UAE’s Counterterrorism Efforts and the Challenge of Political Islam

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When it was uncovered that two Emirati citizens were among the 19 hijackers implicated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the national leadership was deeply concerned. Affiliates of Islamist terrorist parties had infiltrated UAE society and spread radical, violent principles within the nation’s borders. The prestige of the United Arab Emirates has been seriously damaged worldwide, especially in Washington, the country’s most relevant security partner.

The government decided to eradicate violent extremism and radical ideologies and substitute them with a moderate understanding of Islam that is inclusive and multicultural. After the Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East in 2011, the UAE doubled its actions against violent Islamist groups and movements across the region by encouraging tolerance. To this aim, the country’s government has launched a significant transformational overhaul of its legal system and several interfaith initiatives, becoming an illustration for other countries interested in assuming a moderate model of Islam.

While the UAE has successfully promoted interfaith dialogues and mutual learning between different cultures, the campaign to maintain its moderate Islam model dovetails with the ruling aristocracy’s need to uphold the regime’s security at home and increase its reputational standing globally. Tolerance has strengthened the country’s soft power and economic security. 

The UAE’s reaction to 9/11 was two-fold. They entered the U.S.-led “war on terror” to help repair their image internationally. Still, they also launched a process geared toward the incremental reappropriation by the federal government of the space, symbols, moral authority, and mobilizing power linked with Islam.

In less than a decade, the Arab Uprising began in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East. Thousands of disaffected nationals took to the streets urging change. Heads such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in authority for decades, were expelled, and significant regional powerhouses, such as Syria and Egypt, fell into prolonged civil conflicts. The protests started a power vacuum, and political Islam-inspired activities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadi-Salafi terrorist groups, rolled in quickly to fill the hole.

Muslim Brotherhood cohorts such as Da’wa al-Islah played a significant function in the UAE in the mid-1970s. During the 1980s, the trend gradually influenced policymaking processes, especially by ensuring important bureaucratic positions at universities and government offices. The Brotherhood also forged close links with different societies through its charitable activities, yet by the 1990s, the group had been offset. The situation dramatically transformed with the Arab uprisings of 2011. The Brotherhood was seen as a possible alternative in multiple countries plagued by decades of lawlessness and was elected to authority in Egypt in 2012 under leader Mohamed Morsi.

The UAE leadership witnessed the Brotherhood’s agenda as a threat to the regime’s stability and treated the association as a threat to domestic security. In 2013, 60 members of Islah were charged and found guilty of trying to destroy the UAE government. In 2014, the Brotherhood was established as a terrorist organization. Since then, the UAE has also smashed down on other reformist political activities, Islamist or otherwise.

By directly associating Brotherhood-affiliated activities with Islamist terrorist groups, the UAE tried to deny their need for political reform as a by-product of a radical, violent ideology and antithesis of the model of moderate Islam the country wants to encourage. Therefore, the Emirati move toward tolerance stemmed from the regime’s security demand to contain the ideological appeal and the mobilizing force of both political Islam-inspired and liberal movements.

The UAE’s tolerance-based plan at home and abroad took form amid a campaign to restrain the expansion of political reformist trends in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. Unlike some of its close regional neighbors, such as KSA and Bahrain, the UAE did not see substantial street protests. However, they did accept a petition supported by Islamist and liberal processes that called for broad constitutional reforms and an introduction of the domestic political space.

From the standpoint of the UAE’s leadership, any form of politicization of Islam is considered an “incubator of all extreme offshoots” and needs to be countered to contain the spread of religious radicalism. This set the UAE on a crash course with competing understandings of Islam, including its Arabian Gulf neighbor, Qatar, which launched political and ideological ties with the Muslim Brotherhood after the eruption of the Arab uprisings. The conflict between the two countries about the relationship between politics and religion and “diverging reflections of regime security, threat perceptions, and regional stability” finished with the UAE cutting off diplomatic ties with Doha in 2017.

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