Recent high-level U.S. diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance Gulf capitals harbor.
“But what do Emiratis really think?” is a recurrent question. It reveals a genuine curiosity regarding what Emiratis have to say about the many sociopolitical changes the United Arab Emirates has been undergoing. But it also betrays an implicit mistrust of the popular state catchphrase, “The House is United.”
“The house” has indeed been “united” in maintaining a collective and guarded silence to avoid breaking from – at least publicly – official state narratives. There is a great sense of pride that Emiratis derive from being members of the only enduring Arab union, which partly explains the fervent desire to protect the essence of it and embrace unity. However, at the same time, vaguely worded cybercrime laws in the UAE are sufficiently deterring, prompting many Emiratis to find creative ways and media for expression through which they can circumvent digital sanitation officers.
What is conventionally known as independent “civil society” does not exist in the UAE. It is not a secret – the state does not deny that activism outside of state oversight is proscribed, and all nonprofit societies must be licensed by authorities to operate in the country. But this fixed understanding of what civil society means can cloud a deeper understanding of how civil society can function in different contexts, like that of the UAE.
Notwithstanding the many constraints and constantly changing laws regulating public expression and conduct, individuals do come together to form institutions of public interest. For this, a skilled navigation of the tiresome bureaucracy is necessary – but that is merely a road bump to overcome. What essentially obstructs the formation of social organizations, beyond the existing political checkpoints, is a culture of selective solidarities.
For example, considering the case of women’s rights, the formation of a “common interest collective,” or civil society organization, could potentially come up against many challenges in the UAE. In 2015, there was a heated discussion in a women-only classroom in Dubai centered around the inability of Emirati women to pass their citizenship to their offspring – a restriction not imposed on Emirati men. Instead of collectively getting behind the call for full and equal rights for their fellow Emirati women, the majority of the nearly 30 students in the classroom were vehemently against it. The young women did not think the question of citizenship related to women’s rights; rather, they associated it with deep-seated notions of racial purity and cultural identity. Although these young students had championed the rights of women to work and earn equal pay, there were apparently parameters for what constituted acceptable rights to strive for. Considering these perspectives, it is not hard to imagine the challenge of negotiating the articles of association required to form a nongovernmental organization advocating for women’s rights, for instance, in the UAE.
Civil society requires the decentering of the self and the renunciation of parochial views on religion and identity in order to focus on shared group objectives or views. This impetus, however, is absent in the UAE, not only due to the conflict between a person’s strongly held beliefs and those of others, but also because many people desire to keep their sympathies and solidarities private.
A person’s sympathy for – and potential solidarity with – the LGBTQ community, for instance, or prisoners of conscience, is better kept secret than publicly displayed. The choice to keep such views private is not merely to adhere to the mainstream or what is accepted politically, nor is it solely induced by the fear of reprisal or public backlash per se. Oftentimes, controversial topics expose the uncomfortable complexities of one’s own thoughts and communal presentation: “Do I want to be seen publicly supporting a woman’s right to abortion? Does that conflict with my religious beliefs and people’s expectations of my religiosity? How do I reconcile between my personal views in opposition to military conflict when my immediate political environment discourages such positions?”
Civil society fundamentally binds people with different religious and political sensibilities together in the pursuit of collective public interests in ways that do not disadvantage individual group members with whom some might not see eye to eye on expectations of rights and responsibilities. The commitment to upholding universal and equal rights for all is one that many would rather avoid – at least publicly.
Given the many social and political challenges that could impede collective efforts to formally establish civil society organizations, Emiratis have found other ways to coalesce temporarily around singular issues of common interest, after which they can comfortably disperse without having to bear collective labels.
The spontaneity of an artistic project can be safely apolitical, on the surface at least, and more appealing to a young generation that wants to retain the right to subjective interpretation. One such project is a volume of photo essays on the notions of khaleejiness – or belonging to the Gulf Arab states – compiled by Swalif Publishing’s young founder, Salem Al Suwaidi.
Swalif was conceived during the coronavirus pandemic-related lockdown and inspired by a virtual conversation hosted by the Saudi cultural organization Misk Art Institute, which featured a number of art collectors and enthusiasts from the Gulf region. This online interaction between the speakers and audience members sharing common interests sparked further interactions, ultimately unfolding in the form of voluntary contributions to Al Suwaidi’s aspirational project: a diverse group of people sharing their personal reflections and artistic expressions on what it means to be khaleeji.
The volume challenged traditional notions of khaleejiness, which are largely associated with dreamy sand dunes and prideful bedouin asceticism. Instead, the pictures celebrated the ethnic diversity of communities with equal claims of being indigenous to the Gulf, and the essays gave way to personal disclosures of discomfort and marginality. But what brought these otherwise unassociated artists and academics together was an invitation to own and express the self, not to forgo it.
Perhaps a better way to describe these itinerant social and artistic engagements in the UAE is civil nomadism. This transitory form of association allows Emiratis to safely navigate through a wide array of issues from which they can selectively choose to engage without anchoring themselves long term. This orientation is not indicative of a communal failure to recognize universal and equal rights. Rather it is a process of maturation for a society in constant change, experienced at its own pace.
One example is the issue of Palestine, which garnered much attention and solidarity over the summer of 2021, when Israeli authorities attempted to displace the inhabitants of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. After much trepidation, Emiratis eventually took to social media to express outrage over the Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Spontaneous events of solidarity took place around the UAE – Emiratis, with no formal political affiliations or expressed interest in regional politics, scheduled movie screenings, and poetry recitals to raise awareness about the Palestinian cause and take a stance of solidarity. These social events brought together diverse groups of people, some of whose sympathies and expressions of solidarity would falter when the issue of normalization with Israel would come up as a matter of contention. On such issues, Emiratis sit on the fence of caution, and often choose to perform to the state instead of veering off the “united house” course.
Until this turbulent period of constant change plateaus, Emiratis will likely continue to exercise their civil nomadism. It is an embracing but flexible posture, allowing – in varying quantities, depending on the individual – for “united house” narratives, contested notions of khaleejiness, and a range of private solidarities to safely emerge and comfortably disperse.
is a sociologist of culture, politics, and higher education in the Arab states of the Gulf.
Qatar’s emir has made a flurry of diplomatic visits to Iran, Turkey, the UAE, and Europe to bolster regional relations, energy cooperation, and the Iran nuclear deal.
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