Dubai’s chief of police is known for his blunt, undiplomatic views. For the most part, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim – who engages in a lot more than mere policing – keeps his outbursts to social issues, such as the protection of Emirati identity or the impact of satellite television on children.
Lately, however, he has thrust himself into a regional controversy, becoming the voice of Emirati opposition to the rising power of Islamists in the Arab world.
First he had a public row with Youssef al-Qaradawi, the most influential Sunni cleric and something of a spiritual guide to Islamists during the Arab revolutions, after the senior Doha-based cleric lashed out at the UAE’s decision to expel a group of Syrians.
Then Mr. Tamim claimed in an interview that the Muslim Brotherhood – the Egypt-based organization that inspires other mainstream Islamist groups in the region – was plotting to take over Gulf states.
“My sources say the next step is to make Gulf governments figurehead bodies only without actual ruling – the start will be in Kuwait in 2012 and in other Gulf states in 2016,” he told Kuwait’s al-Qabas daily at the weekend.
At a social media forum in Dubai on Tuesday, Mr. Tamim again blasted the Brotherhood for using social media to promote a political agenda in the UAE, a mark of disrespect towards the country’s rulers and institutions.
Rejecting any similarities between the conditions that prompted change in north Africa and the situation in the seven-member federation of the United Arab Emirates, the police chief said any agitators “would have to take on our seven rulers, not one”.
Mr. Tamim insists his campaign is a personal one rather than stemming from his official position. But analysts say he is magnifying a widely shared concern at the highest levels of Emirati decision-making.
Islamist parties are emerging as the new power in post-revolution Arab states. This is causing alarm across the conservative Gulf monarchies, which fear the electoral gains will embolden the undercurrent of political Islam on their turf.
But while in Kuwait and Bahrainthe Muslim Brotherhood is part of the accepted body politic and Qatar supported the cause of Islamists long before the outbreak of the Arab spring, the UAE has sent the message that dissent will not be tolerated, particularly if it has an Islamist color.
In December seven members of the Islamist Islah society – a group which claims to have 20,000 followers and first flourished in the 1970s – had their nationality revoked on unspecified security grounds.
Islah was tolerated, and at times supported, through the UAE’s 40-year history, allowing Islamists to gain a foothold in education and the judiciary. But since the September 11 attacks the government has taken an uncompromising stance towards any manifestation of political Islam.
Last year, the authorities dissolved the elected boards of Islah, as well as the teachers’ and jurists’ associations, replacing them with state appointees.
Fear of importing revolutionary Islamist ideas has also led to tough new procedures for expatriate visitors from Arab states in the grip of revolutionary turmoil.
Like its Gulf neighbors, the UAE backs the opposition in Syria, in which the Muslim Brotherhood plays a significant role, and sees the ouster of the Bashar al-Assad regime as a way of weakening his ally, Iran.
At the same time, however, about 30 Syrians had their residency cancelled after an anti-regime demonstration in Dubai in February. The government said the move was related to “other activities”, broadly interpreted as links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The decision against the Syrians, however, prompted Sheikh Qaradawi to rant against the UAE in a program on Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel, leading Mr. Khalfan to warn, on Twitter, that he was issuing a warrant for the Sheikh’s arrest.
The war of words also provoked a reaction from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said his group would defend Sheikh Qaradawi, dubbing the cleric’s words against the UAE as “true”.
Sheikh Sultan bin Al Qassemi, the ruler of Sharjah, and the longest standing leader of the seven-member UAE federation and a noted historian, has also stepped into the debate, warning against growing discord within society and calling on Emiratis to avoid falling prey to “foreign agendas”.
Mohammed al-Siddiq, one of the UAE Islamists who has had his nationality revoked, was briefly detained earlier this week after criticizing Sheikh Sultan’s speech.
“These people [activists] have been blasting state security for months, but to turn this type of language against a ruler of the UAE brings this into new territory,” says Abdelkhaleq Abdulla, a professor at the Emirates University in Al-Ain.
Mr. Abdulla says the anti-Muslim Brotherhood position of the UAE is part of a post-September 11 trend and also reflects the sensitivity to any kind of political organization. He points out that the younger generation within Islah has become more restless and vocal during the Arab spring.
“The UAE is a stable, prosperous place and they don’t want anyone to temper with that,” he says. “Officials say Egyptians, Tunisians and others can elect Islamists and we have nothing against that and we will deal with them but we don’t want an Egyptian Islamist government to interfere in our affairs and how we handle the Islamists here.”