The United Arab Emirates Clamps Down On the Internet Freedom… Before It’s A Problem

 @JaceyFortin
on November 14 2012 3:48 PM
blackberry in the UAE
A family walks past a display of a BlackBerry smart phone at a shopping mall in Dubai. REUTERS

A federal decree in the United Arab Emirates calls for unprecedented curtailments on internet freedom in the small Gulf state.

This new amendment to an old law forbids gambling, pornography or copyright infringement via the internet, according to a Wednesday article from the state-owned media outlet WAM.

More worryingly, the decree outlines new protections for the state and its rulers, effectively turning online criticism into an offense punishable by years of jail time, or deportation for foreign nationals.

The decree “stipulates penalties of imprisonment on any person publishing any information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures that would pose threats to the security of the state and to its highest interests or violate its public order,” according to WAM.

“It also stipulates penalties of imprisonment on any person creating or running an electronic site or any information technology means to engage in, or to call for, the overthrow of the system of government of the state or to seize it, or to seek to disrupt or obstruct the Constitution or the effective laws of the state, or to oppose the basic principles which constitute the foundations of the system of government of the state.”

The law also forbids ridiculing Islam, promoting terrorist groups, and organizing unauthorized demonstrations online.

Activists in UAE and abroad were quick to condemn the new rule, but their complaints may not go far in a state where President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nuhayyan wields ultimate power over policy.

In that, the UAE is not alone; the entire Arabian Peninsula is haven for monarchies. Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman are all run by unelected leaders. As the Arab Spring raged around them, these Gulf nations have remained largely immune to revolution, propped up as they are by fabulous oil wealth and support from Western superpowers like the United States.

Even in Yemen, where a 2011 uprising unseated former autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the old guard is still holding firmly to power as the poverty-stricken country struggles to confront its many security issues.

Lately, there are signs of trouble all across the Arabian Peninsula. The implementation of strict new rules, like UAE’s new internet clampdown, shows that the monarchies are not blind to the simmering dissent around them.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Bahrain, a constitutional monarchy that saw the largest unsuccessful protest on the peninsula last year. Saudi troops helped to quash those demonstrations, but the underlying problem -- a lack of fair political representation -- has not been addressed.

In Kuwait, also a constitutional monarchy, the electorate is growing increasingly bold ahead of a Dec. 1 parliamentary vote; tens of thousands hit the streets this weekend to protest an unjust new electoral law.

In Saudi Arabia, defiant citizens have used the internet to broadcast instances of mistreatment at the hands of the state’s feared morality police, motivating the government to cut back on the officers’ power.

Oman and Qatar have also seen protests, but these states have been more stable than their peninsular neighbors.

So has the UAE. But the pre-emptive decree announced on Tuesday shows that these powerful governments are quite aware that dissent may soon threaten their power, and that a free internet will only hasten the rebellion that may very well be imminent. 

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