Abdullah Al-Rashid
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on : Thursday, 14 Feb, 2013
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The Brothers and the Emirates

Examining the background to the UAE's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood

The dormant tensions between Abu Dhabi and the Muslim Brotherhood has flared up again in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring,’ setting the two at odds once more

A Mosque sits between office blocks in downtown Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. SOURCE: David Davies/PA Archive/Press Association Images

A Mosque sits between office blocks in downtown Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. SOURCE: David Davies/PA Archive/Press Association Images

The downfall of Mubarak and the election of Mohammed Morsi as president of Egypt has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to the pinnacle of political power in the Arab world’s most populous state. However, elsewhere the situation is very different. A showdown of a kind is underway between the organization’s branch in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the government, which has arrested several members associated with the reform movement in the country in recent months.

This is not the first time that the two sides have been at odds. Indeed, it is an old story, but today it is the center of widespread debate across the Gulf and the Arab world. It is a fast-developing tale that is being closely followed in the inner circles of the political and intellectual elite and in the streets. Amid recent developments, one should pause to ask: What is happening? What is the whole story? How did it start, and why?

Arrests and rumblings in the blogosphere

In May 2012, the Emirati activist and blogger Khalifa Al-Nuaimi wrote an article on his blog asking and answering five common questions about Dawat Al-Islah, the UAE branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The first question read, “Does Dawat Al-Islah actually have an organization?” Nuaimi answered that it does not. The blogger went on to explain that Dawat Al-Islah consists mostly of university graduates, some of whom studied in Egypt and embrace the ideas of Hassan Al-Banna, and others who adhere to the works of Abul Ala Maududi. Nuaimi was clearly portraying the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE as something of a shared ideology, rather than an active organization.

On the other hand, another Emirati blogger, Muhammad Marzouki, wrote later the same year:

Frankly, everyone knows that these organizations, no matter how benign and how active in charitable work they may be, are forbidden by the law if they are not supervised by an official. So how is it strange that some members have been arrested? I know that the state and its senior officials warned the leaders of this association [Dawat Al-Islah] that what they were doing was in violation of state regulations, but they persisted. They have forgotten that the punishment of the law is heavy.

These two blog posts encapsulate much of the debate about the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE, and just how active the group is there. Social networking sites, blogs and forums are the main arenas in which this story is unfolding, and they also provide the setting for its major turning points. For example, on March 3, 2011, Emirati activists and academics, some affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, launched a petition in conjunction with the events of the Arab Spring. In the petition, they demanded that elections for the Federal National Council be held and that the constitution be amended to give it a degree of legislative and supervisory power.

The UAE authorities responded swiftly. They revoked the citizenship of a number of ‘naturalized Emiratis’ who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and charged them with “involvement in actions that pose a threat to national security, and connections to organizations and individuals on the terror watch list.” During the GCC National and Regional Security Conference run by the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies on January 18, 2012, Dubai police chief General Dahi Khalfan offered his frank assessment of the matter, saying, “Allow me to deviate from diplomatic speech; I am a security man. The Muslim Brotherhood is a security threat to the Gulf, and is no less dangerous than Iran.”

UAE authorities then announced the arrest of a number of Muslim Brotherhood members based in the UAE, eventually totaling more than 60. In September 2012, the attorney general charged them with “founding and operating a secret organization, forming a military wing which violates the security and principles of the state, having connections to foreign bodies, and receiving instructions and funds from those bodies so as to carry out a coup d’état and establish a religious government in the UAE.”

Dawat Al-Islah issued a statement in which it responded to the prosecutors’ charges on October 25 of that year. It claimed that violence of any kind, including armed action, was entirely inconsistent with its principles and objectives. It stressed that “the play being performed by state security will not fool the people of the UAE.”

The birth of the Brotherhood in the UAE

The roots of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE can be traced back to the 1970s, although sources differ over exactly when its activities began. In The Muslim Brotherhood and the UAE (Al-Mesbar Studies & Research Centre) Saudi researcher Abdullah bin Bejad Al-Otaibi argues that the Muslim Brotherhood first gained a foothold in the UAE between the late 1960s and mid-1970s. As evidence, he cites a quote from Ali Ashmawi, a former Brotherhood member, discussing the new organization with Sayyid Qutb around the year 1965: “The Brotherhood in the Emirates has chosen Brother Izz Al-Din Ibrahim as its leader.”

