Tahrir and Tagheer: Does Egypt’s Call for Freedom Translate Into Change Throughout the Middle East?

In Bahrain, witnesses say riot police have tried to disperse protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The clashes took place as officers attempted to stop people gathering for a major rally in the capital, Manama.
Bahrain has Sunni muslim rulers but the population is 70 per cent Shia, who claim they are regularly discriminated against. Images via Al Jazeera's Sara Hassan. Bahrain, 2011.

As revolutionary turmoil grips the Middle East, many commentators have asserted that things will never be the way they once were. Regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt are said to have created potentially long-term ripple effects. The Pandora's Box has been opened and there is no way the genie is going back into the bottle. Some claim that because the revolution has been televised, it will spread across the Middle East, infecting masses that will rise to challenge and topple the governments in their respective countries. This, they assert, has been set in motion by a kind of contagion--the so-called domino effect--a seemingly empowering force that influences people in adjacent countries to emulate the behavior and aspirations they observe in other countries they can relate to. Instrumental in this process are the visceral images that have been transmitted via news outlets like Al Jazeera and CNN. Demonstrations have a hypnotic influence on people who identify with their fellow Arab brothers and sisters. Change is in the air. But can this momentum of enthusiasm be sustained? Will these winds of change eventually sweep and envelop the entire region? What about the Gulf? Is the United Arab Emirates, for example, immune to revolutionary changes taking place in other parts of the Arab world?

According to Durham (UK) University's Christopher Davidson, who has published widely on the Emirates: "The UAE, deliberately, has no official stance on the Arab revolutions." But the UAE foreign minister, Shaikh Abdullah, was on of the few Arab officials to meet with Hosni Mubarak during the crisis, and as Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai think tank, notes: "Overall, the UAE [had] shown a degree of support for the Egyptian government and [hoped] that concessions by Mubarak not to stand for re-election would suffice to quell the protests."

The UAE is no doubt paying close attention to events unfolding in neighboring Bahrain, where police and protestors have already clashed this week. In terms of direct or immediate consequences, most analysts believe that these popular uprisings are unlikely to have any immediate impact.

"Protestors in Egypt want to change the regime while in the UAE that is certainly not the case. The ruling families here enjoy a high degree of legitimacy and their status as rulers is not being questioned," said Koch.

Davidson is a bit more skeptical in his assessment since he sees the "biggest effect of the revolutions is on the educated youth of the UAE, most of whom are internet-savvy and regularly use social networking software. Most are connected to Egyptians and will be inspired by the revolutions."

Another reason why the potential of a popular revolt à la Egypt is slim to non-existent in the UAE has to do with the apparent different contextual and demographic circumstances in the Emirates. The minority of a million or so UAE citizens make up only 15 percent of the country's total population of around 6 million. Many have safe and well compensated jobs in the public sector. As Davidson notes, there are "plenty of opportunities as far as economic well being and employment is concerned" and there is no tradition of public dissent, complaints are usually channeled through the privacy of the ruler's majlis. Any potential for resistance, however remote the chances might be, "can only come from the national population, as expatriates will be unwilling to involve themselves in the politics of an alien land," he said.

The expatriate community in the UAE is made up of a diverse mix of foreigners who are in many instances glad to have a job. The majority of expats who have migrated to the UAE have done so in part to be able to support their families back home through remittances and to save up to build their lives once they return to their countries of origin. That said, increasingly, many such expatriates are born in the UAE, seldom venture back to the old country and in many ways identify themselves with the UAE. No matter what their political outlook might be, however, they are unlikely to risk their modest or large fortunes for any political ideals in the host country.

Saudi Arabia, the most important player in the region, is a different story. The Saudi government has set a dangerous precedent by publicly condemning the events in Tunisia and Egypt and welcoming Ben Ali into exile. Cleary, the UAE is acting much more cautiously in its words and deeds, but "a lot will depend on what happens in Saudi Arabia. If a broad-based reform movement takes hold there, then the impact on the UAE would be more significant", says Koch.

Kristian Alexander is Assistant Professor at the College of Arts and Sciences, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.