By Courtney Freer
A UAE crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood gained widespread attention in 2012 but it began in the mid-1990s.
Origins of an Emirati Ikhwan
In the UAE, as elsewhere in the Gulf, during the 1950s and 1960s, large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood members from other parts of the Middle East were hired for professional positions. The small population of educated nationals at independence necessitated the import of experts to fill a variety of posts, particularly in the education and judicial sectors. Brotherhood sympathisers thus had substantial influence on the country’s cultural development and became prominent members of Emirati society, leading to the emergence of a local group of Ikhwan.
At the beginning of the 1970s, when Emirati students began returning from studying abroad, they brought with them the idea of establishing a group to organise activities similar to those conducted by the Muslim Brotherhood in countries where they had studied. The Emirati Brotherhood thus became formally organised in 1974 under the banner of Jamʿiat al-Islah wa-l-Tawjih al-Ijtimaʿi (Reform and Social Counselling Association, hereafter Islah).
The Dubai branch of Islah was only the second civil society organisation to receive approval from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. Dubai ruler Shaykh Rashid al-Maktoum donated money toward the establishment of the group’s headquarters in that emirate, signalling the government’s willingness to patronise an Islamist group as a bulwark of Arab nationalism.
After the founding of Islah in Dubai, branches were established in Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah, with Shaykh Rashid donating toward the cost of their establishment. Emirati president and Abu Dhabi ruler Shaykh Zayed al-Nahyan also contributed land for the establishment of a branch of the group in that emirate at the end of the 1970s, yet an affiliate ultimately never gained permission to form there. Interestingly, a branch also never opened in Sharjah, either due to the prominence of Arab nationalism in that emirate or its ties to Saudi Arabia, a likelier source of religious inspiration. In Ajman, though a branch of Islah was not established, “the Brotherhood settled for subordination to the Association of Guidance and Social Counselling [Irshad].”
Like Brotherhood affiliates elsewhere in the region, the Emirati Ikhwan was involved in social and cultural activities, namely sporting and charity events. In the words of Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdullah: “The Muslim Brotherhood had a good understanding with government and good backing from business. Arab nationalists hadn’t had the same support because they were seen as Western.”
In fact, in the formation of the first-ever independent Emirati government in 1971, founding member of Islah from Ras al-Khaimah Shaykh Saʿid ʿAbdullah Salman was named minister of housing, and Muhammad ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Bakr was appointed minister of justice and Islamic affairs and awqāf in 1977, becoming the second member of Islah to take on a post in a government ministry.
In 1979, Shaykh Salman became minister of education and chancellor of UAEU, and from 1977 until 1983, Shaykh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qasimi, head of Islah in Ras al-Khaimah, directed the national curriculum division. In short, “[t]he Brothers flourished in the UAE: They were educated, professional, and upwardly mobile individuals.” By granting Brotherhood members positions in government, the state allowed them a platform through which they could enact policies that remained in place for decades – particularly in the education sector
The spread of Brotherhood ideology in the UAE
An integral part of the Emirati Brotherhood’s outreach was its magazine, Al-Islah, established in 1978. The publication attacked leftist and nationalist opponents, with writers suggesting on more than one occasion that communists had penetrated state apparatuses. Al-Islah thus cultivated the organisation’s image as a preserver of traditional social values. Examination of Al-Islah issues published in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrates that the most commonly discussed topics concerned the development of Islamic education, censorship of Western materials, restriction of the sale of alcohol, corruption in government spending, and the encroachment of foreign (particularly Western) businesses and culture in Emirati society.
In a less institutionalised way, Brotherhood organisations in the UAE influenced youth through student activities like summer camps and scout groups. In 1982, as president of UAEU, Shaykh Salman established the Union of Emirati Students there. Having done well in the elections of university student committees beginning in 1977, Islah dominated student union elections until 1992. At that time, the government made an effort to depoliticise campuses, replacing the union in 2012 with student council polls contested by individuals rather than political blocs; even these are only partially elected.
