The United Arab Emirates. When religious tolerance serves political intolerance

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For the first time in history, a supreme pontiff has been invited to the Arabian Peninsula. Early February 2019, Pope Francis was warmly welcomed during a three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates. This initiative is the most recent expression of Abu Dhabi’s policy of appearing as an oasis of ‘religious tolerance’ in an environment marked by rising “extremism”. The Emirates have been organizing an annual ‘forum for the promotion of peace in Muslim societies’ since 2014. The country has also cosponsored the Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Minorities in predominantly Muslim countries. The UAE have relied a lot in this effort on the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb and on the institution he presides, al-Azhar University in Cairo.

This university receives generous funding from the UAE and has since 2013 come under the control of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, a close regional ally of Abu Dhabi. This religious policy is in part related to the economic model adopted by the Emirates, i.e. that of an open, globalized economy, eager to attract investors and expatriates in a welcoming environment. This has been a relative success, as the Emirates have enjoyed an enviable growth rate fuelled by a far more diversified economy than in the neighbouring oil states. This model is now inspiring Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, who seems willing to make Saudi Arabia an “XL version” of its smaller neighbour. The “religious tolerance” policy of the UAE is however far from being exempt from a (hidden) political agenda.

The Emirates have started to multiply initiatives in favour of religious “tolerance” in the wake of the Arab uprisings. These uprisings have caused a real trauma for Abu Dhabi, which was fearing their contagious effect. The Emirates have therefore emerged as a leader of the Arab counter-revolution from very early on. They have focalized on the Muslim Brotherhood, who won elections in Egypt and Tunisia after 2011 and whose main flaw, seen from Abu Dhabi, was that they represented a popular political alternative to the ancient order that the wave of uprisings had sought to sweep away. The Muslim Brothers have been officially labelled “terrorist organization” by the Arab Emirates in November 2014.

The most “orwellian” of all states in the region...

Soon after the beginning of the uprisings, Emiratis launched a clear-out at home. The country’s small civil society was crushed by unprecedented repression. Tens of activists—often wrongly—accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood were condemned to heavy prison sentences, in summary trials. The leaden shroud of security is such today, that the UAE may well be the most “orwellian” of all states in the region. Economic liberalism and political ultra-authoritarianism are combined in a model in which the market has replaced the market of ideas.

The Emirati counter-offensive has translated into a diplomatic and military hyper interventionism, that was discrete at first but has become more and more visible. In Egypt, the Emirates have played a part in the army’s intervention against democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. In Tunisia, they have financially supported Nidaa Tounes, a political party founded to counter Ennahdha’s ambitions. In Lybia, they have massively supported Field Marshal Haftar who dreams of becoming a Libyan version of al-Sissi. In Yemen, where they intervene militarily with and following their Saudi allies against the Houthi movement, they have done everything they could to isolate the Islamist party al-islah, notwithstanding its political centrality within the legitimist camp. Finally, the United Arab Emirates were the driving force behind the boycott of Qatar that was declared in June 2017 with the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrein. Abu Dhabi does not forgive Doha’s support to the 2011 uprisings and to the Muslim Brotherhood, and would like to bring neighbouring Qatar to its knees.

A new expansionist strategy

All this is also part of a new expansionist strategy for this little Gulf state. The UAE are massively present in Eastern Africa, from Djibouti to Somaliland, both militarily—via the bases built by Abu Dhabi—and commercially, thanks to the ports controlled by port operator Dubai Port World. Beyond economic interests, the objective is to compete with Qatar, which was previously influential in this part of the world. The offensive in Yemen has also allowed the Emiratis to seize the island of Socotra whose strategic position guarantees control of the Gulf of Aden.

In this general context, the policy of promoting “religious tolerance” serves as an ideological justification for the very political fight opposing the UAE to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, which Abu Dhabi is quick to assimilate to jihadi groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. This policy is used by Abu Dhabi to gain support from western states who look favourably upon Emirati efforts to “counter violent extremism.” As it does with its cultural promotion strategy centred on museums (the Louvre Abu Dhabi) and universities (the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi or NYU), this small state with grand ambitions is buying itself a life insurance. One can of course be pleased by some of the recent initiatives of the United Arab Emirates. But their underlying objectives we should not misinterpret.

A text by Stéphane Lacroix