Specialist in Middle
The UAE’s relatively
open borders and economy have won praise from advocates of expanded freedoms
in the Middle East while producing financial excesses, social ills such as
human trafficking, and relatively lax controls on sensitive technologies
acquired from the West. Moreover, the social and economic freedoms have
not translated into significant political opening; the UAE government
remains under the control of a small circle of leaders, even as it allows
informal citizen participation and traditional consensus-building. Members of
the elite (the ruling families of the seven emirates and clans allied with
them) also routinely obtain favored treatment in court cases and lucrative
business opportunities. However, economic wealth— coupled with some
government moves against political activists—have enabled the UAE to avoid widescale
popular unrest that have erupted elsewhere in the Middle East since early 2011.
Political reform has been limited, both before and since the Arab uprisings
began in the region. Lacking popular pressure for elections, the UAE long
refrained from following other Gulf states’ institution of electoral
processes. It altered that position in December 2006 when it instituted a selection
process for half the membership of its consultative body, the Federal National
Council (FNC). Possibly to try to ward off the unrest sweeping the region,
the government significantly expanded the electorate for the September 24,
2011, FNC election process. However, turnout was only about 25%,
suggesting that the clamor for democracy in UAE remains limited or that the citizenry
perceived the election as unlikely to produce change. And, the government has
not announced a major expansion of the FNC’s powers, which many
intellectuals and activists seek.
On foreign policy issues, the UAE—along with fellow Gulf state Qatar—has become increasingly
and uncharacteristically assertive in recent years. This assertiveness is
probably a product of the UAE’s ample financial resources and drive for
more influence in Gulf state deliberations. It has joined the United
States and U.S. allies in backing and then implementing most international
sanctions against Iran, causing friction with its powerful northern neighbor.
It has deployed troops to Afghanistan since 2004. In 2011, it sent police
to help the beleaguered government of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council
(GCC) state Bahrain, supported operations against Muammar Qadhafi of
Libya, joined a successful GCC diplomatic effort to broker a political
solution to the unrest in Yemen, backed the Arab League suspension of Syria,
and appointed an Ambassador to NATO. It gives large amounts of
international humanitarian and development aid, for example for relief
efforts in Somalia. The UAE’s growing assertiveness on foreign policy
marks its emergence from the 2008-2010 global financial crisis and recession.
That downturn hit Dubai emirate particularly hard and called into question
its strategy of rapid, investment-fueled development, especially of luxury
For the Obama Administration and many in Congress, there are concerns about the
UAE oversight and management of a complex and technically advanced initiative
such as a nuclear power program. This was underscored by dissatisfaction
among some Members of Congress with a U.S.-UAE civilian nuclear
cooperation agreement. The agreement was signed on May 21, 2009, submitted
to Congress that day, and entered into force on December 17, 2009. However,
expert concerns about potential leakage of U.S. and other advanced
technologies through the UAE to Iran, in particular, remain.
Date of Report: May 9, 2012
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: RS21852
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