Monday, May 01, 2006

The voices of UAE citizens find outlet at the Washington Post:
A backlash over the pace and direction of change is simmering among the city-state's citizens, who make up just one in five of its 1 million residents. Some of them ruefully note that speaking Arabic is not enough to survive in a nominally Arab city.

"Some people feel they are losing control of the city itself, of the society," said Mohammed al-Roken, a lawyer and human rights activist who was barred from teaching at a university and banned from writing a column after airing complaints.
. . .
Roken, 43, with thick glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard, shies from labels. His promotion of human rights and civil society might make him a liberal in a Western context. In the Arab world, his defense of tradition and morals mirrors the themes of political Islam. Taken together, he is a gadfly, which has repeatedly landed him in trouble.

Three times in three years, government security services canceled his lectures, usually with a phone call to the organizer. One talk was on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another on the importance of holding popular elections for the first time in the country.

In 2000, he was banned from writing his column in the Gulf newspaper. In 2002, he was forbidden to teach at the university. Two years later, with 21 others, he submitted an application for a human rights group.

"They just took it and put it in the drawer," he said.

Roken's focus is his society and what it is no longer. The city's gritty beginnings have become part of the legend of the Dubai model. Its museum celebrates records that as recently as 1908 summed up Dubai's wealth in a few typewritten lines, including 4,000 date trees, 1,650 camels, 45 horses, 380 donkeys, 430 cattle and 960 goats. Pearl diving and fishing were mainstays until a generation ago. The Indian rupee served as the currency until 1966.

The itinerant city Roken sees today is unrecognizable, not even Arab. All that remains of the neighborhood of his youth is the mosque. When he goes to a mall, he estimates that 99 percent of the patrons are foreigners, and he rarely hears Arabic. Despite religious prohibitions, drinking is unabashed, and he fears public wine-tasting parties are on the way. The beaches of his youth were either taken over by hotels and their occasionally topless sunbathers or frequented by Westerners whose dress he deems inappropriate. He grimaces at women jogging in the streets, sometimes with their dogs, considered unclean under Islamic law. The celebration of Islamic holidays and the country's national day on Dec. 2 pale before the more commercialized commemoration of Christmas.

To maintain his identity as an Arab and Muslim, he has retreated farther from the city -- first from the central neighborhood of Deira, then a few miles away to an area near the airport, a few more miles away to Merdif and now even farther to Mizhar.

"Internal exile," he said.

Arguments for democratic reform in the Arab world are often offered as an antidote to the region's stagnation and repression. Roken argues for democratic reform, but on different grounds. Only with more say by citizens like him can the process of Dubai's globalization be stanched. His democratic vision is not of a different society, but of a society he once had.

"The brakes are accountability, sharing in the decision-making," he said. "These things will work as brakes on the train's speed. If citizens had a say, I don't think the city would have turned into this."

Government surveys reflect the unease among native Emiratis, even though officials are unsure how to respond. Roken said the society's traditional deference to the leadership of the ruling family remains intact. People prefer retreating to fighting.

"Until now, there is no violence, thank God," he said. He spoke slowly, knitting his brow, and he chose his words carefully. "The people are very accepting, understanding and tolerant. But who knows what will happen if it crosses red lines?"

"I don't think it's too late," he added. "But in five years time? If it's not dealt with?" He shook his head and left the question unanswered.
Make that voice, not voices. Representative? Who knows. These sorts of views don't show up in the English language press here.



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