Wednesday, May 11, 2011

UAE youth question political passivity of their parents

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.
Student activists say the fear barrier is their biggest obstacle. Supporters of the status quo are also using the Internet to reinforce their views.

One Facebook post has pictures of some activists' faces and names above a noose, with the message: "Hang the traitors."

Police arrested five activists who signed a petition in April urging democratic reform. They were accused of insulting UAE leaders and threatening national security. In past years, some activists have had their passports taken and jobs revoked.

"We are trying, but I'm not optimistic," Fatima said. "People are too scared, even if inside they are motivated."
If I were in their shoes I'd be fearful, too.

I can see why people in Syria are risking life and limb despite their fear, although even there it is quite surprising -- the events sweeping through the Middle East brought about a tipping point in each successive country. In the UAE life for the nationals is good, and totalitarianism though present is largely invisible. Dissidents are isolated one by one.

I've been thinking about my teaching experience in the UAE lately. Two areas:

1. There were direct elections for student government allowed. The students weren't given that much authority, but the system did give them some collective voice and they did negotiate some changes with the administration. Interestingly, those elected often were from well-connected families -- but how different was that from Bush I and II?

2. The students that really brought up the the quality of upper level economics classes were women. They arrived in college better prepared because they too advantage of whatever learning opportunities were provided in high school. Education for women was empowering. For men it was more that their birth determined their future and all they needed to do was graduate. People respond to incentives.

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