Hamad al-Shamsi is the Deputy Chairman of the UAE Resistance Union Against Normalization and the Executive Director of the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Center (EDAC).
A few weeks after the United Arab Emirates announced its normalization of relations with Israel last August, it repealed a law that had been in place since 1972: Federal Law No. 15, known as the Israeli Boycott Law. It had barred Emirati citizens and companies from establishing any economic or commercial ties with their counterparts in Israel. The normalization agreement, and the repeal of the economic boycott, soon paved the way for the arrival of the first-ever direct commercial passenger flight from Israel to the UAE, on Aug. 31, on an El Al jet carrying a delegation of Israeli and American officials.
Emirati authorities then accelerated steps to promote normalization with Israel, despite otherwise public silence within the UAE itself, with the exception of a few Emiratis affiliated with or working in the government. It was clear that a majority of Emiratis feared expressing any rejection or criticism of the so-called Abraham Accords.
This muted reaction at home to the UAE's normalization with Israel was an indication of the Emirati government's success in creating a culture of fear among its people and silencing any opposition. This policy of instilling fear and silencing people is not new for the UAE. It started a decade ago, when Emirati authorities launched a broad campaign of arrests against human rights activists and academics who had signed a petition calling for political reforms.
That crackdown led to the closure of charities and associations advocating for reform. But it also extended to the Emirates National Committee Against Normalization, which had been established in 2001. The committee opposed any form of normalization with Israel, whether it was related to commerce, culture or sports, as informal ties were just beginning to emerge. For example, in 2005, Mohammed al-Abbar, the founder and chairman of the giant Dubai-based real estate developer Emaar Properties, briefly visited Jerusalem during a trip to Ramallah and met with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other officials. Al-Abbar reportedly discussed his apparent offer to buy thousands of soon-to-be evacuated Jewish settlements in Gaza, as Israel prepared to pull its settlers out of the territory later that year.
In March 2012, Emirati authorities contacted the chairman of the committee against normalization, Ali al-Debani, asking him to stop its activities and close its headquarters, even though the UAE's Israel Boycott Law was still being enforced at the time. The committee, based in Sharjah, had about 350 members.
Ninety-four prominent Emirati dissidents and activists were later put on trial in 2013 following the political crackdown, accused of so-called crimes against national security. The group became known as the UAE 94. Four of them—human rights lawyers Mohammed al-Rukn and Mohammed al-Mansouri, and civil society activists Hamad Raqit and Mansour al-Ahmadi—were also members of the Emirates National Committee Against Normalization. With their arrest, the committee's activities were effectively suspended.
Emirati authorities later launched an undeclared campaign against dozens of Jordanian and Palestinian activists in the UAE who expressed their support for Palestinians, deporting many of them after several months of detention. Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar, who was working in Abu Dhabi, was one of those detainees. He was sentenced to five years in prison in the UAE in 2016 for "insulting the state's symbols"—because of a Facebook post written in 2014, during Israel's war on Gaza, in which he had criticized the UAE and Egypt, along with Israel, for the blockade of the Strip and expressed support for "Gazan resistance."
In Najjar's case and others, Emirati authorities have turned to new or amended laws that restrict all kinds of speech. Najjar was charged under a 2012 cybercrime law that criminalized publishing anything online deemed to show an "intent to make sarcasm or damage the reputation, prestige or stature of the State or any of its institutions." All of these laws are characterized by overly broad language, vague terms and severe penalties.
For example, Article 166 of the 2016 amendment to the Penal Code now reads as follows: "Any person who intentionally engages in any act against a foreign country that may prejudice the political relationships or expose the nationals, employees, property or interests of the State to the threat of reprisals, shall be sentenced to life imprisonment." With the UAE's normalization deal with Israel, that now means that anyone in the Emirates who does anything to criticize Israel—perhaps even symbolically tearing up Benjamin Netanyahu's picture—could face a life sentence.
Article 32 of the Cyber Crime Law of 2012 authorizes imprisonment or a fine of 500,000 dirhams—about $136,000—for anyone who uses information technology to "plan, organize, promote, or advocate demonstrations, marches, and the like without a permit from the competent authorities." In addition to protests calling for political reforms in the UAE, that may also include anyone who calls for protests against normalization with Israel.
In addition to these laws, Emirati authorities use other means to harass and punish dissidents, as well as their relatives. The State Security Agency has broad powers to prevent any security clearance necessary to do business or study in the UAE, or to even issue documents such as a birth certificate. Emiratis and others in the UAE may simply find themselves dismissed from their job or banned from traveling for speaking out or criticizing the government, however mildly.
Last year, Emirati writer and poet Dhabiya Khamis said that authorities in the UAE barred her from leaving Dubai's airport for Cairo because of her public opposition to the normalization agreement with Israel. She detailed the ordeal on her social media accounts last September. Khamis is one of the few Emiratis who have openly criticized normalization.
This fear-infused atmosphere imposed by the government has prevented Emiratis from expressing their real position on normalization with Israel. Although I and a group of Emiratis abroad established the UAE Resistance Union Against Normalization last year, following the Abraham Accords, no one in the UAE can join it or declare their support. Emirati authorities have persecuted the members of this union since 2012 for their other political activities, as part of the UAE 94 case. They cannot return to the UAE, where they await prison sentences of up to 15 years.
While the Emirati government builds a narrative for its normalization with Israel around the slogan of "tolerance," it cannot tolerate anyone who criticizes or opposes its policies, even peacefully. Yet Emirati authorities can somehow tolerate Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory and its ongoing abuse of Palestinians. What kind of tolerance is that?
Photo credit: An Etihad Airways Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner displays the Israeli and Emirati flags after landing at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on the company's first scheduled commercial flight from Abu Dhabi, April 6, 2021. (Photo by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)