The UAE wants us to believe it is in the vanguard of the fight against Islamist terrorism but the real battlefront is beginning to shape up in neighbouring Saudi Arabia
On 25 November in Abu Dhabi’s State Security Court a young man called Osama Alnajjar was given a three year jail sentence and an AED 500,000 ($136,000) fine for amongst other things defaming the United Arab Emirates. He cannot appeal the sentence. The public prosecutor had argued that the 25-year-old blogger had "spread lies and rumours and created chaos and fear in the community". His crime was to have tweeted in support of his father who was convicted last year of belonging to “a Muslim Brotherhood cell” that had allegedly conspired to overthrow the government. The father was sentenced to ten years in jail on evidence widely held to have been obtained by torture.
Meanwhile in Riyadh, again on 25 November, a Saudi Interior ministry spokespersonannounced the arrest of 77 Islamic State members including, according to the spokesperson, the four masterminds of a terror attack on a Shiite religious hall in the country’s Eastern Province three weeks ago that left eight dead.
So what do these two stories tell us about what does and what does not constitute a real and present danger in the struggle against Islamist terrorism? Let’s consider first of all the case of Osama Alnajjar.
In a previous court appearance in October he told the presiding judge that he had not been given access to his case file, nor had he been allowed contact with his lawyer while in detention. And Amnesty International has said that when he was first arrested he was held in “an unknown place” and was tortured, all charges that the UAE authorities have consistently denied.
But what has also consistently emerged is a pattern of behaviour by those same authorities over the past two years involving the arrest of members of al-Islah, a conservative religious society, alleged to have close links with the Muslim Brotherhood. What came to be known as the UAE 94 were detained in “places unknown”, allegedly tortured into giving forced confessions, and denied access to lawyers and case documents. Sixty nine, including Osama’s father were given harsh sentences with no opportunity to appeal. The remainder were acquitted.
The UAE, and most particularly its president and Abu Dhabi ruler Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyen, have determined that al-Islah is a Muslim Brotherhood front and that the Brotherhood and dozens of other worldwide terrorist and non-terrorist organisations pose a real and present danger to the country.
And thus it follows in this strangely paranoid world, that a tweet by the son of an imprisoned al-Islah member expressing concern about his father’s treatment in jail may just be the trigger that overthrows the government and casts the UAE into violent chaos. So better safe than sorry and as for those bleatings from international human rights organisations? Ignore them. After all, your allies in London and Washington are managing pretty well to do just that.
An observer in the UAE, whom I cannot name because it will in all likelihood lead to that person being jailed, called Osama Alnajjar’s case “typical.” The person by the way has no connection whatsoever to al-Islah or the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It is”, the observer said “the authorities against the individual. The laws, the court, the institutions of the state are weapons designed to intimidate and repress. No one is allowed political criticism, no one is allowed to challenge authority. We live in a police state.”
The observer described a security apparatus that is “as vicious as it is effective”, crushing dissent whilst pursuing what most independent analysts regard as a phantom terror threat.
Which brings me to Saudi Arabia and what is inarguably a true terror threat.
In responding to the attack in the Eastern Province town of al-Dalwah, the authorities have now arrested 77 people. They have referred to those apprehended as an “Islamic State (IS) cell”. That is one big cell. And many of those arrested were returnees from the jihadi frontlines in Syria and Iraq. Others had been through the kingdom’s oft-praised de-radicalising programme. What that says is that a terror threat the authorities claim to have in hand is in fact much more serious than they have yet to publically acknowledge.
IS regards the ruling House of Saud as corrupt and not worthy to be guardians of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Madinah. While it may not be able to launch a direct attack on Saudi territory, the kind of terrorist attacks the West is so fearful of are in fact as likely to happen in Riyadh or Jeddah as they are in London, New York or Paris.
And that is scarcely surprising, given that for decades the Saudi education system and the religious elite have inculcated young men with a unique blend of entitlement and intolerance built on the country’s puritanical interpretation of Islam variously referred to as Salafism or Wahhabism. To their credit, the vast majority of Saudi youth have risen above those limitations. But a small minority have not and are proving a fertile recruiting ground for IS
The authorities have been coy about the exact numbers but certainly hundreds and possibly thousands of young Saudis are said to have joined the Islamic State. And thousands more have bought into its brutally fascistic ideology. How many more cells there may be and how far IS has infiltrated into Saudi society… well those are questions that the Saudis are anxiously wrestling with. But there is no question that the kingdom faces a real, present and growing threat.
Whereas, if there is a real and present danger facing citizens in the UAE, it is not the Muslim Brotherhood, rather it is the ease with which the security apparatus and the courts have crushed dissent while the west has looked on, seemingly comfortable with the illusion that what is happening there is somehow part of the war on Islamist terrorism. It isn’t.
- Bill Law is a
award-winning journalist. He joined the BBC in 1995 and since 2002 has reported extensively from the Middle East. He has travelled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia many times. In 2003 he was one of the first journalists to cover the beginnings of the insurgency that engulfed Iraq. His documentary The Gulf: Armed & Dangerous which aired in late 2010 anticipated the revolutions that became the Arab Spring. He then covered the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Before leaving the BBC in April 2014, Mr Law was the corporation’s Gulf analyst. He now works as a freelance journalist focusing on the Gulf.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.