However, there is little dispute with regards to who its main proponents were. In Abdullah Aqil’s biography of Emirati Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Mahmoud, he provides us with an insight into one of the most recognizable faces of Islamic proselytizing in the Arab Gulf. In his book, entitled Media Proselytizing and the Modern Islamist Movement, Aqil also sheds light on the first generation of the Islamist movement, which went on to become the definitive religious and administrative leadership in the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim world.

Sheikh Mahmoud (1902–1982) was the first head of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) in Sharjah, UAE. His administrative deputy at the time was Sheikh Abdul Wadud Shalabi, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member in Egypt who was imprisoned with a number of other members when the group was forcefully disbanded in 1948. In his book, Aqil writes, “Sheikh Mahmoud was a unique case. He did much to solidify the presence of the proselytizers and gave them firm ground on which to stand when confronted by tyrannical dictators. He established the Muslim Brotherhood and gave them courage when times were hardest.” Sheikh Mahmoud had strong ties to the Brotherhood in Kuwait, with whom Aqil met at their headquarters. They told him about Sheikh Mahmoud, saying, “He was happy to come to visit in the early 1970s . . . He met with Brothers Yousef Jassem Al-Hajji, Abdullah Ali Al-Mutawa, Omar Abdel Razzaq Al-Diyal, and others from the Society.”

Aqil also wrote about the relationship between Sheikh Mahmoud and the founder of the first Brotherhood entity in Kuwait, Abdul Aziz Ali Al-Mutawa: “The two men competed to provide support for proselytizing. Sheikh Mahmoud bought many British churches and converted them into mosques through which his followers could promote their Islamist activities.”

Confrontation begins

The first step after establishing Dawat Al-Islah in the UAE was to insert Muslim Brotherhood cadres across the education sector by crafting curricula and dominating student life. This point was underscored by Professor Salem Nuaimi, who said, “They aimed to recruit students from a young age by implanting their literature into academia and student activities.” Researcher Mansour Al-Naqidan stressed that by the late 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood had become the single strongest voice in the state’s institutions of education and in the United Arab Emirates University.

The first sign of the Brotherhood’s pervasive presence throughout the Emirati education sector was in the early 1990s, when a federal government employee wished to complete his postgraduate studies abroad. Upon submitting his application to the scholarship commission, he was rejected despite his high marks at university. This rejection led some to wonder if all students who received scholarships had received immaculate marks at university, and if everyone without perfect grades would be refused a scholarship. Others, however, presumed that some other factor was being considered. This prompted the authorities to investigate the scholarship commission, which later revealed the domination of Brotherhood members over the education sector and within the commission itself. It became clear that scholarships were not granted to individuals unless they were affiliated with the Brotherhood. This infiltration angered the authorities and prompted them to take action to confront Dawat Al-Islah and mitigate its influence.

Naqidan points out that Egyptian security service investigations revealed that individuals from an Egyptian jihadist organization responsible for terrorist acts had received financial contributions from the relief and foreign affairs committee of Dawat Al-Islah in the UAE. As a result, in 1994 the authorities froze all of Dawat Al-Islah’s foreign activities, disbanded its leadership, and began monitoring its various branches through the Ministry of Social Affairs. Naqidan asserts that “this decision ended the nearly 21-year-long story of the Dawat Al-Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE.”

According to federal laws and legislation, conflicting allegiances and ties to foreign organizations constitute a violation of national sovereignty. Initially, the government attempted to address the issue through dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood so as to dissuade them from these activities. This was conducted through a series of meetings that took place between Brotherhood leaders and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in 2003. During an interview on the Emirati television program “Gulf Talks” with Sulaiman Al-Hattlan, Dr. Ali Rashid Al-Nuaimi, the chancellor of UAE University, said that the state had engaged in dialogue for years with the Emirati Brotherhood branch in an attempt to persuade it to do two things: stop its organizational activity in the UAE and cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood mother organization abroad. In return, its members were promised the support necessary to have decent livelihoods and access to jobs. Chancellor Nuaimi went on to say, “The Brotherhood was intransigent. They continued their activities, and foreign parties began to target the UAE. Considering the circumstances, the state only had one option: to take a firm stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood so as to maintain peace and security.”

