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UAE - How Radical Islam Is Kept Away.

The problem of Islamic militancy, which has affected almost every country in the Arab World, has left the UAE virtually untouched. There have been no reports of any shadowy group claiming that it intends to overthrow the current ruling superstructure and to replace it with an "Islamic state". By contrast, the other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) members, apart from Qatar, have faced such problems through the 1990s. The UAE has, in effect, managed to insulate itself from the regional virus of radical Islam through a combination of subtle and overt measures.

To some extent, this has to do with the subtle way in which the union deals with the question of radical Islam in the region. The UAE has not been overtly critical of Islamic militancy in the Middle East, but at the same time it has been very careful to monitor for any hint of militant tendencies developing within the federation itself. It has co-operated with the Arab states facing this problem by ensuring that its territory is not used by individuals as "safe havens", yet it is now known that financial institutions in the union have been used by militant forces to conduct their transactions.

It is important to note that the UAE was one of just three states - apart from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - to recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which had become a major supporter of militant activities spreading from Xinjiang to Morocco and from Kashmir to Chechnya from the mid-1990s to 2001. This relative ambiguity towards radical Islam outside its territory, combined with the function of a couple of UAE emirates as a clearing house for militant finances, helped keep such tendencies from destabilising the emirate.

Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, for instance, during the mid- to late-1990s had few other friends; senior leaders of the movement were known to visit the UAE frequently. As such, the unwritten quid pro quo was that they would be expected to reciprocate the generosity of UAE-based businessmen by making sure that no group attempting to undermine the federation's interest would be allowed to operate from Afghan territory.

A similar equation existed (and continues to do so) with Pakistan, which has very close economic and strategic links with the UAE - to the extent that many members of the UAE's armed forces are Pakistanis, especially in the air force. As such, Islamabad will not jeopardise its relations with the federation either, by allowing the numerous radical groups in its territory to criticise or challenge the UAE authorities. For its part, by "turning a half-blind eye" towards the private financiers of militancy, the UAE had kept open the option of deniability towards the outside world, as well as of cracking down on the financiers when necessary.

That is exactly what they did after the global scenario changed following 9/11. The US began to crack down worldwide, and it was unambiguous in its demands that all activities related to the financing of terrorism must cease. The UAE began co-operating fully, recognising that it did not risk any backlash from the militant formations and their sympathisers - whose main objective now is to stay away from the anti-terrorism spotlight being shone on all suspected targets worldwide.

Through such highly adaptive policies, the UAE has become better placed than most of its neighbours in terms of internal security and social stability. It has managed to avoid sectarian and radical Islamic tendencies within local society and there have been no signs of major destabilising tensions inside the ruling superstructure. The general public is quite satisfied and is not too keen to shift to a "chaotic democracy". The potential for any incubation of militant tendencies, furthermore, has been pre-empted by a combination of incentives and disincentives.

The incentives include cradle to grave assistance for the nationals who are enjoying one of the most comprehensive welfare programmes in the world. Another subtle incentive is a great degree of economic freedom. UAE nationals have wide latitude in determining their own economic future and, as a result, they have not shown much interest in changing their political system - which is essentially viewed as benevolent and in line with cultural and religious traditions. Observers feel this would change only if there is a great economic downturn, which is not likely in the foreseeable future.

Political activism is not tolerated, which rules out any room for manoeuvre by preachers in mosques, or other radical elements - at least as far as criticising the ruling superstructure is concerned. The press is vibrant and relatively free in reporting world events, and is partly in private hands. But in February 1999, the International Press Institute (IPI) said the UAE "has nothing approaching a free press", i.e. comparable to the West. Yet, while there are curbs on what can be published in the media, there is relatively greater freedom - especially among academics - to question government policies and to suggest alternatives. The net result of this carrot and stick approach is that political opposition of any kind to the ruling superstructure is virtually non-existent.

Nevertheless, although the militant movements are on the run, the UAE continues to be very suspicious about the phenomenon of militancy. In 1993, Dubai placed private mosques under the control of its Department of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, giving the local government control over the appointment of preachers. Most mosques across the UAE are funded or subsidised by the government, and the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious affairs sees to it that the theologians stick to the approved topics in their sermons.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:Jun 30, 2003
Previous Article:UAE - The Rifts Within Muslim States - Part 17.
Next Article:UAE - The Question Of Succession & The Labour Issue.

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