The government also moved to depoliticise Friday sermons, another arena for Brotherhood influence, at the end of the 1980s. In 1986, Dubai’s Ministry of Awqaf “asked preachers to steer clear of contention” (A. Ann Fyfe, “Wealth and Power: Political and Economic Change in the United Arab Emirates” PhD. Diss, Durham University, 1989), 326). In January 1988, the ministry demanded that preachers “deposit written, advance copies of their Friday sermons with the ministry and to avoid all areas of controversy and sectarian sensitivity, limiting their remarks to guidance on Islamic practice” (Fyfe, 326).
Despite such government actions, by the 1990s, Islah had become “the most organised non-state actor in the country,” granting it considerable political capital due to its members’ prominent positions in the education and judicial sectors. Emiratis associated with Islah also became “key participants in calls for political reform despite the government outlawing political organisations and discouraging political debate.” As the group garnered increasing popularity and became progressively more vocal, the government framed it as a danger to national stability.
Government suspicion and takeover in the 1990s
Originally tolerated due to its nonthreatening stance, the Emirati Muslim Brotherhood, because its members exerted considerable influence on Emirati society, provoked government suspicion in the 1990s. At that time, “the UAE’s judicial and education sector was effectively a state within a state: The Brotherhood would make sure that those who qualified for educational scholarships and grants were either Brotherhood members, affiliates, or sympathisers.”
The organisation also developed a political reform agenda alongside its social programme, pressing for more representative government and more equal distribution of wealth. As early as March 1979, Islah’s management council wrote a letter to the local rulers ahead of a meeting of the Supreme Council of Rulers, supporting the government’s attempts to diminish corruption and to spend oil money in a “pious” way. Statements like the following, from Al-Islah magazine in 1982, were more explicit about the organisation’s potential role as political opposition: “With Islam we liberate lands of Islam, we stop injustice to Islam. Tyrants are afraid of us because of Islam.”
Just as the Brotherhood expected to have more sway in the political realm, the government also anticipated its turn toward the political. Perhaps fearing that the Emirati Brotherhood could gain a broader following as a political bloc, the government resolved to squash it before the Ikhwan became too powerful to influence politics on an institutionalised level. Allegations about Islah’s misconduct provided the perfect opportunity for the Emirati government to move against the organisation.
In the early 1990s, investigations by Egyptian security services claimed that individuals involved in Egyptian Islamic Jihad had received monetary donations from Islah’s Committee for Relief and Outside Activities. The prevailing argument became that the Brotherhood is, at its core, an international organisation, imported by Egyptians, and so used outside groups to further its cause, the establishment of a single Islamic state. The Emirati government viewed the oath of bay‘a or loyalty to the Brotherhood’s General Guide to be a direct challenge to loyalty to the UAE and demanded that members of Islah pledge loyalty to their country alone.
During the same period, Emirati authorities began investigating the influence of Brotherhood members within the education sector when promising scholarship applications were rejected and found that the Brotherhood members largely controlled the distribution of educational awards (Marta Saldaña, “Rentierism and Political Culture in the United Arab Emirates: The Case of UAEU Students” (PhD. Diss, University of Exeter, 2014), 139). Trying to regain authority, the government dissolved the Brotherhood’s previously elected boards of directors in 1994, placing them under supervision of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and its external activities were frozen. Furthermore, the central government restricted the political activity of the Brotherhood’s members, banning them from holding public office.
Notably, the Ras al-Khaimah branch of Islah was exempted from ministerial control, though it did have to curtail its external activities. Until the most recent crackdown, it remained independent under the protection of its sympathetic ruler Shaykh Saqr al-Qasimi, who “rejected the dissolution of al-Islah because he felt it played a role in preserving the youth.” Ultimately, though, the central government’s policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood prevailed, with Shaykh Sultan bin Kayed al-Qassimi, the ruler’s cousin and leader of Islah in the emirate, arrested in the 2012 crackdown.
To continue in PART TWO
Courtney Freer is a Research Officer at LSE’s Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States. She recently completed her DPhil at University of Oxford and previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.