Our Kind of Emirs?

Why isn’t President Bush pressuring the United Arab Emirates to become the United Arab Democracies? Doesn’t our security depend on it?

If you could know for certain that UAE officials no longer consort with Osama bin Laden (as The 9/11 Commission Report — see pages 137-139 — says they did before September 11, 2001), and if you weren’t inalterably opposed on free-market grounds to government ownership of industry, then Bush’s support for permitting a UAE-government-owned entity to manage some U.S. port facilities might be a defensible exercise in realpolitik. It cannot be squared, however, with the President’s argument that our security depends on pushing democracy around the world and especially in the Middle East.

The ports deal enriches UAE’s authoritarian rulers.

Bush’s realistic action here rebuts his ideological rhetoric. Forget democracy. These emirs, he has apparently decided, are our kind of emirs.

Last Tuesday, Bush lauded the Emirates as our “ally in the war on terror” and said it “would send a terrible signal to friends and allies” if we prevented them from managing some of our port operations. Three days later, he gave a major speech discussing “how our efforts to spread liberty and democracy throughout the broader Middle East are progressing.” But he said not a word about spreading liberty and democracy to the Emirates. What kind of signal did that send?

Bush’s rhetoric was sweeping. “Our freedom agenda is based on a clear premise: the security of our nation depends on the advance of liberty in other nations,” he said. “To secure the peace of the world, we seek the end of tyranny in the world.”

His benchmarks for measuring Middle Eastern regimes were specific. “Our efforts in the broader Middle East have been guided by a clear principle,” Bush said. “Democracy takes different forms in different cultures. Yet, all cultures, in order to be successful, have certain common truths: rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, a free economy, freedom of women, and the freedom to worship.”

So, how do the emirs measure up? Judging by the State Department’s most recent Country Report on Human Rights (published in 2005) they fall far short. Do the Emirates have “democracy”? “There are no democratic elections or institutions, and citizens do not have the right to form political parties,” says State.

Do the Emirates have “rule of law”? “The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary,” says State, “however, its decisions were subject to review by the political leadership.”

Do the Emirates have “freedom of speech”? “The law prohibits, under penalty of imprisonment, criticism of the government, ruling families, and friendly governments, as well as other statements that threaten social stability,” says State. The government “approves the appointment of editors.”

Do the Emirates have “freedom of assembly”? “The Constitution does not provide for freedom of assembly or association,” says State.

Do the Emirates have a “free economy”? “The country has a free market economy,” says State. But based on State’s own report, I don’t believe it. Dubai Ports World isn’t UAE’s only state-owned enterprise. In a country where oil and gas is the dominant industry, “[e]ach emirate independently owns local oil and gas production.” Also, UAE must have one of the world’s most extensive guest-worker programs: “98% of the private sector workforce is foreign.”

“The law does not specifically prohibit trafficking in persons,” says State, “ … In practice, trafficking in women and girls used as prostitutes, and very young boys used as camel jockeys, continued to be serious problems.”

What about “freedom of women”? “Custom dictates that a husband can bar his wife, minor children and adult unmarried daughters from leaving the country,” say State. “All male citizens can pass citizenship to their children at birth, whereas female citizens married to noncitizens cannot pass citizenship to their children.”

Then there is what the President calls “freedom of worship” — which differs from the 1st Amendment’s “free exercise” of religion, I suspect, in that it doesn’t include the freedom to choose your religion. It is a “freedom” carefully tailored to fit under the Big Tent pitched at camp meetings of the global crusade for democracy. The UAE “prohibits Muslims from converting to other religions,” says State. “Although non-Muslims in the country are free to practice their religion”–n.b. freedom of worship — “they are subject to criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and deportation if found proselytizing or distributing religious literature to Muslims.”

Sharing the Truth that sets men free is illegal in UAE.

Some day, we must hope, that will change. For now, even a U.S. president vocally committed to a global crusade for freedom and democracy, is acting according to his own understanding of the reality that to defend our country against terrorists we must sometimes make allies with regimes that are neither free nor democratic.