The Muslim Brotherhood in the Emirates: Anatomy of a crackdown

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A UAE crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood gained widespread attention in 2012 but it began in the mid-1990s

Origins of an Emirati Ikhwan

In the UAE, as elsewhere in the Gulf, during the 1950s and 1960s, large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood members from other parts of the Middle East were hired for professional positions. The small population of educated nationals at independence necessitated the import of experts to fill a variety of posts, particularly in the education and judicial sectors. Brotherhood sympathisers thus had substantial influence on the country’s cultural development and became prominent members of Emirati society, leading to the emergence of a local group of Ikhwan.

At the beginning of the 1970s, when Emirati students began returning from studying abroad, they brought with them the idea of establishing a group to organise activities similar to those conducted by the Muslim Brotherhood in countries where they had studied. The Emirati Brotherhood thus became formally organised in 1974 under the banner of Jamʿiat al-Islah wa-l-Tawjih al-Ijtimaʿi (Reform and Social Counselling Association, hereafter Islah).

The Dubai branch of Islah was only the second civil society organisation to receive approval from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. Dubai ruler Shaykh Rashid al-Maktoum donated money toward the establishment of the group’s headquarters in that emirate, signalling the government’s willingness to patronise an Islamist group as a bulwark of Arab nationalism.

After the founding of Islah in Dubai, branches were established in Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah, with Shaykh Rashid donating toward the cost of their establishment. Emirati president and Abu Dhabi ruler Shaykh Zayed al-Nahyan also contributed land for the establishment of a branch of the group in that emirate at the end of the 1970s, yet an affiliate ultimately never gained permission to form there. Interestingly, a branch also never opened in Sharjah, either due to the prominence of Arab nationalism in that emirate or its ties to Saudi Arabia, a likelier source of religious inspiration. In Ajman, though a branch of Islah was not established, “the Brotherhood settled for subordination to the Association of Guidance and Social Counselling [Irshad].”

Like Brotherhood affiliates elsewhere in the region, the Emirati Ikhwan was involved in social and cultural activities, namely sporting and charity events. In the words of Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdullah: “The Muslim Brotherhood had a good understanding with government and good backing from business. Arab nationalists hadn’t had the same support because they were seen as Western.”  

In fact, in the formation of the first-ever independent Emirati government in 1971, founding member of Islah from Ras al-Khaimah Shaykh Saʿid ʿAbdullah Salman was named minister of housing, and Muhammad ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Bakr was appointed minister of justice and Islamic affairs and awqāf in 1977, becoming the second member of Islah to take on a post in a government ministry.

In 1979, Shaykh Salman became minister of education and chancellor of UAEU, and from 1977 until 1983, Shaykh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qasimi, head of Islah in Ras al-Khaimah, directed the national curriculum division. In short, “[t]he Brothers flourished in the UAE: They were educated, professional, and upwardly mobile individuals.” By granting Brotherhood members positions in government, the state allowed them a platform through which they could enact policies that remained in place for decades – particularly in the education sector

The spread of Brotherhood ideology in the UAE

An integral part of the Emirati Brotherhood’s outreach was its magazine, Al-Islah, established in 1978. The publication attacked leftist and nationalist opponents, with writers suggesting on more than one occasion that communists had penetrated state apparatuses. Al-Islah thus cultivated the organisation’s image as a preserver of traditional social values. Examination of Al-Islah issues published in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrates that the most commonly discussed topics concerned the development of Islamic education, censorship of Western materials, restriction of the sale of alcohol, corruption in government spending, and the encroachment of foreign (particularly Western) businesses and culture in Emirati society.

In a less institutionalised way, Brotherhood organisations in the UAE influenced youth through student activities like summer camps and scout groups. In 1982, as president of UAEU, Shaykh Salman established the Union of Emirati Students there. Having done well in the elections of university student committees beginning in 1977, Islah dominated student union elections until 1992. At that time, the government made an effort to depoliticise campuses, replacing the union in 2012 with student council polls contested by individuals rather than political blocs; even these are only partially elected.

The government also moved to depoliticise Friday sermons, another arena for Brotherhood influence, at the end of the 1980s. In 1986, Dubai’s Ministry of Awqaf “asked preachers to steer clear of contention” (A. Ann Fyfe, “Wealth and Power: Political and Economic Change in the United Arab Emirates” PhD. Diss, Durham University, 1989), 326). In January 1988, the ministry demanded that preachers “deposit written, advance copies of their Friday sermons with the ministry and to avoid all areas of controversy and sectarian sensitivity, limiting their remarks to guidance on Islamic practice” (Fyfe, 326).

