by Giorgio Cafiero
Arguably, of all Arab states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is least tolerant of political Islam and most determined to weaken its influence throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The rulers in Abu Dhabi, who control most decision-making on the federal and international level, see no distinction between a moderate, democratic Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party, such as Tunisia’s Ennahda, and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and other ultra-violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and al-Shabaab.
UAE authorities have clamped down on Islamist activism in the Emirates where, in contrast to Bahrain and Kuwait, no Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations are permitted to exist, let alone hold any power in government. Since the 1990s, officials in Abu Dhabi have seen Islamists in the UAE as an internal “creeping threat” to the federation’s survival as a nation-state and have often pointed their fingers at foreign states—chiefly Qatar, which Abu Dhabi has accused of sponsoring Islamists in the UAE in order to weaken the Emirates’ regional and global influence.
That the UAE’s official religion is Islam, the country has Sharia (Islamic) courts, and Emirati rulers frequently use religious language illustrates how Islam is importantly connected to the concept of political legitimacy in the Emirates. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood, as a transnational movement that advocates democratic reforms, social justice, charity, and a rejection of certain Western influences, poses an ideational threat to the UAE’s rulers from social, religious, and political standpoints. At the heart of Abu Dhabi’s threat perception of the Muslim Brotherhood is the challenge of sustaining legitimacy, especially once the UAE enters the post-oil period and the nation’s social contract comes under new strains.
In the UAE, Islamists have capitalized on perceived injustices and cultural ills (readily available alcohol, bikini-clad tourists at beaches, prostitution, nightclubs, etc.), and high levels of inequality between Abu Dhabi and Dubai on the one hand and the five less wealthy emirates—Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain—on the other. Such realities in the UAE have afforded members of al-Islah—the UAE’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood affiliate—an opportunity to portray themselves as pious Muslims in a country governed by rulers who have deviated from “appropriate” (as they see it) Islamic social practices. This kind of rhetoric unsettles Emirati leaders as it threatens to undermine their legitimacy.
As Christopher Davidson put it, “Islah’s commitment to keep pushing for evolution towards democracy—in line with a clause in the UAE constitution of 1971—has effectively placed it into direct confrontation with the country’s now committedly apolitical ruling families. Less obviously, Islah has also served a useful bogeyman role, as most of the arrests have been publicly blamed, albeit without substantive evidence, on some kind of external plot involving the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.”
From the UAE’s standpoint, countering extremism in the Islamic world requires cooperation among all Muslim-majority countries’ governments and a common understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Abu Dhabi’s perceptions of Qatar and Turkey as predatory states are largely based on the support that Doha and Ankara have provided the region’s various Muslim Brotherhood offshoots. Emirati leaders see this as a grave threat to peace, stability, and moderation not just in the Persian Gulf, but across the greater Islamic world.
Throughout the post-2011 period, Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy has become increasingly aggressive in terms of countering perceived Islamist menaces. The UAE’s role in Libya as a sponsor of Operation Dignity, its military campaigns against Islamist groups in Yemen, its support for the Egyptian coup in 2013, its reported coordination with Russia and the Damascus regime in fighting Islamist groups in Syria’s civil war, and its blockade of Qatar are all demonstrative of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ)’s determination to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups all over the MENA region. Allegations that the UAE supported the failed 2016 coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan must also be viewed in the context of Abu Dhabi’s efforts to push back against political Islam.
Anti-Muslim Brotherhood Campaign in London
The UAE’s efforts to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood have played out in the West too. Abu Dhabi has attempted to pressure the United Kingdom in particular into changing its views of political Islam. In July 2018, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash delivered a speech before Policy Exchange (a think-tank linked to the British Conservative Party) in which he called the Muslim Brotherhood a “gateway drug to jihadism of all kinds.”
