The United Arab Emirates encourages students like myself to study abroad, not only to obtain knowledge that is unavailable within the country but also to amass experiences that otherwise would not be available at home. A student sent abroad is encouraged to participate in the foreign culture and become integrated within their new society. Unrestricted freedom of expression like that in the United States is one aspect of Western society that is consistently jarring to me. And although it may be surprising, I would argue that this pillar of Western society is incompatible and even harmful within the UAE — it’s not an objective good.
For Emiratis studying abroad in the U.S., the freedom to speak and criticize freely allows for them to become critical thinkers and vocal dissidents against causes and organizations which they deem unjust. While the ability to openly express disapproval is perfectly fine in the U.S., the UAE isn’t the type of society that would tolerate it. Putting aside the moral arguments about the value of having an inquisitive liberal base present in the Gulf region for now, I believe that, from the point of view of the UAE leadership, the UAE must continue to restrict access to liberal thought to maintain a thriving state that produces the current model of a good citizen.
I am not saying that voicing your opinions is an inherently bad quality of a citizen. It is, however, a bad quality for a Gulf citizen specifically, as being a liberal thinker, critic or expressionist goes against the model of the state. In my classes here at NYU, I have learned to critique works of art, fiction and political theory, which I have used outside of class to analyze real works. The aim of criticism, even well-intended criticism, is to empower and improve the state of society, as no institution or state is perfect. Yet there’s an inherent tension with the introduction of this concept into a society like the UAE’s — criticism, viewed as a dangerous tool, prevents the state from operating at its fullest capacity.
To shed some light on why freedom of expression is so alien to a UAE national, it is important to understand what society in the UAE looks like. Although the country has made leaps and bounds in the fields of commerce, technology and business, it remains stagnant in terms of expanding upon individual rights like the freedom of speech. Having lived in the UAE for the majority of my life, I would obtain my news from a single state-run daily newspaper called Emirates Today. Other newspapers, such as The National and Gulf News, do exist but are also heavily influenced by state institutions. This homogenizes public opinion as access to a multitude of news sources is restricted. Some independent news outlets, such as the Middle East Eye, are actually banned within the UAE and the internet is also censored within the state.
This is not to say that the UAE is a draconian monarchy in which individuals are quashed for simple expression. Rather, the UAE requires a certain level control for the security of the state. It is important to note that the model of the state of the UAE is based upon a system that dictates public narrative for the betterment of society within the country. The proper functioning of such a society requires that the state maintains relative control over public opinion. As citizens of the United Arab Emirates, we submit the liberty of free expression to the state in exchange for regional security — a cost all citizens rightly view as worthwhile paying. The outcome of immersion in societies that do not share these values breeds either dissidents that are detrimental to the state or recluses who choose not to participate in such a culture. Take Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who has unfortunately been a victim of an incident that cost him his life due to this position as a vocal critic of a Gulf state. Naturally, Khashoggi and other dissidents must exist in exile due to the limited freedom allowed for liberal thought in the Gulf states.The result of bringing home freedom of expression then defeats the whole purpose of studying abroad. At best, it creates confusion within the UAE national as one adjusts to values that are inapplicable back home.
I do concede that it is a strange argument to make that a more restricted state is better. However, I am addressing this argument from the point of view of what is better for the state and not the citizen. I believe that we can treat societies like the UAE and the U.S. as binaries — black and white. The way in which they operate and the freedoms which they allow their citizens are very different and ultimately incompatible. There can be no functioning marriage of these societies and as such, the UAE government must either further restrict or completely open up.
We can see the repercussions of what a balancing act can lead to through again by examining what happened with Khashoggi. This incident is a direct implication of the Gulf nation attempting to walk the line between allowing citizens to participate in free societies and demanding absolute control. And allowing for the hybridization of Western values and values of the Gulf states can give rise to conflicts and incidents similar to Khashoggi’s death.
It’s important to see the value of these restrictive measures in the region since they do provide security at the cost of liberty. The UAE has been one of the few countries to escape the Arab Spring virtually unscathed and this was by and large due to the state-controlled public narrative. UAE nationals also enjoy a high-standard of living as a result of its oil and its economic model of no taxation, which I believe is only made possible through having no representation and a unified public opinion. The pervasive sense of unity within the nation comes from its very small size and its tribal culture. In fact, my last name is actually my tribe name, one that I share with thousands of UAE nationals. To criticize the government is to speak ill of all the citizens of the UAE. It is seen as malicious, and the harm falls on those who are most likely very close to you. In short, UAE nationals are by nature deterred from criticizing the state.
In his last op-ed published posthumously, Khashoggi wrote what the Arab World needs most is free expression. Considering the UAE leadership, I would argue vehemently against such a concept, simply because it would be harmful to the state and I intrinsically want only what is in the best interest of the UAE. Personally, I have reaped the benefits of being able to participate in such an open dialogue at NYU — I have become a more of an analytical thinker and I am able to create logical critiques that challenge powerful institutions. But I see no pathway to an open UAE society in which dissidents and critics can enjoy the same kind of freedom present in the U.S. without inflicting damage and challenging the authority of the state of the UAE, since the basic model of the government demands the absence of challenges to power. While I consider myself an advocate for the freedom of expression, I also believe that the attempt to instill that value within the UAE would have it descend into anarchy or civil war during the transition. Without a peaceful path, states like the UAE must continue to function as they have been, which is to restrict freedom and require the cooperation of every citizen for the security and safety of the country.
An Emirati Abroad offers insight into the social and cultural interactions of the United Arab Emirates population internally and its intersections with the Western world. As a local, Jasem hopes to correct the inaccurate and at times problematic perception of the UAE by shedding light on the important aspects of Emirati life and providing a reflection of the current UAE cultural landscape as he sees it.
Jasem Alzaabi is a junior studying Mechanical Engineering at Tandon School of Engineering. Email Jasem at [email protected]
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