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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: United Arab Emirates

UAE: Activists petition ruler for direct elections

Ap_uae_protests_480_09Mar11 The popular demands for change and reform that are currently sweeping the Arab world appear to  have reached the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, where a group of Emirati activists and intellectuals have sent a petition to the president of the seven-sheikhdom federation, urging him to allow direct elections and grant legislative powers to the parliament.

The petition, posted on the Internet and sent to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan on Wednesday, reportedly called for "comprehensive reform of the Federal National Council (FNC), or parliament, including demands for free elections by all citizens."

The UAE parliament currently lacks both legislative and regulatory powers and serves only as an advisory body to the government. Petitioners are demanding a free election process that would provide all voters in the UAE with a chance to choose their parliament.

Media reports say more than a hundred people signed the petition, including journalists, academics, and activists, and that organizers are trying to rally more people to sign online.

But the environment for political activism in the UAE is far from ideal. All sorts of political parties and demonstrations are apparently banned in the sheikhdoms. Migrant workers complain of bad working conditions and activists say they're subject to harassment.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch warned in its World Report 2011 that human rights conditions in the UAE were doing downhill.

"The human rights situation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) worsened in 2010, particularly for migrant workers....Other pressing human rights issues include torture, restrictions on freedoms of expression and association, and violations of women's rights," said the study. "Authorities continue to prevent peaceful demonstrations and to harass local human rights defenders."

The UAE, a federation that includes the glitzy business hub and boomtown Dubai and neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi, held indirect elections for the first time only five years go.  Rulers of the various emirates appointed members of electoral colleges, who then voted in half of the 40-member body.

The voters, numbered at 6,500 people, represented less than 1% of the UAE's 800,000 citizens, according to the Reuters.

The rest of the members were appointed by President Al-Nahayan, also the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

The Al-Nahayan family reportedly controls the UAE's vast oil resources and occupies most government positions.

Elections are expected to be held in the UAE later this year.

--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: A giant image of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai, left, and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahayan, UAE president, plastered on a tower in Dubai in March 2011. Credit: Voice of American website. 

ABU DHABI: New 'green city' for environmentally damaged country


Until now, Abu Dhabi has been known as the quiet powerhouse behind its flashier neighbor, Dubai, bankrolling record-breaking skyscrapers and fantastical island resorts intended to make the United Arab Emirates synonymous with luxury, wealth and success.

But now Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, is looking to set a different kind of example. The Masdar development project, due to be completed in 2013, aims to be the world's first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city.

Nawal Al Hosany, associate director for sustainability at Masdar, told Babylon & Beyond that the project is "leading by example and is already being approached by other developers and government entities within Abu Dhabi for advice on how to be more sustainable."

"Masdar is acting as a regional catalyst for sustainability," he added.

But the Emirates have a long way to go. The World Wildlife Fund has singled out the tiny oil- and gas-rich country for having the largest environmental footprint per capita in the world.

Inexpensive gas coupled with residents' taste for big cars and houses -- not to mention the amount of energy needed to run an indoor ski slope in scorching desert temperatures –– have contributed to pushing the UAE's environmental footprint up to 11.9 global hectares per person, more than five times the global average of 2.2.

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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Government plans to charge Canadians up to $1,000 for visas


Don't expect a lot of Canadians at the annual landmark Dubai Shopping Festival next year unless they're willing to plunk down serious cash to enter the country.

The United Arab Emirates is set to begin charging Canadian travelers up to $1,000 for entry visas starting Jan. 2.

They would need to pay a $250 fee for a one-month visa, a $500 fee for a three-month visa and $1,000 for a visa valid for up to two weeks at a time over a six-month period, according to the website of the UAE Embassy in Ottawa.

Canada was previously among 30 countries whose citizens could obtain entry visas upon arrival at UAE airports. The new guidelines come amid a growing battle between the UAE and Canada over landing rights for commercial flights.

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DUBAI: Obese journalist takes his battle of the bulge public in health campaign

Picture 5 Mohammed Khan, a severely overweight reporter at the Dubai-based English daily Gulf News, avoided getting rides in other people's cars because he was afraid he wouldn't be able to wrap the seat belt around his waist.

