x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sedition trial 'will be landmark for the UAE'

The UAE's envoy to Russia tells University College case against the 94 Emiratis will be milestone event in development of country

ABU DHABI // The case of the 94 Emiratis accused of state security offences will be a landmark in the country's development, an Emirati diplomat has said in a lecture in England.

In a talk at University College London last month, Omar Ghobash, the UAE Ambassador to Russia, spoke about the rise of Islamists in the region, and specifically about Al Islah.

Al Islah is the group to which the 94 are alleged to belong, with links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It's going to be very important in the UAE how they clarify types of behaviour acceptable and not," Mr Ghobash said. "Legally, it is called a hard case."

He said recent reports of the case had sparked debate over the UAE's political system and freedom of speech.

Mr Ghobash said the Al Islah case was something of a "family affair", as the defendants were from prominent families and "we all know those involved, or know their relatives".

He accused the media of failing to report that members of Al Islah have been approached repeatedly by the Government and asked to discuss their concerns, to "no avail".

"[One must take] responsibility for one's actions," Mr Ghobash said. "I really believe the UAE is an inherently liberal country. And I find liberal presence in social practices across time."

It was evident that tolerance and openness were present before oil was discovered, and remain so, he said.

The Arab Spring, and the rise to power of Islamists, had forced all Arabs to take a political stance, Mr Ghobash said.

The Islamists' argument, he said, was that "if only we were more virtuous and pious and or united as Muslims and as Arabs, all problems would fall away and we would be powerful again".

Virtues such as generosity, gratitude, justice, mercy and honesty were encouraged by Islam but not exclusive to it, he said. Neither were they enough to deal with the complex problems of government.

"Virtues may ennoble an individual but they do not necessarily enable that person to manage complex social or economic problems," Mr Ghobash said.

"Virtues operate in one sphere, skills operate in another. Virtues on their own do not solve complex technical, social and economical problems. I think some of that is appearing in the political scene today."

He noted that when told of the glorious Arab and Islamic history, "many of us omit to dive deeper into that history".

"Why do Islamists want political power so much? We as Arabs all heard the argument being made as children, and then later on news channels and public debates: 'We Arabs and Muslims have fallen from our previous position of glory.

"'This is only because we have strayed from Islam and the right path. If only we were better Muslims we would be able to eradicate all the evils and all the ills that plague us and we would be able to regain our former glory.

"'Take revenge on our enemies and all those who have exploited and humiliated us for centuries'."

Mr Ghobash said this idea was promoted after the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on the US. But it was now was up to the media, universities and religious communities in the Arab world to provide more forward-looking vision.

"Are we giving [youth] any choice in the way they structure their universe and their world view?" he asked. "Especially in times of a rising menace of super-national organisations spreading a message of intolerance and … turning away from the modern world - a message to stop thinking and follow me."

He said the UAE "was and continued to be a fascinating political experiment".

After his speech, Mr Ghobash was asked about the UAE's stance on religious freedom. He said the constitution gave complete freedom to all in belief and religion.

He said he was surprised by the recent case of Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an academic from the London School of Economics who was turned back at the airport on his way to a subsequently cancelled conference in Sharjah.

Some had thought that as Dr Ulrichsen had in his writings about the political situation in Bahrain "offended us, offended our friends", there was "no reason for him to be allowed in".

But Mr Ghobash said he had read Dr Ulrichsen's book and "thought he should come and work as an adviser".

"He has great sympathy for the region. I am sure one day he will be allowed back."

osalem@thenational.ae