UAE cultural chasm may benefit Islamists

DUBAI Wed Jun 20, 2012 10:20am EDT

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DUBAI (Reuters) - The show had everything Madonna's fans could have wished for: erotic dancing, provocative outfits, a giant cross, bare-chested monks and a Hebrew prayer.

But for many Muslim Emiratis, the Queen of Pop's first performance in the Gulf region earlier this month was just too much.

"After Madonna, what next? The UAE's reputation has been sullied, the people's feelings were ignored and the call to respect our values were taken lightly," wrote Twitter user Rashed Alshamsi, one comment in a rare public outpouring of criticism against the authorities for allowing the performance.

The campaign reflected growing anxiety among both conservative and liberal Emiratis that their local traditions and Islamic values are at risk as the Arab state rapidly expands, thanks largely to expatriate labor.

Less than 10 percent of the country's estimated eight million people are Emirati.

"There is a large degree of apprehension among Emiratis that we are a minority, that Arabic is not the main spoken language, and that there is a rise in foreigners and problems like alcohol and prostitution," said Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a UAE-based political commentator.

The protests that have swept four Arab heads of state from office and strengthened the Islamist movement throughout the Middle East have not been seen in the UAE, thanks in part to its cradle-to-grave welfare system.

But the authorities remain concerned that the rise of Islamists to power elsewhere could embolden its own Islamists' movement, and show little tolerance of dissent.

Authorities have arrested at least 10 Islamists in the past two months, including a ruling family member who is being held at the ruler's palace in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, in an apparent clampdown on dissidents.

Islamists in the UAE say they share similar ideology with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt but have no direct links with the group, seen as a mentor for all Islamist groups in the region.

Emirati sources say the UAE will not allow religion to be exploited to sow discord. Analysts said that some of the issues advocated by Islamists may appeal to conservative Emiratis, even if many do not agree with their ideology, however.

"Islamists are populists, they appeal to people in the UAE (because) they talk about the importance of Arabic as the main language, the traditions of the UAE, about the rise in numbers of expats," said Qassemi.

CULTURAL CHASM

The economic boom in Abu Dhabi and Dubai has made UAE citizens some of the world's wealthiest with an annual income per capita of $48,000, but it has also brought what some see as unwelcome Western influence.

The cultural divide in the UAE between the native Muslim population and expatriates, mostly non-Arabs, is conspicuous on the streets.

While Emirati women cover themselves from head to toe with a headscarf and abaya, a traditional formless black gown, their expatriate counterparts walk around in shorts or mini-skirts, and public beaches are full of tourists sunbathing in bikinis.

Islam bans alcohol for Muslims. But in the UAE, non-Muslims with an official license can legally buy alcohol from certain shops, and beach bars and the infamous all-you-can-drink brunches heave with revelers every weekend.

"Islamists are conservative, they don't agree with most of what is happening with Abu Dhabi and Dubai when it comes to the lifestyle of people and the changes in the culture and identity," said Ahmed Mansoor, a liberal blogger and one of five activists jailed last year for criticizing the authorities.

"The circumstances in the UAE may have served the Islamists and their popular demands."

Islamists in the UAE say all they want is more civil rights and greater power for the Federal National Council, a quasi-parliamentary body that advises the government but has no legislative authority.

The government has sought to address people's worries. It has encouraged population growth, enforced curbs on unskilled workers and pushed ahead with "Emiratisation", a policy where local firms are required to hire a set percentage of nationals.

Shopping malls in Dubai now have signs encouraging foreigners to dress modestly, and public displays of affection, such as kissing, risk being punished under the country's decency laws.

In 2010, a British couple were sentenced to a month in jail and fined in Dubai for kissing on the mouth in a restaurant.

Last week, a member of the Federal National Council said that dress code and behavior have become such an issue for Emiratis in the UAE that a federal law might become necessary.

"We are not asking residents or tourists to veil their faces or hair but we are asking them to comply with our norms and traditions," FNC member Hamad Ahmad al-Rahoomi told Reuters.

A Twitter campaign "UAEDressCode" launched last month by two Emirati women against skimpy clothes has prompted wider public discussion of the issue.

"Whatever your views, the campaign message remains valid: expatriates should respect the UAE's cultural values when in public spaces," wrote columnist Mishaal al-Gergawi in the Gulf News daily.

GROWING CONSERVATISM, ISLAMIC SENTIMENTS

Through social media, the UAE's Islamists have become more vocal than ever and some diplomats and analysts say the UAE is worried that Islamists could use these social grievances as a platform to gain popularity among ordinary Emiratis.

"The UAE is a devoutly Muslim society," said an Emirati source close to the government. "Islam is a fundamental part of our culture and daily life. But we will not permit it to be misused to promote division and discord."

The UAE last year revoked the citizenship of seven Islamists it described as posing a threat to national security.

The Islamists arrested in the past two months are mainly from the more conservative northern emirates such as Sharjah, the only emirate that completely bans alcohol, or Ras al-Khaimah, home to one of the September 11 hijackers and one of the other emirates that has benefited less from the oil wealth.

Many are members of al-Islah (Reform) Islamist group, which some members say has several thousand followers though officials estimate the number in the hundreds.

"It is a dangerous situation and people have been talking about it for years, and we have raised it as well," said Muhammed al-Siddiq, an Islah member and one of the seven stripped of their citizenship, referring to the large number of expatriates in the UAE.

"If you went to Dubai now, you can hardly find an Emirati citizen," Siddiq told Reuters in Sharjah before being detained again by the authorities in April.

"We say if you found one, then you have to shake his hand and say hello, how are you? Because Emirati citizens have become a minority."

(Additional reporting by Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by Sami Aboudi, Richard Woods and Sonya Hepinstall)

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