UAE is Questionable Partner for CVE Initiatives
Repressive practices foster the very grievances that drive violent extremism and threaten peace and stability. President Obama knows this, and has said it many times. But as the administration seeks to expand countering violent extremism (CVE) partners, U.S. officials are making some questionable ties. Some of these partners rule their countries with an iron fist, thereby putting multilateral efforts at risk and undermining the initiative’s very purpose.
On January 21 Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall trumpeted progress on CVE initiatives, including plans announced by “[g]overnments in Albania, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates, along with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, … to establish counter-messaging hubs to push back against violent ideologies and propaganda.”
In tandem, the State Department announced that it was “revamping” its communications efforts to counter violent extremism through a new Global Engagement Center in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), focused on “identifying and enabling international partners with credibility and expertise.”
Seen in this light, the choice of partners is perplexing. The UAE routinely crushes peaceful dissent in the name of counterterrorism. The UAE’s feared State Security Apparatus—widely regarded as the UAE “Stasi”—is headed by senior government leader and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyanan. Its power penetrates every ministry. It suffocates the voices of those critical of the regime. There are credible reports of torture in its detention facilities.
Speaking publicly about the state’s repressive practices can have disastrous consequences. Asma, Mariam, and Alaziyah al Suwaidi disappeared in February 2015 after being summoned to a police station in Abu Dhabi for tweeting about the detention of their brother, Issa Khalifa al Suwaidi, former head of the UAE’s Red Crescent Society and one of the UAE’s many political prisoners. They reappeared three months later.
In another case, siblings Amina, Moza, and Mosab Mohammed Alabdouli were picked up in a raid on their home in November and held by the State Security Apparatus in an undisclosed location. Some reports suggest that their forcible disappearance was retribution for tweets they posted in memory of their father, who was a political prisoner a decade ago. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
Even Americans have not been spared. In April 2013 U.S. citizen Shezanne Cassim, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, was arrested and held at a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi for posting a satirical YouTube video about youth culture in Dubai. He was accused of violating the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime decree. Nevermind that it had actually been passed a month after he uploaded the video. Cassim was only released nine months later, in January 2014. The cybercrime decree has facilitated widespread prosecution and jailing of Emiratis who use information technology to dissent.
Placing the counter-messaging hub in the UAE overlooks the country’s record of stifling freedom of expression. With this choice, the U.S. government is disregarding one of the pillars of the CVE strategy it has championed: the undeniable link between political repression and fueling the grievances that drive violent extremism.
President Obama has rightly identified “free speech, and freedom of religion, rule of law, strong civil societies” as essential elements in multilateral efforts to counter violent extremism. To be effective, the counter-messaging hubs should be located in countries that strive to maintain the highest standards in these areas. The UAE most definitely falls short. And Malaysia, where it was recently revealed that the prime minister received a personal donation of $680 million from the Saudi royal family, also raises questions about the extent to which U.S. allies are using their influence to ensure that the CVE initiative does not challenge their repressive governance practices.
The OIC, which Under Secretary Sewall indicated will also be developing a counter-messaging hub, will hold its 13th Islamic Summit in April. The summit occurs every three years and heads of state and senior delegations from its 57 member states attend. Acting U.S. Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Arsalan Suleman asserted that the OIC “has the capacity to be a leading voice against extremism and for tolerance and pluralism.” Acting Envoy Suleman should use the months leading up to the summit to lay the groundwork to ensure that the OIC’s counter-messaging efforts will include consultation and cooperation with independent civil society organizations operating in OIC member states. Promoting freedom of expression and freedom of religion is essential to all aspects of CVE strategy.