He didn't buy a scale, figuring it would break if he tried to step on it.

Khan, in his late 20s, became a recluse, spending long period of times alone at his apartment playing computer games and binge eating.

He had, in his own words, hit "rock bottom."

But after cholesterol problems that contributed to having his gall bladder removed, a diagnosis of diabetes and battling depression, the nearly 370-pound journalist decided it was time to take control of his life and get into shape, both for his own good and to spur public awareness about an apparent growing problem in his country.

Khan has pledged to lose 110 pounds in a publicized drive to fight obesity as part of Gulf News' recently launched campaign called "Cut the Fat," which aims to spread awareness about obesity prevention and healthful living in the United Arab Emirates.

"Many readers have written in sharing their personal stories; others have decided to lose weight and get healthy," Gulf News editor Abdul Hamid Ahmad told Babylon & Beyond about the campaign, which began in late November.

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MIDDLE EAST: In wake of WikiLeaks scandal, Arab leaders are cautious on Iran censure

GCC Nahyan

Arabian peninsula states have adopted a conciliatory tone on Iran a little over a week after U.S. diplomatic cables released by the watchdog site WikiLeaks appeared to show serious anxiety among Arab leaders over Tehran's growing power, and even enthusiasm in some corners (and at certain points) for a military attack on its controversial nuclear program.

Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary-General Abdul Rahman Atiyyah stopped short of an outright repudiation, but he described the content of the leaked cables as "guesses or analyses that can hit or miss" and that "generated misunderstandings," according to the Abu Dhabi-based National newspaper.

The council wrapped up a two-day summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, gently calling on Iran to cooperate with the international community over its nuclear program in order to end sanctions against Tehran. The closing statement also reiterated Arab support for Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program.

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MIDDLE EAST: Arab media play down WikiLeaks reports of support for Iran war

Picture 5 Well, this is awkward.

Many of the same Arab governments that called for an investigation into U.S. war crimes based on the WikiLeaks Iraq war log continue to ignore revelations in the latest trove of leaked documents that show Arab leaders pushed the United States to use military force against Iran.

Headlines in the heavily state-controlled Saudi media were dominated by news of King Abdullah's ongoing physiotherapy, while the top story in the Emirati newspaper, Al Bayan, centered on Prince Mohamad bin Rashid's praise for the country's progress toward "transparency." Most mentions of the WikiLeaks documents in official Arabic news outlets were scrubbed of any reference to the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, focusing instead on U.S. attempts to control the damage to its diplomatic relations.

Even the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, considered one of the most credible pan-Arab news outlets, tread lightly in its coverage and generally refrained from repeating the most incendiary quotes from the heads of neighboring states.

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DUBAI: "Mission: Impossible" wraps up filming in swanky Persian Gulf hub


Pomp and circumstance marked the ending of the the nearly monthlong shoot of the fourth "Mission: Impossible" movie with the ghostly title "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" in Dubai.

Pictures published in the local media showed "Mission: Impossible" star Tom Cruise posing with Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Dubai authorities mingling with the cast and crew during the farewell meeting, which took place some days ago.

As a token of appreciation to the glitzy Persian Gulf hub, Cruise and "Mission: Impossible" director Brad Bird and producer Bryan Burk gave Sheikh Maktoum a director's chair with his name on it and a clapboard with autographs of the stars of the film.

As they declared the mission accomplished in Dubai, the team also thanked Dubai authorities for their cooperation during the filming, said local Arab media reports

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MIDDLE EAST: Bahrain, UAE seek to beef up missile capabilities as Iran tensions rise

ATACMS Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are in the market for some fancy new war toys, and the United States is more than willing to beef up the militaries of its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf as Washington weighs the possibility of a showdown with Iran.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which operates under the Pentagon, last week announced that the two Arab gulf states had requested long-range missiles to help counter "major regional threats."

The proposed deal comes on the heels of a recent $60-billion U.S. arms sale to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi Arabia and the UAE have already made very large purchases of what is typically considered a classic defensive system," Kenneth Wise, an expert with the Dubai-based B'huth research center, told Babylon & Beyond. "But I always say you can kill someone with a shield."

