RAS AL-KHAIMAH, United Arab Emirates – Morning prayers had just ended. Worshippers streamed out, squinting into the rising sun and paying no attention to the knot of men wearing the traditional white robes of the Gulf standing nearby.
"Can we talk?" one of the men said as they surrounded an activist who was heading home for breakfast in the northernmost city in the United Arab Emirates. A moment later, the activist was maneuvered into a waiting car. It was the last time Saleh al-Dhufairi was seen in public.
The arrest April 29 — described by al-Dhufairi's son and rights groups — was another apparent pinpoint strike in one of the far-flung frontiers of the Arab Spring: crackdowns on a loosely knit Islamist network advocating a greater public voice in UAE's tightly controlled affairs.
At least eight people, including a member of the ruling family of the emirate Ras al-Khaimah, have been detained this year for suspected links to the Islamist group al-Islah, or Reform. Five others have been reported missing by rights groups, which claim undercover security agents took them into custody.
Members of al-Islah describe their goals in purely populist terms, saying they want to open up political participation in a country whose seven emirates are governed by various tribal dynasties. UAE authorities view them as a dangerous undercurrent inspired by the Arab Spring gains of Islamist movements elsewhere, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and a potential threat to the UAE's Western-friendly tolerance.
"We hear today that there are some who are trying to tamper with the stability of the UAE," said Shiek Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the ruler of the emirate Ras al-Khaimah's, whose cousin was placed under palace guard last month for links to al-Islah.
"I would say to them, 'The people of the UAE don't need lessons from anyone,'" Sheik Saud said during a discussion on use of Twitter and other social media sites to call for UAE reforms.
In the broad tableau of the Arab Spring, the UAE's internal showdowns can appear insignificant and relegated to the margins. But they illuminate some powerful themes brewing across the Gulf. Aiming to ride out the region's upheavals, the ruling monarchs and sheiks — all major Western allies — are stepping up crackdowns and cooperation against any perceived threats to their power.
The UAE is a curious proving ground for this tougher stance. It's been untouched by the street protests that have swept across multiple nations since last year. The cosmopolitan tempo of Dubai and Abu Dhabi barely missed a beat as other parts of the Middle East fell into chaos.
That, however, has not stopped UAE authorities from applying muscle against any possible challenges to the status quo in a country where political parties are banned and a parliament-style body, elected by a hand-picked pool of voters, has no direct powers.
In one of the first swipes by officials, five people were convicted last year of anti-state crimes after signing an online petition that included appeals for a stronger electoral system. The group — including a prominent blogger and an economics professor who has frequently lectured at Abu Dhabi's branch of the Sorbonne university — was eventually freed on a presidential order, but the charges have not been officially dropped.
Meanwhile, Dubai's police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, has become the UAE's bullhorn. His warnings include the perils of subversion via social media and fears that the Muslim Brotherhood and others could seek footholds in the Gulf and try to chip away at the ruling systems.
He has a receptive audience among Gulf authorities from Kuwait to Oman. Proposals for closer union are quickly gaining steam. The motivation — as Saudi Arabia's foreign minister outlined last month — is largely driven by insecurities. They include: bonding together against rival Iran, protecting Bahrain's embattled monarchy against a resilient uprising, and trying to keep other Arab Spring pressures at bay.
"The Gulf states are doing everything they can to try to stop time," said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs at Britain's Durham University. "The story of the Arab Spring is from over and the chapters in the Gulf have yet to be written."
In Ras al-Khaimah, the jumble of concrete-facade buildings and sleepy street-front markets still resembles what Dubai and Abu Dhabi looked like decades ago. But its rulers have clear ambitions, such as expanding its namesake airline, RAK Airways, and boosting free-trade zones modeled after its now more glamorous cousins.
Members of al-Islah meet in coffee shops and homes. They are wary of going to the group's offices and community centers, worried they are now monitored by security forces. The group claims it has thousands of members.
"Here is a country that welcomes people from all over the world to work and live and be part of the society," said Salem al-Tenaiji, a self-described rights activist and member of al-Islah. "But the UAE rulers won't listen to their own people."
During an hour conversation, his mobile phone rang every few minutes.
"It's work. They are checking up on me as usual," said al-Tenaiji, who claims he was shifted from his teaching post to a do-nothing post at the Health Ministry in 2010 because of his links to the group.
"They just want to keep an eye on me," he said.
Seven fellow activists, all believed to be members of al-Islah, are being held by UAE officials after being stripped of their citizenship for criticizing the country's rulers.
The London-based Emirati Center for Human Rights says at least five other men — some of them al-Islah members — have been apparently detained since early April and their whereabouts have not been made public. They include a former chairman of the UAE's Jurist Association, Ahmed Zaabi, and Saleh al-Dhufairi, the activist led away by apparent plainclothes agents after morning prayers.
Government officials did not reply to requests for comment by The Associated Press.
"The right to freedom of association is under attack, with anyone associated with reform calls at risk of being arrested," said a statement from the Emirati Center for Human Rights. "Authorities are attempting to cultivate unfounded fear at the rising tide of 'Islamism' when it is the suppression of calls for democratic reform that should be feared."
Al-Islah carefully tries to keep its message on political inclusion and democracy. But its website offers hints of Islamic views that could clash with the UAE's relative openness and acceptance of Western lifestyles.
One posting described "freedom" as an inherent goal of Islam, but stressed the need for "controls" on women's dress and criticized Western societies for permitting gambling, drinking and homosexuality.
"Certainly we have Islamic views. This is an Islamic country," said the activist al-Tenaiji. "But we have no desire to limit women or drastically change the way of life in the UAE. We just want to be heard."