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UAE quiet on streets but Web reformers face heat

No protesters have taken to the streets calling for reforms. There's been barely a public whisper about whether the Arab uprisings could intrude on the cozy world of the United Arab Emirates' rulers.

The main challenge to authority so far has been a modest online petition urging for open elections and the creation of a parliament.

But even that crossed a line. Security agents have arrested at least five Internet activists over the past month. The swift government action to snuff out any whiff of dissent shows that, despite the UAE's transformation into a cosmopolitan showcase, it has never outgrown its tribal-style rule that keeps power in the hands of just a few.

The Emirates' tight-grip controls have long been accepted as just part of the Gulf political equation for its Western allies and even touted by the country's leaders as the critical ingredient for their bold-stroke ambitions: no debate, just build.

Yet the UAE may be opening itself to a new era of scrutiny as it has inserted itself into the region's upheavals — backing Bahrain's embattled monarchy, looking for an exit for Yemen's president and supporting the NATO force hammering Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. UAE envoys are suddenly thrown into high-stakes diplomacy.

On Tuesday, the Abu Dhabi crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met with President Barack Obama in Washington. Western officials, including British Foreign Secretary William Hague, have made Abu Dhabi a critical stop on Mideast fact-finding missions since the uprisings began.

"All my life I have been listening to the sheiks saying we want to be number one in everything. So why not also be first in democracy?" asked Waleed, an activist who only gave his first name for fear of being targeted by the authorities.

He is among a small group of Emiratis turning to social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to voice their complaints, including a public role in political affairs, shifting development to poorer areas outside the gleaming cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and creating more job opportunities for Emiratis who are outnumbered by foreign workers 5-to-1.

The demands might appear minor compared with the violent struggles for change in places such as Syria or Gulf neighbor Bahrain. But in the Emirati context, any public dissident is considered a potential time bomb.

The five activists detained — including a prominent blogger and an outspoken academic — are under investigation for "perpetrating acts that pose a threat to state security" and insulting the rulers of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the seven-emirate federation, the state-run WAM news agency said Monday. If convicted of the charges, the men could be imprisoned for decades.

The jailed blogger, Ahmed Mansour, led a popular online political forum that was blocked last year. Another of the detainees, Nasser bin Ghaith, a financial analyst and a frequent lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris' Sorbonne university, has criticized the Gulf's rulers for failing to provide a legal code to prevent corruption and abuses during the staggering economic advances of the past decade.

"We have this frustrating feeling inside us, but we are not allowed to express it," the activist Waleed said during a recent tour of one of the poorer sheikdoms in the north, Ras al-Khaimah.

The international watchdog group Human Rights Watch sharply criticized the UAE for "punishing peaceful criticism."

"This shows how far the UAE has to go to become a rights-respecting country," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the New York-based group.

Political activity is severely restricted in the UAE. There are no official opposition groups and political parties are banned.

The Emirates' main elected political body serves only in an advisory capacity and its 40 members are either directly appointed by the ruling sheiks or elected by a small group of hand-picked voters.

Loyalty is also bought. Emiratis receive generous state benefits such as subsidized utilities, free health care, education and generous retirement benefits as well as interest-free loans to build a house.

Sultan al-Muazzin, a parliament member from the emirate of Fujairah, called the state money pipeline "an important factor of stability." It includes millions of dollars handed out last month as anti-government protests raged in Bahrain and smaller rallies took place in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and neighboring Oman.

As the protests grew around the region, the UAE's crown prince took a highly publicized tour of the less-developed emirates in the northern part of the country, pledging $1.6 billion to upgrade electrical and water systems in an apparent attempt to discourage Emiratis from taking their grievances to the streets.

Al-Muazzin claimed most Emiratis are content with the traditional desert-style system of rule — rooted in customs that allow people to discuss their problems directly with the rulers or their aides during weekly audiences.

"There is no election culture here. There is no interest in the democratic process to begin with," al-Muazzin claimed. Still, he believes the activists who signed the petition have "done nothing wrong."

That view is not widely reflected by other authorities, and there are signs of controls tightening further.

The UAE's telecommunication authority has ordered sharp limits beginning May 1 on access to the most-secure email service offered on the BlackBerry smartphone. The curbs are seen as further efforts by the state to monitor cyber-traffic.

Last week, authorities dismissed the 11 elected members of the UAE lawyers' association, one of the country's few independent rights groups. They were replaced by state-appointed substitutes.

It's part of growing tensions between the "status quo power" views of the UAE and the tumult around the region for more freedoms, said Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Briton's Durham University and an author of two books on the UAE.

"The powerful sons of the UAE's founder, Sheik Zayed, have strengthened an autocratic rule," Davidson said. "They have been quietly building up a police state, massively extending the internal powers of the security forces and heavily investing in the surveillance and censorship technologies."

Most Emirati activists are now keeping a low profile. Some discussions about reforms still occur on the Web. But the UAE's official media have barely mentioned the activists' detentions.

The rulers have only said the arrests were in line with the country's laws.

"They will do all they can to prevent the spread of the Arab Spring into the UAE," Davidson said.