That same month, UAE lobbying efforts in London and Washington faced controversy after Spinwatch (a public interest monitor) released a 52-page report unveiling communications between lobbyists and British diplomats that highlighted the “aggressive nature” of the UAE lobby in the UK and the U.S. Spinwatch reported that UAE lobbying aims “to bend those countries’ home and foreign policy to promote its interests and further its agenda.” According to the report, “Promising billions in return for influence in the U.S., infiltrating the British media to smear rivals, threatening to interfere in British parliamentary select committee reports, buying politicians’ loyalty with lavish trips, donating to think-tanks and trying to influence them and protesting against press freedom—something that the UAE does not itself recognize—some would see as a step too far.”
Emirati officials have reported that the Muslim Brotherhood, having “been masterful in working undercover and presenting themselves in a veneer of moderation,” is “ingrained” in British society. The presence of Emirati Islamists as recipients of political asylum in London has fueled friction in the UAE and UK’s bilateral relationship. Authorities in the Emirates have pushed their British counterparts to deport al-Islah figures. Against the backdrop of the UK’s post-Brexit political climate, in which Islamophobia is an undeniable reality, the UAE’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood campaign in Britain has sought to capitalize on anti-Islamic/anti-Islamist attitudes in the country to stoke anti-Qatari sentiments throughout the GCC crisis.
To this end, to influence discourse in the UK’s capital, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have set up “mysterious” anti-Qatar organizations. By attempting to cement an association between the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist terror factions that have spilled blood in London and Manchester, the UAE’s lobbying efforts have sought to make more Brits see a connection between Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism to the UK and to the Western world at large.
In September 2017, exiled Qatari businessman Khalid al-Hail organized the Qatar, Global Security & Stability Conference in London. The speakers included a host of American, British, and Israeli politicians, analysts, and military officials with a notable absence of Qataris. This “opposition” conference called for a “bloodless coup” in Doha. Media outlets in the UAE broadcast the event live. Funding for the conference also allegedly came from the Emirates.
In November 2014, the UAE sent a strong message to London when it designated three UK-based organizations—Islamic Relief Organisation in London (a.k.a. Islamic Relief), Cordoba Foundation in Britain, and Islamic Association in Britain—as terrorist groups. These three UK-based entities belonged to a list of 85 “terrorist” organizations that the UAE released at once. Among those listed were numerous non-profit Muslim organizations in other Western countries such as the Washington, DC-headquartered Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Islamic Relief, the largest Islamic charity in the West with a presence in over 20 countries and cooperative ties with European Union officials, “regularly promotes extremist preachers” and has links to the Muslim Brotherhood, according to UAE media.
From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, the UK government should join the UAE in viewing Islamic Relief, Cordoba Foundation in Britain, and Islamic Association in Britain as terrorist threats, not legitimate actors in British civil society. The UAE’s leadership believes that British officials are misguided in providing cover to such organizations with alleged Muslim Brotherhood connections under the banner of freedom of speech. Writing for the Abu Dhabi-based The National, Sam Westrop, the Director of Islamist Watch (a project of the right-wing US-based Middle East Forum) has called on Western governments to recognize that Islamic Relief is “a charity that has served for three decades as a key conduit for international aid efforts [which] could also be the financial arm for an international movement dedicated to promoting extremism and instability, and to radicalising historically moderate Muslim communities.”
Disagreements on Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood
In a move that many analysts considered the result of pressure from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the UK government conducted a controversial review into the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014. Sir John Jenkins, London’s then-ambassador to Riyadh, led the review, which was released in December 2015. The Jenkins report found no direct links between the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK and “radical” Islam. Nonetheless it concluded that membership might serve as a “possible indicator of extremism” with the movement being a “rite of passage” to violent radicalization for certain members. After the Jenkins report was completed, then-Prime Minister David Cameron stated that London would not outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood—however, he did assert that it maintained a “highly ambiguous relationship with violence” and was “deliberately opaque.”
