Details emerge in UAE closing of pro-democracy groups

Story highlights

  • UAE: Groups were ordered to stop work because they were operating without a license
  • An official of one of the groups disputes the government's accusations
  • An employee of one of the groups was questioned and let go; he cannot travel, a source says
New details have emerged in the United Arab Emirates' shuttering last week of two nongovernmental organizations that worked primarily on promoting democracy.
The Dubai office of U.S.-based National Democratic Institute was shut down March 28, followed by the closure of the Abu Dhabi office of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, an organization based in Germany, the next day.
An NDI staff member was detained at the Dubai airport this week, questioned for several hours and let go, said an NDI official.
The employee, a Serbian national, is still in Dubai and cannot travel, the official said. Another employee, an American, left the country.
Also this week, the UAE's state WAM news agency said that the two organizations were ordered to halt operations because of license disputes.
"Some foreign institutions that were operating in the UAE have violated the terms of the license; some have been operating without a license," said Abdul Rahim al Awadhi, assistant UAE foreign minister for legal affairs, according to WAM. "This obliged the legal authorities to issue instructions that they should cease their work in the UAE."
The NDI official said the organization has had an office in Dubai since 2008 and "has a valid license as a training consultancy. License and visas have been renewed each year. No criminal or other indictments have been filed yet that we know of.
"NDI has no activities or programs of any type in the UAE and never has. We have used the office to coordinate training programs for women, municipal councilors and civil society groups in the Gulf region generally."
Both pro-democracy groups saw their offices raided and shut down last year in Egypt.
Egyptian authorities accused the organizations of international interference that was stoking continued protests against the current military-led government.
The German organization, described as a think tank associated with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), reacted with surprise.
"We can only react with utter disbelief to the unexpected and sudden developments in Abu Dhabi. We have not been given any viable reasons.
"After the experiences in Egypt, we not only regret this decision. We would see it as an alarming signal if nongovernmental organizations and political foundations are not welcome in the Arab world," said Hans-Gert Poettering, head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation.
Human rights groups of late have stepped up their criticism of the UAE.
According to Samer Muscati, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, at least three online activists have been detained in recent weeks.
"It seems that the government is still frightened by the events transpiring in the Middle East and are trying to do what it takes to keep the Arab Spring from reaching its shore, regardless of how small that possibility might be," he said.
Unlike many other nations in the region, the UAE was never affected by Arab Spring inspired protests. Nonetheless, the government has been quick to pursue activists who call for reform.
Last year, the citizenship of seven activists -- known as UAE 7 -- was revoked by UAE. The seven pro-democracy activists with ties to Islamist groups were found to be a threat to national security.
Also last year, five activists were arrested, tried and convicted for publicly insulting top UAE officials, committing acts that pose a threat to state security, undermining public order, opposing the government system and instigating others to break laws.
UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan pardoned all five a day after they were sentenced to prison terms.
According to Muscati, there was hope that the pardoning of the five activists last year was a signal of change to come, but that has not been the case.
"These recent arrests are just a continuation of attempts by the authorities to silence critics and other dissenting voices," Muscati said.