to a volatile region and align with the administration’s stated policy goals.

This report extends that series to an analysis of the repression of another U.S. security partner in the Gulf: the United Arab Emirates. It examines the UAE’s relations with the United States and what Washington can do to support a besieged Emirati civil society. Strong, functioning civil societies across the world—including in the UAE—are, as President Obama rightly identified, “a matter of national security” for the United States.

This report is based on research conducted during a Human Rights First fact-finding trip to the UAE in April 2015, including dozens of discussions with human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, academics, lawyers, independent experts, officials from the United States and other governments, and others. Local human rights activists spoke to Human Rights First on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety. Human Rights First thanks all those who provided information for this report.


Published on May 11, 2015


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