Despite such government actions, by the 1990s, Islah had become “the most organised non-state actor in the country,” granting it considerable political capital due to its members’ prominent positions in the education and judicial sectors. Emiratis associated with Islah also became “key participants in calls for political reform despite the government outlawing political organisations and discouraging political debate.” As the group garnered increasing popularity and became progressively more vocal, the government framed it as a danger to national stability.

Government suspicion and takeover in the 1990s

Originally tolerated due to its nonthreatening stance, the Emirati Muslim Brotherhood, because its members exerted considerable influence on Emirati society, provoked government suspicion in the 1990s. At that time, “the UAE’s judicial and education sector was effectively a state within a state: The Brotherhood would make sure that those who qualified for educational scholarships and grants were either Brotherhood members, affiliates, or sympathisers.”

The organisation also developed a political reform agenda alongside its social programme, pressing for more representative government and more equal distribution of wealth. As early as March 1979, Islah’s management council wrote a letter to the local rulers ahead of a meeting of the Supreme Council of Rulers, supporting the government’s attempts to diminish corruption and to spend oil money in a “pious” way. Statements like the following, from Al-Islah magazine in 1982, were more explicit about the organisation’s potential role as political opposition: “With Islam we liberate lands of Islam, we stop injustice to Islam. Tyrants are afraid of us because of Islam.”

Just as the Brotherhood expected to have more sway in the political realm, the government also anticipated its turn toward the political. Perhaps fearing that the Emirati Brotherhood could gain a broader following as a political bloc, the government resolved to squash it before the Ikhwan became too powerful to influence politics on an institutionalised level. Allegations about Islah’s misconduct provided the perfect opportunity for the Emirati government to move against the organisation.

In the early 1990s, investigations by Egyptian security services claimed that individuals involved in Egyptian Islamic Jihad had received monetary donations from Islah’s Committee for Relief and Outside Activities. The prevailing argument became that the Brotherhood is, at its core, an international organisation, imported by Egyptians, and so used outside groups to further its cause, the establishment of a single Islamic state. The Emirati government viewed the oath of bay‘a or loyalty to the Brotherhood’s General Guide to be a direct challenge to loyalty to the UAE and demanded that members of Islah pledge loyalty to their country alone.

During the same period, Emirati authorities began investigating the influence of Brotherhood members within the education sector when promising scholarship applications were rejected and found that the Brotherhood members largely controlled the distribution of educational awards (Marta Saldaña, “Rentierism and Political Culture in the United Arab Emirates: The Case of UAEU Students” (PhD. Diss, University of Exeter, 2014), 139). Trying to regain authority, the government dissolved the Brotherhood’s previously elected boards of directors in 1994, placing them under supervision of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and its external activities were frozen. Furthermore, the central government restricted the political activity of the Brotherhood’s members, banning them from holding public office.

Notably, the Ras al-Khaimah branch of Islah was exempted from ministerial control, though it did have to curtail its external activities. Until the most recent crackdown, it remained independent under the protection of its sympathetic ruler Shaykh Saqr al-Qasimi, who “rejected the dissolution of al-Islah because he felt it played a role in preserving the youth.” Ultimately, though, the central government’s policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood prevailed, with Shaykh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassimi, the ruler’s cousin and leader of Islah in the emirate, arrested in the 2012 crackdown.

September 11 and the second Brotherhood crackdown

The tense relationship between the Emirati government and the Muslim Brotherhood became more confrontational following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The fact that two Emiratis were involved in the incidents made the government eager to prove to the international community that it would not tolerate religious extremism of any type. As part of this effort, Emirati authorities increased internal security. The State Security Directorate arrested over 250 individuals accused of terrorism, mainly harbouring Islamist sympathies, in 2002, yet most had been released by 2004 (Saldaña, 140).

The central government also began, in 2003, hosting talks between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the Brotherhood to persuade the organisation to stop organisational activity inside the UAE and to sever its ties with the international Ikhwan. In exchange, the central government would support the organisation and allow it to continue its work in Islamic daʿwa. In the view of Emirati authorities, if Islah were not a politically subversive group, it would not require independent organisational capacity. After months of talks, Islah rejected the government’s invitation to continue engaging in daʿwa without a formal organisational structure.

