Dubai row escalates into diplomatic headache for UAEPosted: 16/04/2012
By Dr Alanoud Al Sharekh, Corresponding Senior Fellow for Regional Politics, IISS-Middle East
A recent decision by the United Arab Emirates to withdraw the residence permits of 30 Syrian men who took part in an unlicensed protest against the regime of Bashar al-Assad outside the Syrian consulate in Dubai in February has provoked a war of words between a controversial Muslim Brotherhood figurehead and Dubai’s police chief. The dispute between Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi and Lieutenant-General Dahi al-Khalfan risks spiralling into a diplomatic confrontation between the UAE and its neighbours.
Speaking during an episode of his long-running popular al-Jazeera show ‘Shari’a and Life’ in early March, Qaradawi denounced UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan and his brother Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Having previously been banned from entering the UAE himself for inciting dissent, the extremist cleric asserted that 100 Syrian families had in fact had their residence permits withdrawn and also attacked the UAE for revoking the citizenships of some Islamists in the country. Claiming to speak on behalf of Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun, Qaradawi threatened to incite Muslim rage against the UAE both on his show and during his Friday sermons.
In response, Khalfan threatened to issue an international arrest warrant for Qaradawi if he did not retract his threats to the UAE. Though he took pains to explain the UAE’s position on the Syrian protesters during various media appearances (a much smaller number of Syrians’ residence permits were revoked for other legal infringements besides the protest), he also delivered an anti-Muslim Brotherhood message, accusing it of conducting attacks on his country by means of social media and illicit political activities. That same week the UAE had arrested an Emirati imam and political activist associated with the Brotherhood in Ras al-Khaimah on charges of inciting dissent against its rulers in his sermon on the Syrian protesters.
This is not the first time that Khalfan has had a run-in with the Muslim Brotherhood. He claims to have already been a target for its ire in 2011 when he accused the Brotherhood in Egypt of inciting insurgency to serve its own political ambitions and accepting foreign funding to that end. At the January 2012 Gulf Cooperation Council National and Regional Security Conference in Bahrain, Khalfan gave a long presentation covering the most urgent threats to GCC security and stability as he saw them. The Muslim Brotherhood, as part of a greater ‘US foreign policy plan to destabilise the area’, featured heavily among them, as did a nuclear-capable Iran. Khalfan cautioned that Saudi Arabia would most likely be the next target of the US’s ‘divide and conquer agenda’ following the fall of Syria.
Khalfan has since stated that Western intelligence leaks confirm his theory that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is part of a systematic plan on the part of the US to dismantle the current ruling systems of the GCC by 2016. He has predicted that this movement will take off in Kuwait by 2013 since it is already leaning significantly towards political Islam, and from there spread throughout the Gulf states. He has also suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood poses a much larger threat to the GCC than Iran.
These statements pose a diplomatic dilemma for the UAE. Despite Khalfan’s claims that these are personal opinions, as a representative of the country’s security apparatus they imply state sanction. Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan warned that if an arrest warrant were issued against Qaradawi, ‘the entire Muslim world, and not only the Brotherhood, will take action against the Emirates’. The statement was condemned by GCC Secretary-General Abdul Latif al-Zayani, who deemed it ‘unwise and irresponsible’, as well as Arab League Secretary-General Nabeel al-Arabi. The Egyptian government quashed rumours that Foreign Minister Mohamed K. Amr had met the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, on the sidelines of the Russia–Arab League meeting in Cairo in order to explain the Egyptian government’s position with regards to Ghozlan’s threat. Ghozlan later conducted several media interviews in an attempt to smooth relations with the UAE and characterise his initial statement as a ‘misunderstanding’.
Kuwaiti-based members of the Muslim Brotherhood echoed Ghozlan’s initial sentiment, especially the prominent preacher Tarek al-Suwaidan, who was banned from entering the UAE in 2011, and is currently being sued in Kuwaiti courts by Khalfan for using an ‘unacceptable’ term to describe his actions towards Qaradawi. Saudi Islamist Sheikh Awadh al-Garni has also weighed in, reiterating the loyalty of GCC members to the Brotherhood.
However this war of words develops, it will have a great impact on the UAE’s relations with the new political leadership of many Arab countries. Khalfan has urged the GCC leadership to free Syria from its current regime while making sure it does not fall into the grips of the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘others have’.