As the world watched the Arab Spring sweep away one Arab republican president after another, the Gulf monarchies appeared untouched by regional developments. Internationally, the Gulf States responded to these events by positioning themselves at the forefront of what has been referred to as the “counterrevolution.” Pursuing their own interests, namely re-establishing regional stability and gaining regional influence, the Gulf States both supported the popular protest movements and, at the same time, helped existing regimes crack down on their adversaries.
As the Arab Spring has continued, however, measures taken by the Gulf’s rulers to counter potential opposition to their own rule have remained in the shadows. While the oil-rich monarchies have been able to stave off opposition by generously distributing oil wealth to their citizenry, these countries remain receptive to the various ideological currents spreading in the Middle East. With the Arab Spring empowering Islamist groups in particular, the Gulf monarchies are now worried about the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups in their territories.
These concerns were reflected in the UAE’s recent wave of deportations and arrests of dissidents. Earlier this year, the UAE Emirate Dubai revoked the residence permits of Syrians, who staged a protest against Bashar Al-Assad in front of the Syrian consulate. After prominent Islamic cleric and Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Youssef Al-Qaradawi openly criticized the Emirate for deporting Syrian families, Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim threatened the popular cleric with arrest.
While criticizing the Assad regime for violently cracking down on demonstrators in Syria, Dubai has prohibited resident Syrians from staging protests. With Sunni Islamists making up a large segment of the Syrian opposition, the Emirate may fear that the political activities of Syrians in Dubai could embolden local oppositional forces.
In the last months, the UAE has further cracked down on potential opposition groups, arresting, deporting, or revoking the citizenship of dozens of Islamists.
In an apparent attempt to justify these measures, Tamim argued that Islamists were plotting to overthrow governments of the Gulf states. In a press conference, he singled out the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and Islamists in Syria as spearheading the international plot against the Gulf monarchies. This was not the first time Tamim raised the specter of an international plot to bring down Gulf governments. In March 2012, he claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood was using Twitter to weaken the UAE Government.
Many Islamist dissidents arrested during the last months were members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association (Al-Islah), which was formed by a number of Emirati intellectuals in the 1970s. Though the organization did not pose a significant threat to the government, it was soon outlawed.
The current crackdown against Islamists continues the Gulf’s historical antipathy toward ideologies emerging from a revolutionary context. In an attempt to counter-prevailing Nasserist, leftist, and Shiite ideologies, in the 1960s and 70s, the monarchies permitted Islamist dissidents from the Arab republics to seek exile in the Gulf. Prominent Islamists granted asylum included Egyptian Sheikh Youssuf Al-Qaradawi, who resides in Doha, and Sheikh Ahmad al-Qubaysi, an Iraqi TV-cleric living in Dubai.
With the Muslim Brotherhood emboldened by the 2011 upheavals, these Islamist exiles may increasingly be viewed as a potential source of political opposition. As in the past, ideologies, whether Nasserist or Islamist, are viewed as a threat by the Gulf monarchies. While local opposition groups pose no serious danger to the UAE’s stability, for the Emirates’ leaders, ideologies continue to be viewed as a potential threat to their legitimacy.