Realising that it could not force the group’s disbandment, the government tried to mitigate the Ikhwan’s influence. It transferred some 170 Brotherhood members, including 83 officers from the Ministry of Education, to other government departments. Despite this setback, the remaining three branches of Islah (Dubai, Fujairah, and Ras al-Khaimah) and the Guidance Society in Ajman continued with their activities of hosting discussions, lectures, and Quran recitation competitions, in addition to the publication of al-Islah magazine.

By the mid-2000s, it had become clear that “[t]he regime in the UAE is not friendly toward Islamists, and prominent Islamists have been arrested, barred from teaching at university, and otherwise harassed by the government” (Michael Herb, “Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates,” in Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Michele Penner Angrist (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010), 359). In such an environment, it became increasingly difficult for members of Islah to pursue their independent activities, leading some of them to join the country’s broader movement for political reform.

Facing down the reform movement

A petition, addressed to President Shaykh Khalifa and the Supreme Council of Rulers in March 2011 and endorsed by 133 intellectuals, among them Islah members, led to the most significant government crackdown on any opposition inside the UAE. The immediate catalyst for the petition was the government’s failure to introduce legislation to increase the pool of voters for the country’s only elected body, the Federal National Council (FNC). Notably, four professional organisations (the associations for jurists, teachers, national heritage professionals, and university faculty), all of which were traditionally known for their Brotherhood ties, signed the petition. This marked the first time that liberal and Islamist opposition had come together in such a public political undertaking.

In early April 2011, five of the petition’s signatories (the so-called UAE5), said to be its primary backers, were arrested. They were charged with “‘publicly insulting’ the UAE’s president, vice-president and crown prince in comments posted on an online discussion forum [….] All five were convicted in November 2011 after a trial that failed to satisfy international standards of fair trial, and sentenced to prison terms of up to three years.” Shortly after their sentencing, the five (none of whom was an Islah member) were released through a presidential pardon due to international media attention and a November 2011 report by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemning the arrests. Having been released, the activists continued voicing their political opinions, primarily through social media.

Hoping to stifle dissent from the civil society sector, the government also disbanded the boards of the independent Jurist Association and Teachers’ Association in 2011, both of which had supported the petition. “By summarily dismissing their executive boards and appointing government nominees to replace them, the authorities compromised the independence of the two organisations and effectively sent a warning to other NGOs to toe the line or risk opening themselves to similar government intervention.”

Hoping to deflect attention from incidents like the UAE5, the government made limited efforts to respond to domestic political opposition, while also boosting financial disbursements. The government expanded the FNC electorate to some 12 percent of the national population for the September 2011 elections, yet the body still lacks legislative authority. More significantly, the authorities granted huge public sector pay increases (in some cases up to 100 percent) and boosted welfare benefits by up to 20 percent, in addition to signing a $2.7 billion agreement to help poorer nationals pay off outstanding loans. Further, the federal government announced a new investment of $1.6 billion to improve infrastructure in the poorer northern emirates.

Islah supported the UAE5 and other imprisoned activists as the crackdown continued into 2012. Although liberal and Islamist activists had worked together on the petition, the government exaggerated links between them in an effort to dramatise the danger to the system. The government also charged that Islah exploited the controversy surrounding the UAE5 to increase its own influence, “using the umbrella of reform to reach their goals” of larger government takeover (interview with Ebtesam al-Ketbi). While the first wave of crackdown focused on the petition, the second was directed at Islah.

Government crackdown on Islah

In 2012, the government launched a campaign of arrests targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which it considered to be the primary political threat. “It was more popular and well-known [than the liberal movement] due to its social activities. Many of its members were seen as the cream of society” (interview with Ahmed Mansoor). In April 2012, seven Islah members (the so-called UAE7), who were signatories to the March 2011 petition and whose citizenship had been stripped in December 2011, were sent to prison after they did not leave the country as the government requested.

By the end of 2012, 94 alleged members of Islah had been arrested, with 69 of them sentenced to between seven and 15 year in prison. Attorney General Ali Salim al-Tunaiji announced “the country’s national security was under threat from a group of people with ties to ‘foreign organizations and agendas’ – a clear reference to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood organization. Al-Tunaiji accused this group of plotting ‘crimes against state security’ and of opposing ‘the UAE constitution and ruling system’,” yet presented no evidence to that effect.

The government also claimed to have received confessions from imprisoned Islah members, admitting that their organisation had an armed wing and aimed to overthrow the existing order to re-establish the caliphate, an assertion not substantiated by any independent Islah documents or public statements. Islah denied all charges, stating that the organisation is “pacifist, civilian and moderate and has never, and will never, choose to take up arms.”

