About a year ago a discussion website was launched in the United Arab Emirates which focused on the country’s politics, development, and society. That in itself may not sound like headline-grabbing news, especially given that such Internet forums are commonplace elsewhere in the Arab world. But for many years there has been a consensus view, fully endorsed and advertised by the region’s rulers, that small, oil-rich Gulf states such as the UAE and Qatar are largely depoliticised. Given their extraordinarily high GDP-per-capitas, comprehensive welfare states and powerful distributive economies, citizens are quite simply thought to be bought out of politics by a host of benefits and privileges afforded by hydrocarbon surpluses. The many expatriates who have built up these countries are mostly there because they can earn more money than at home and thus have no interest in questioning or altering the status quo.
The launch of www.uaehewar.net in August 2009 firmly dispelled this view, at least as it applied to the UAE. Visited by thousands of UAE-based web surfers, and featuring hundreds of posts – almost all in Arabic, and almost all by bona fide UAE nationals – the site quickly gained a reputation as the place to put forward grievances, challenge the authorities, and discuss the country’s future. Crucially, it was clear that the site had not been co-opted by the regime in any way and was thus a rare, genuinely independent outlet. Within weeks, heated debates were taking place on a wide range of subjects: the growing personal wealth of the country’s various sheikhs, the sustainability of the country’s investments in overseas prestige projects (including stakes in Las Vegas-based gaming corporations and openness to Israeli businesses), the relentless shrinking of the indigenous population vis-à-vis foreigners, and the increasingly visible wealth gap between the country’s two wealthiest emirates (Abu Dhabi and Dubai) and the five poorer "northern" emirates.
By January 2010 the site’s most interesting debate of all was gathering pace. Hundreds if not thousands were reading and posting on the full acquittal of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. Issa is a half-brother of Abu Dhabi’s ruler and UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. He had also just been released without charge, following a court hearing to discuss his role in the alleged torture and sodomy of South Asian employees - which had been captured on video and available on Youtube, www.uaetorture.com, and elsewhere on the Internet for much of the previous year. Posters to www.uaehewar.net were concerned about the application of the rule of law to members of the ruling family and the broader impact of the verdict for the UAE’s international reputation. Sure enough, within days UAE-based visitors to the site were no longer able to gain access, a peculiar "server problem" message appearing on their screens when they tried.
Web censorship in the Gulf states is nothing unusual. The bulk of pornographic sites are permanently blocked. So are sites deemed defamatory to Islam, and all dating sites that are thought to increase the likelihood of pre-marital relations or inter-denominational relationships between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. A fascinating document prepared by the UAE’s Telecoms Regulatory Authority had carefully categorised the various types of website that it had decided people must never see (it was recently leaked to WikiLeaks). Much more is often blocked without explanation, including sites discussing Gulf politics, sites focusing on human rights in the Middle East, and various newspapers and news services that offer significantly "alternative" views to those of the region’s state-subsidized media.
Even these extra, unofficial blockings have always produced the standard denial-of-service computer screen that informs users the sites they are looking for do not "conform to the social and cultural character of the country" or some other message to that effect. The www.uaehewar.net error screen was a new development. Moreover, it was followed by discreet attempts to identify the site’s founders by requesting they contact their service provider to discuss the site's alleged technical problems. There were of course no technical problems: the site was still viewable everywhere else in the world, including neighbouring Gulf states. Mirror sites were swiftly set up, but these were also blocked.
For the past ten months www.uaehewar.net has remained up and running, but inaccessible in the UAE. Well, not quite. Many have still been able to log on from the UAE by using torrent services and other "loopholes" that the authorities’ proxy server cannot quite yet control. If anything, the site’s user base has grown, and it now has several distinct sub-forums to discuss "National Affairs", "The UAE in the eyes of others", and even a fledgling English-language sub-forum. Heated discussion has taken place on the recent succession in the UAE’s Ra’s al-Khaimah, on the proposed banning of Blackberrys, and on the absence of any elections to the UAE’s Federal National Council (despite it being four years since the first and only elections took place). Most provocatively and – some would argue – necessarily, there has been a lot more debate on the UAE’s rulers and their thoughts. A thread entitled "The Paradoxes of Mohammed bin Zayed’s Policies," referring to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, generated the most hits. Unsurprisingly, fresh attempts have been made to track down the site’s founders and gain access, but for now at least www.uaehewar.net is holding firm.