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UAE youth question the cost of political silence

UAE youth question the cost of political silence

Youth activists question older generation's silence; Students urging democratic reform in parliament; UAE oil wealth has prevented wider discontent

May 11, 2011 4:56 by

A young woman hunched in a dark university auditorium plastered with Emirati flags suddenly pipes up amid fellow students attending the first open political discussion in their lives.

“Sometimes change doesn’t come from being polite and restrained,” the girl shouts to cautious applause. “Sometimes, you have to get your hands dirty.”

The United Arab Emirates, largely insulated from political dissent by its vast oil wealth and rapid growth, has so far been spared the wave of protests that has swept through the Arab world, toppling the autocratic rulers of Egypt and Tunisia.

Older Emiratis, who remember when their families lived in humble fishing villages, have long been content to remain politically silent as their rulers turned the coastal desert state into a business hub of gleaming skyscrapers.

Yet for the first time, a younger generation is starting to question the cost of their parents’ genteel quiescence.

“I’m well off. I don’t need a revolution because I’m hungry. I want my freedoms, my dignity,” said a 21-year old woman, wrapped in a gauzy black abaya. She gave her name as Alia, but said it was an alias for fear of pursuit by security forces.

“The Alia after the Egyptian uprising is not the same person she was before. Now we know what young people are capable of.”

She is not alone. A small but increasingly active number of Emirati students are questioning, often on social media Twitter and Facebook, why they should not seek the same democratic changes demanded by street protests elsewhere in the Arab world.

They ask why the right to vote for a quasi-parliament, itself toothless, does not extend to more than a fraction of nationals. They want that parliament to have legislative powers.

UAE analyst and university professer Abdulkhaleq Abdullah said change was inevitable but would not appear overnight.

“I think the country, probably five years down the road, will be more democratic as well as stable,” he said.

UAE officials say changes should be implemented gradually.

But the young are impatient: “Times have changed, they need to change their mentality,” said Alia, slamming down a book. “They act like we’re kids. We’re conscious, educated people.”

After UAE University’s first political forum, still timid compared to similar debates elsewhere, some attendees eagerly discuss ideas for future public meetings, possibly on democratic reforms, or on how their country’s oil wealth should be spent.

Others plan to meet in secret to avoid drawing the security forces’ attention. Their murmurings have not gone unnoticed by the state, trying to improve the quality of life as Arab revolts rage in nearby countries, spurred partly by economic discontent.

The protests initially felt both politically and geographically distant from the Gulf region, but sustained unrest has reached Bahrain and Oman, while oil giant Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have seen small protests.

In the Gulf, only the UAE, with the world’s eighth highest per capita income, and Qatar have been untouched so far.

The UAE recently pledged $1.6 billion for infrastructure in less developed northern emirates, seen as more prone to unrest than Dubai, the business hub, or Abu Dhabi, the federal capital.

The government has raised military pensions by 70 percent and introduced bread and rice subsidies. It plans to raise the percentage of locals businesses must hire in a tiny country where foreigners comprise around 85 percent of the population.

Fatima, a friend of Alia, suggests focusing on economic issues of more immediate concern to nationals in the world’s third biggest oil exporter, who often complain that public health and education services lag despite the UAE’s wealth.

Many complain of unemployment, at 23 percent, although official statistics say most are jobless by choice.

“Young people can’t get jobs. We have bad hospitals … and this is a wealthy country?” said Fatima, her short hair, pink t-shirt and fashionably ripped jeans poking out from under her black abaya.

UAE analyst Christopher Davidson at Durham University said an online campaign questioning how oil wealth is spent could be effective in spurring ordinary Emiratis to action.

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