In addition to the series of arrests, “there was a massive media campaign; businesses, bank accounts were suspended, and people were threatened” (interview with Ahmed Mansoor). Following the UAE94 trial, another security trial was held in November 2013, wherein 10 of the 94, along with 20 Egyptians (six tried in absentia), were charged for creating an international branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and for stealing and circulating classified state documents. They were convicted in January 2014, despite complaints of being forced to make confessions under torture, and were granted sentences of one to five years, with the Egyptians to be deported immediately after serving their sentences.

Further cementing the Emirati government’s stance against the Brotherhood and in fact any independent organisation, a new anti-terrorism law passed in August 2014 updated the 2004 legislation, allowing for expanded use of the death penalty and other severe punishments. The legislation, though cracking down on violent extremist groups at a time of regional fear about an resurgence of violent jihadist activity, also “has the potential to be used against peaceful activists and government critics due to the broad ambit of its provisions, their vague definition, and the range of actions that may be considered under the law to amount to terrorism.”

In November 2014, the UAE released a list of 82 organisations that it considers terrorist groups. Although this record includes violent organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, it also comprises nonviolent groups like Islah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to advocacy organisations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The extent of the Emirati Brotherhood’s popular support

The UAE government’s harsh crackdown is puzzling, considering that the Emirati Brotherhood never seemed to pose a major political threat, and certainly not the existential threat the government portrays it to be. Examination of its internal documents reveals that Islah held few political aspirations beyond enhancing the role of less forcefully, advancing popular participation in government.

Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed seems convinced that the Brotherhood is a major political threat. As early as 2004, in a U.S. Department of State diplomatic cable, he maintained that the UAE contained up to 700 Brotherhood members and claimed the State Security Directorate had identified 50-60 Emirati Brotherhood members in the military. Shaykh Mohammed also estimated that some 50 to 80 percent of the 60,000 UAE armed forces “would respond to the call of ‘some holy man in Mekkah’,” going on to say that he would be “‘stoned’ by his own citizens if he pushed some subjects too openly.”

Inspired by Shaykh Mohammed’s distrust of the Brotherhood and conviction that it held sway in important sectors of political life, the Abu Dhabi-based central government, having used the petition movement as an excuse to ramp up security, has strengthened its control throughout the country. For its part, Islah, now formally disbanded and designated a terrorist group, insists that it is “an independent, patriotic group that has received no funds from abroad ... [and] is loyal to the Emirati government.” The organisation continues, primarily from abroad, using its website to demand the release of its detained members and calling for the prosecution of government officials whom it believes to have tortured Islah detainees to obtain false confessions from them about the group’s militant nature.

Those inside the UAE who remain sympathetic to the Brotherhood “are very careful and keep it quiet” (interview with Dubai journalist), and there is no evidence of their influence on policy. Still, the government remains nervous, having seen the appeal of the Brotherhood’s ideology and the ability of its members to influence government ministries in the past. Although organisationally defunct, the Emirati Brotherhood maintains ideological sway over segments of the population, yet it is uncertain how large these are. Maintaining its caution toward the group, the central government is taking great care to promote secular nationalism above Islamism, even restricting the length of beards that members of the armed forces can sport lest they be mistaken for Islamists who tend to favour that look.

Conclusions   

In its recent crackdown on local Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, the Emirati government actually contributed to the Ikhwan’s political influence, openly describing it as a serious threat to the existing order “no less dangerous than Iran.” By inflating the Brotherhood’s political importance, the Emirati government forced the dismantling of the organisation and incited hatred toward it more generally, as it was portrayed as a radical militant group dangerous to the prevailing system. In reality, the Emirati Muslim Brotherhood has been concerned primarily with adjusting social policies inside of the UAE, especially in the face of increasing secularisation and Westernisation. Its attempt to promote more conservative social practices, however, was taken to be a threat to an Emirati leadership, largely under the control of Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed, which increasingly defines itself as progressive and secular.

As a consequence of this most recent and severest crackdown on the Emirati Brotherhood, it is unlikely that the group will publicly attempt to influence policies inside the UAE, though it will remain ideologically influential. Rather, it continues to focus on changing policy from outside the country – primarily with the aim of altering attitudes toward the Brotherhood that led to their imprisonment.

Courtney Freer is a Research Officer at LSE’s Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States. She recently completed her DPhil at University of Oxford and previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

Image: Part of the skyline of the city of Dubai as it appeared in the early hours of the morning from the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry building, on November 20, 2012 (AFP)