Looking ahead, there appears no reason to conclude that the UK is on the verge of designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Doing so would clearly be interpreted as caving to pressure from London’s Arab Persian Gulf allies, rather than any credible intelligence, and is thus highly unlikely. Additionally, another factor, which also weighs into the U.S. government’s decision to avoid designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, is the fact that key Arab allies of the West permit local Muslim Brotherhood branches’ political wings to run for seats in the parliament and influence discourse on social issues. Such Arab states include Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. Additionally, fellow NATO member Turkey’s ruling neo-Islamist party—the Justice and Development Party—is understood as being ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Qatar crisis, which broke out in May/June 2017 and remains unresolved, has further highlighted the limits of Abu Dhabi’s means to influence London’s position on the Muslim Brotherhood. Developments in Qatar-UK relations since the GCC dispute erupted have reaffirmed London’s keenness to continue engaging and cooperating with Doha despite diplomatic pressure from the Saudi/UAE-led anti-Qatar quartet. Like other Western capitals, London has seen its relationship with Doha as useful for addressing geopolitical crises in the Middle East, as well as attracting greater foreign investment through the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), which has pumped billions into the British economy.
Having signaled how vested the UK is in expanding ties with Doha, the UK has made it clear to Abu Dhabi that London, along with Washington, Paris, and Berlin, will not support the anti-Qatar bandwagon of authoritarian Arab states in their quest to eradicate political Islam from the MENA region. That the UK has shown no willingness to reassess its relationship with Qatar highlights the failure of the UAE to sell its blockade of Doha to the establishment in London as a responsible action aimed at countering violent extremism.
The Matthew Hedges Case: Challenging a Balance of Power
According to an anonymous source cited by Arabi21, while detained in the UAE from May to November 2018, Matthew Hedges was a bargaining chip that the UAE government used to pressure officials in London into extraditing political opponents currently based in the United Kingdom who’d been granted asylum. The report stated: “The move angered the British who told Abu Dhabi that British law does not allow the extradition of people granted asylum and that the procedure was complex and could not be done through an easy government decision.” While the issue of political Islam has fueled some tension between London and Abu Dhabi for years, the recent detention of Hedges (if indeed related to questions of political Islam), and the international outcry over his detention in the press, would signal how this issue has potential to heavily impact issues at the fore of UK-UAE relations.
Given the extent to which Abu Dhabi and London have enjoyed a historic and strong relationship—a relationship shaped by Emirati investment in the UK, by the many British nationals who work and vacation in the UAE, and defense deals that are extremely lucrative for the UK, Hedges’ case took many by surprise. Amid his saga, MP Crispin Blunt wrote articles demanding that the UK revisit its ties with Abu Dhabi. He argued that London should consider replacing the UAE with either Bahrain or Oman as a favored Persian Gulf ally. Ultimately, under strong British pressure, the UAE blinked and freed Hedges last month.
But with MbZ at the helm, the UAE is unlikely to accept a junior partner status in the Abu Dhabi-London relationship. Looking ahead, the world is growing more multipolar, which has major implications for UK-UAE relations. The UAE is less reliant on its western allies by virtue of its deepening relations with China, India, and Russia. Meanwhile, as the UK continues to look to its post-Brexit future and seeks new trade partners and deals, the UAE is increasingly important to the British economy. This is a fact that officials in both Abu Dhabi and London realize.
That Hedges was freed through a presidential pardon—and therefore, in the eyes of the Emirati authorities, went home as a man found guilty of espionage—underscores the UAE’s unwillingness to accept the British position that the charges levied against Hedges lacked any basis in evidence. For the UAE, sticking by the narrative that Hedges had spied in the Emirates was about saving face. This required them to release Hedges in a manner that enabled Emirati leadership to remain dignified, rather than appearing to be a small state that overreached and ultimately capitulated to a former imperial power.
Consequently, UAE leadership may be prepared to continue challenging London in unconventional ways on the Muslim Brotherhood issue in the future, so long as the UK continues to host dissidents and Islamists from Arab Persian Gulf countries, and London refuses to accept Abu Dhabi’s narratives about political Islam and Qatar. Nonetheless, should the UAE continue using a variety of tactics to pressure the UK on these issues, Abu Dhabi may well cause serious damage to its relationship with London. The long-term implications of that policy could prove negative for the UAE’s national interests and reputation in London and other Western capitals.