The UAE Stands Out for Its Civil Liberties

Last week, the United Arab Emirates government announced the names of citizens who would be eligible to participate in parliamentary elections to be held on Sept. 24. The announcement was generally met with enthusiasm, given the fact that the pool of voters has been increased from around 6,000 to almost 130,000.

While this is a commendable step, what concerns me isn't just the logistical challenges to holding the elections, including the fact that the entire month of August coincides with Ramadan, followed by the traditionally long Eid holidays. Nor is it a matter of voter education and awareness about candidates, their personalities and goals at a time when, along with prayers, soap operas traditionally dominate the TV screens and time of UAE nationals.

What concerns me in the long term is a matter that has been repeated earlier in the Gulf and in the wider region. Back in the early 1960s, modern Kuwait's founding father Shaikh Abdullah al Salem ushered in an era of democracy that is to date unrivalled not only in the Gulf, but even in the Arab world. A decade later Bahrain's Shaikh Eisa Bin Salman al Khalifa undertook similar steps, although the parliament was dissolved in 1975 and not reconstituted in his lifetime.

Following the relatively liberal decades of the mid-20th century, the 1990s witnessed a strong emergence of Islamic conservatism. This was partly due to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the first and second Palestinian Intifadas, Arab autocrats repressing their populations and other developments that ultimately strengthened religion as a recourse to deal with occupation and social ills.

This trend toward conservatism naturally translated into results at the ballot boxes in various Arab states, not only in Egypt and Jordan but also in Kuwait and Bahrain, traditionally the most liberal of Gulf societies.

Gulf Islamist lawmakers used their parliamentary powers to advance an agenda that was not necessarily nationalist, progressive or in their countries' best interest. For instance, a law passed in 2007 in Kuwait banned women from working at night and in any jobs that "contravene public morals and in all-men service places at any time." Kuwaiti women only won the right to vote and contest elections in 2005 after a drawn-out bitter battle with the country's Islamist parties.

Other intriguing matters that raised the ire of Kuwait's Islamist members of Parliament a month after being elected in 2008 were women participating in sports, wearing swimming outfits on the beach, women driving, Xboxes and Christmas, all of which they proposed to ban. Similarly, the Islamists bloc in Bahrain, comprising both Sunni and Shiite MPs, attempted to limit civil liberties by imposing restrictions on entertainment and sale of alcohol.

The UAE is known in the region and the world for its business-friendly environment. According to the Ministry of Foreign Trade, foreign direct investment in the country was as high as $15 billion (Dh55.05 billion) in 2010 or a quarter of the total investment in the region. Moreover, 25 percent of the global 500 companies have operations in the UAE.

In order to maintain this position, assurances must be given to the UAE business community that civil and secular laws that have governed the country in the past four decades will stay in place. A civil state would assure citizens that those who reach power through the ballot boxes and wish to further their personal goals would not exploit UAE citizens' religious beliefs. A civil state also protects the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in the country, along with investments, education, science, technology, tourism, arts and entertainment.

It is not unfathomable for a scenario to arise in a future UAE, perhaps in 2019 when universal suffrage is expected to be introduced in the federation, that sees Islamist-leaning members of parliament being voted into an empowered parliament. It happened in Kuwait, and it could happen in the UAE.

Emiratis must not take the civil liberties that they enjoy as a society for granted, especially at a time when conservative Islamist forces are gaining ground in the region. It is unlikely that the UAE will follow other Gulf states in allowing political parties to be formed. Therefore, judging by the region's history, the fastest "political bloc" to be formed in future parliaments will probably be a conservative Islamist one.

On a recent visit to the U.S., I was told that the separation of church and state that the founding fathers of America enshrined in the Constitution was meant to protect religion from the state, not the state from religion. The same logic applies to protecting religion as well as civil liberties in the UAE.

People in the UAE have for decades benefited from secular laws, including in fields such as commerce, sports and education. It is precisely because UAE society today has not been radicalised with regard to religion that laws that protect civil liberties and secularism from potentially overeager, conservative MPs must be introduced in its constitution today.

This article first appeared in Gulf News on July 20, 2011.