Professor Rashid Al-Araimi, editor of the Emirati newspaper Al-Ittihad, said that accepting Dawat Al-Islah was conditional: “Dawat Al-Islah must be under the supervision of the state to make sure that it is working for the interests and unity of the country, and without any agenda or external loyalties. If this is the case, then Dawat Al-Islah is welcome.”

The dispute worsens

The escalations between UAE authorities and the Muslim Brotherhood engendered a wide spectrum of reactions, most notably from Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, widely referred to as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. While speaking on Al-Jazeera’s “Shari’a and Life” program in March 2012, he said, “The rulers of the Emirates are not gods, they are human beings. All they have is money. They ought to fear God for what they do to the people of their country. For rulers are servants of the nation, and cannot treat their people as slaves.”

Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan responded immediately, saying, “You have committed an egregious error.” He announced that he would demand that Interpol issue an arrest warrant for Sheikh Qaradawi, who has been banned from entering the UAE for years. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt denounced the Dubai police chief’s statement. It replied through Mahmoud Ghozlan, the official spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, who threatened to “mobilize not only the Brotherhood but the entire Muslim world against the UAE in the event that Sheikh Qaradawi is arrested,” adding that Sheikh Qaradawi “is one of the sons of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The UAE leadership’s response was both frank and direct. During a press conference in October 2012, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan criticized the Muslim Brotherhood, describing them as having no respect for national sovereignty and trying to undermine the legitimacy of the state and its laws. The foreign minister’s comments rattled the guidance bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, the deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat El-Shater, summoned guidance bureau members later that same day to discuss the Brotherhood’s official stance towards the Emirati official’s statements. Al-Masry Al-Youm quoted a source as saying, “Mr. Shater decided to go to the UAE two days after the statements of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed were issued. He took with him a confidential file, which contained the names of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt, and their places of residence in the Gulf and especially in the UAE. He did this in an attempt to prove the Brotherhood’s innocence regarding the allegations of plotting to overthrow the Emirati government.”

The newspaper Al-Mesryoon reported that the UAE government refused to meet with Shater, despite the mediation efforts of Dr. Mohammed Badie, supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. It said that Shater had tried to negotiate with the UAE authorities for the release of 60 imprisoned Emirati Brotherhood members; however, “the UAE refused to negotiate with Mr. Shater, claiming that the issue fell under the jurisdiction of UAE courts and that no individual has the right to interfere in the judicial process.”

Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Shater then sent a letter to the UAE government via a senior UAE official that emphasized that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt respects the laws and the constitution of the UAE, and that the Brotherhood has no designs to interfere in the political affairs of any country, especially the UAE. Yet despite Shater’s assurances, more than a dozen Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members operating in the UAE were arrested in early 2013 by UAE state security for collecting substantial sums of money that they would then transfer to the Brotherhood based in Egypt.

A Gulf alliance

Beyond its firm stance at home and abroad, the UAE has continued its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood by calling on fellow Gulf countries to form an alliance against the Brotherhood “to prevent it from undermining the Gulf governments.” Evidence of this Gulf alliance can be seen in the UAE’s announcement on December 26, 2012 that it had arrested members of a terrorist cell in coordination with Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities arrested an Emirati national in the raid and extradited him to the UAE, and this person is believed to be affiliated with Dawat Al-Islah. On the same day that the UAE announced the raid, Dahi Khalfan wrote on his personal Twitter account: “I’ve returned, praise be to God, to Dubai after my visit to the city dear to my heart, Riyadh, a city of generosity, kindness, and hospitality.”

It remains to be seen what the effect of this emerging alliance will have on the confrontation between the Brotherhood and the governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and if the Brotherhood, emboldened by its success in Egypt, will attempt to enlist allies of its own. One thing is certain: the organization has survived periods of hostility from governments in the past, including ruthless dictators like Mubarak. It is clear that it is not simply going to disappear, though only its leaders know where it will take things from here.

Abdullah Al-Rashid

Abdullah Al-Rashid

Abdullah Al-Rashid is a Saudi academic and journalist.

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