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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Canada, UAE clash over mystery Mabhouh assassin

Mabhouh elevator

There is a diplomatic storm brewing between Canada and the United Arab Emirates, and the latest twist involves a mystery assassin.

On Tuesday, Dubai's chief of police, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan, slammed Canadian authorities for allegedly dragging their feet in investigating a suspect in their custody who had been linked to the asssassination of a Hamas official in Dubai in January.

But on Wednesday, the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail quote unnamed Canadian officials denying that Canada had made such an arrest and calling the Emirati assertion "baseless."

The current spat is set against a background of heightened tensions between the formerly friendly countries following Canada's refusal to grant the Emirates' two main airlines, Etihad and Emirates, increased access to its airports. Shortly after, the Emirates shut down what had been a secret Canadian air base, nicknamed "Camp Mirage," on its soil in what was widely viewed as a retaliatory measure.

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ARAB WORLD: Press reactions to U.S. withdrawal from Iraq reveal resentment, skepticism

Iraqi american The prevailing sentiment in the Arabic press as the U.S. combat presence in Iraq formally comes to an end seems to be that the combat troops may have left Iraq, but the damage is done.

In a highly anticipated speech Tuesday night, President Obama announced the end to America's combat mission in Iraq but stopped short of declaring victory.

"Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq's future is not," the president said. 

The U.S. will maintain about 50,000 troops to train and assist Iraqi forces until the end of 2011, when all American troops are scheduled to leave.

But after seven years of war and more than 100,000 lives lost, many Arab commentators are skeptical of White House promises. Security in Iraq remains precarious, and the political infrastructure is weak, as evidenced by the fact that a government has yet to be formed five months after elections.

"The Iraqi scene on the eve of the American withdrawal is still troubled on several fronts: security, political and humanitarian," Said Shihabi wrote in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab paper al-Quds al-Arabi (Arabic link).

"There is an ongoing debate over whether the withdrawal is real and Washington is sincere in its intention to liberate Iraq completely and cease to meddle in its affairs, or whether the U.S. merely seeks to control Iraqi resources and dominate its military, oil and foreign policies."

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ABU DHABI: N.Y. Islamic center imam calls opponents 'small, vociferous' group


The leader of the proposed Manhattan Islamic cultural center near the site of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks told a Persian Gulf newspaper that there was no conflict between Islam and America and dismissed the opponents of the Park51 project as being led by "very small, vociferous voices."

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's interview with the Abu Dhabi-based daily newspaper the National, which was published Monday, provided the first extensive comments he'd made about the controversy over the community center, which will include a prayer room, in the weeks since a New York City planning board gave it final approval.  

He's currently in the Middle East on a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, where he is speaking to groups of Muslims in an attempt to boost relations between America and Islam.

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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Top religious leader calls for restrictions on marriages to foreigners

Mn-dubai17_ph1_0499914787The leading Islamic scholar of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai's Grand Mufti Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz Haddad, appears to be deeply concerned over the growing numbers of Emirati men that are marrying foreign women.

His solution: Curb mixed marriages and impose restrictions on Emirati men that are marrying foreign women. In Haddad's opinion, Emirati men should only think of marrying a foreign woman as a last resort.

"There should be very specific circumstances for when such marriages are allowed,” Gulf Arab media reports quoted Haddad as saying at a recent discussion forum in Dubai on the issue.

“Such as when a man is too old and cannot find an Emirati to marry him, or when he wants to take a third of fourth wife for certain reasons and no Emirati woman agrees to do so.”

A proposed law regulating the marriages of Emirati men to foreign women is already in the pipeline and up for review by UAE lawmakers. Among other restrictions, the proposed legislation stipulates that the wife must be Muslim and Arab, that the age difference between the husband and wife must not exceed 25 years, and that the couple must be free of sexually transmitted diseases.

In addition, under the proposal, a man would have to obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior if he wants to marry a foreign woman. 

Emirati women's marriages to foreigners are not under scrutiny for now since only Emirati men are permitted by law to pass on his citizenship to their spouse and children.

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