On December 22, UAE authorities banned all female Tunisian nationals, under age thirty, from boarding Emirates Airlines flights to Dubai under a temporary travel restriction. Tunisia quickly responded, announcing the suspension of all Emirates Airlines flights to and from the country on December 24, and has since demanded a public apology from the UAE. Though the UAE’s ban was quickly lifted after the outpouring of criticism, the decision has sparked a controversy between the two Arab states, which continues and hints at broader geopolitical tensions.
Tunisia’s Ministry of Transport immediately decried the UAE’s actions as “illegal” and “contradictory to the regulations in force in international civil aviation,” according to the state news agency. After the ban’s announcement, many Tunisian women at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunisia expressed feeling doubly degraded for their nationality and gender.
UAE officials have claimed the ban was prompted by intelligence reports suggesting women travelling on Tunisian passports might try to enter the Gulf country to commit “terrorist acts.” A report published last year by the Tunisian Center for Research and Studies on Terrorism, however, found that only 3.5 percent of jailed extremists were women.
Tunisians, women in particular, have overwhelmingly derided the move by the UAE as unnecessarily discriminatory and humiliating. Many political analysts have, in fact, dismissed the so-called security threat and pointed to other motivations for the ban. As political analyst Hamza Meddeb has argued, the decision more likely stems from Tunisia’s decision to remain neutral in the on-going Gulf Crisis.
In June, the UAE was among several Arab states to cut ties with Qatar over the latter’s alleged support for Islamist extremism. Meddeb believes the UAE’s travel ban was an attempt to pressure Tunisia to pick sides in the dispute, and discourage Tunisia’s ruling party Nidaa Tounes from allying with the country’s leading Islamist party Ennahda, which has links to Qatar, ahead of local elections in May. The ban’s focus on women may have been a calculated move to elicit a prompt response from Tunisia, based on its commitment to defending women’s rights.
Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, a rift has been gradually growing between the North African nation and the UAE. Prior to the revolution, the UAE was Tunisia’s second-largest trading partner in the region and maintained close ties to Tunisia’s long-time despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In the years since, however, Qatar has increasingly developed better relations with Tunisia, not only establishing ties to the Ennahda Party, but also pledging $1.25 billion of aid to the country in the last year alone.
According to Tunisian political analyst Youssef Cherif, Tunisia’s weak economy has made the country reliant on this aid and forced the government to remain neutral in the Gulf Crisis. This position seems to have backfired and angered the Emiratis in this instance.
While the current situation between Tunisia and the UAE has not yet turned into its own crisis, as an extension of the geopolitical situation in the Gulf, it could easily escalate, upsetting regional dynamics even further.