Published January 27, 2012
Stop me if this story sounds familiar: Tech-savvy activists living in an Arab autocracy decide that the time has come to press for democratic reform. They use Facebook and Twitter to rally support, gathering signatures for a petition—the first of its kind—that demands free elections. The regime cracks down, arresting the leaders and handing down lengthy prison sentences. The incarcerated activists, confident in their cause, await the despot-toppling protests that their counterparts inspired in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.
It would be a typical story of the Arab Spring, except for one problem: In the United Arab Emirates, the protests never came. The five leading pro-democracy activists here—known as the UAE 5—instead languished in prison until the president pardoned them. Although they’ve gathered hundreds of new followers online, nothing suggests their message will bring average Emiratis to the streets. “There’s no critical mass,” said Nasser bin Ghaith, a Western-educated lawyer and one of the leaders of the loosely organized reform movement. He spent nearly eight months in prison for his efforts. “Rational thinking leads people to believe, ‘We have a nice life, a nice job. So, who really cares about the type of government that gives us all of that?’ And it’s very hard to change their minds.”
The UAE 5 point to a lingering mystery about the Arab Spring: Why did it catch on in some countries but not others? Protesters across the region braved state-sponsored violence, even gunfire, to unseat the long-standing rulers of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. At great human cost, opposition forces now seem poised to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, too. But the momentum of the Arab Spring stopped in the Persian Gulf region, where wealthy, unelected rulers seem as entrenched as ever. There are three reasons for the Gulf states’ staying power: Governments here don’t derive their power from fear and brutality; the nations have little history of political activism; and oil wealth allows the regimes to effectively buy popular support. (Even in Bahrain, occasional protests are driven as much by sectarian as by democratic complaints.) Emiratis, Qataris, Saudis, and Omanis may not love their rulers, but few seem to want them gone.
Disenfranchisement takes a more benign form in Gulf states than in other Arab nations. Citizens who eschew open political activism live without fear of being arrested by shadowy intelligence services. The streets are free of soldiers and other overt displays of state power. Some Internet sites—particularly pornographic ones—are banned, but communication with the outside world is generally free and unfettered.
Gulf countries also don’t have a history of activism or peaceful political demonstration. In Egypt and even Syria, citizens have regularly taken to the streets to protest the price of bread or privatization-induced layoffs. And the autocrats who led these nations—until their survival was threatened—generally allowed citizens to use the rallies to blow off steam. In the insular, closely controlled nations of the Persian Gulf, by contrast, rulers have been quick to label would-be reformers as closet Qaida sympathizers or Iranian pawns. They haven’t hesitated to use force (something American administrations have largely ignored because of U.S. reliance on Gulf oil). When protests began in Bahrain last year, for example, Saudi Arabia sent troops to crush the unrest. Dozens of activists were killed. “Saudi or Emirati citizens wanting to get a sense of what would happen if they mobilized need look no further than Bahrain,” said Toby Jones, a Rutgers University professor who studies Arab reform movements. “They saw what happened and how little the West did to stop it.”
Finally, oil wealth has allowed Gulf governments to shower their subjects with perks such as universal health care, tax-free living, scholarships for study abroad, and generous cash gifts. A destitute Tunisian fruit vendor lit himself on fire, igniting the Arab Spring, when the government seized the produce that was his only source of income. That kind of poverty is unimaginable in Gulf states, where rulers—despite their private planes, palaces, and overseas bank accounts—haven’t kept all of their countries’ riches to themselves. They’ve spent lavishly on first-rate hospitals, schools, roads, and airports. Their states are stable and well developed, unlike what Gulf residents see in TV images of Syria. Comfortable living has fostered economic dependence, making average Gulf citizens wary of rocking the boat and imbuing regimes like the UAE’s with the sort of legitimacy that the deposed Arab leaders never had.
The UAE 5 know that lesson all too well. Ahmed Mansoor, a U.S.-educated engineer, led the effort to gather 130 signatures calling for a directly elected parliament. He spent 11 days in solitary confinement and says he was denied medical care while in custody during his trial. He was convicted in late November on charges of insulting the country’s rulers and inciting public unrest. The court sentenced him to three years behind bars, but his sentence was commuted the following day. Technically, he’s now a free man, but he was fired and his passport was repossessed. “We were seeking modest reforms, not the overthrow of the government,” he said in an interview here. “Good living standards should not be the price I have to pay for freedom and basic political rights.”
Bin Ghaith, one of the military’s top lawyers at the time of his arrest, was beaten in prison; he says his cellmates included murderers, rapists, and Somali pirates. Still, he’s trying to remain optimistic. The primary lesson of the Arab Spring, he believes, is, “Autocratic regimes age slowly but die suddenly.” For now, though, the Gulf states seem to be in pretty good health.