Censorship Is Not a Societal Good
On the first of November, Washington Square News published an op-ed titled “Why Censoring Speech in the UAE is Necessary,” tackling the subject of restrictions on free speech and free press in the United Arab Emirates. The writer, Jasem Alzaabi, argues that the UAE’s policy of prohibiting freedom of expression is good for society for a number of reasons. The op-ed states that the Emirati government must continue to restrict access to freedom of expression or risk internal discord. Alzaabi further paints restriction of expression as a catalyst for homogenizing societal views, which he states is for the betterment of society. However, freedom limitation is not a “societal good;” it is a tool for autocratic governments to tighten their chokeholds on power. To make the claim that a government should limit a citizen’s freedoms is to go against the liberal values espoused by Western society for the past half-century. To do so would have a detrimental effect on the societies of the world as well as our ability to be independent, creative thinkers.
It is important to note that Alzaabi’s views have roots in 17th century philosophy. Indeed, Thomas Hobbes argued that humans should enter a social contract with the government, in which they would exchange some of their freedoms for security. Furthermore, Hobbes posits that citizens cannot revolt against the sovereign once they have given them full power. At its core, Alzaabi’s piece espouses these values, particularly when he states, “the UAE must continue to restrict access to liberal thought to maintain a thriving state that produces the current model of a good citizen.” This is a dangerous, problematic sentiment – one that goes against the values that we hold true.
Even though the UAE is a monarchy, I will be referring to monarchies as more autocratic than democratic regimes, based on the strategic perspective. In many areas of the world, such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, autocracies thrive on their populaces’ passive citizenry. These autocracies and their leaders are classic examples of the Hobbesian conception of society, and they utilize restrictions on freedom afforded to them in this system to escape accountability. This has had drastic effects on the people of these nations with defectors from North Korea stating that they had to eat mice in order to survive. In cases like this, people can hardly live, let alone revolt. On the other hand, there are nations whose vast economic well-beings make a revolt an afterthought. This is the case with the UAE as the Emirati government has been successful at keeping their citizens apathetic to freedom restrictions through generous social services. As of 2016, approximately 77% of Emiratis in the labor force worked for the government, thereby aligning citizens’ incentives with the government. Furthermore, regardless of employment in the private or public sector, labor laws make it notoriously difficult to fire Emirati citizens. This furthers the narrative that the Emirati government pays for its citizens to stay compliant. Whether it’s gifting the equivalent of $19,000 to Emirati men when marrying Emirati women, free higher education, or positive employment prospects, the United Arab Emirates maintains a well-funded welfare state for its citizens. However, there remains a large gap between the Emirati citizens and the millions of workers who have to leave their homes for work.
As it focuses on diversifying away from oil, the UAE has placed greater emphasis on modernization initiatives that utilize migrant workers, which make up roughly 80% of the workforce. Yet, through the Emirati migration system – the Kafala program – these workers are denied even basic rights. Through this network, workers are often put into what is essentially indentured servitude as they are bound to their employers. In fact, should a worker leave their employer, they could face punishments such as fines, prison, or deportation. Furthermore, migrant workers are treated as second class, which is evident in the Emirati work culture. The Statistics Center of Abu Dhabi noted that while a majority of Emiratis worked between 21 and 40 hours a week, over half of migrant workers worked over 55 hours a week. Logically, one would imagine that the sheer size of the migrant population would grant them some rights, however migrant workers are overworked and send a sizable portion of their income home, which helps to neutralize their societal influence. Obtaining the status of an Emirati citizen is extremely difficult for immigrant workers from outside of the Gulf as it requires 30 years of residence before an application can even be considered. This systematic lack of a path to citizenship highlights the arbitrary method of granting citizenships, which makes sense from the government’s perspective. If the Emirati government relies on oil rents to pacify Emirati citizens, then it is in their interest to keep the number of citizens low and migrant laborers high.
Alzaabi further argues in his piece that American freedom of expression could not succeed in the UAE, due to differences in their respective cultures and societies. However the real difference is in the regime type. Autocracy in the Emirates is not due to culture either as statistical analyses on numerous autocracies has shown. Instead, academic literature has linked a country’s dependence on oil rents to a higher likelihood of autocracy. Oil production is characterized by its extraction by machinery and distribution via pipeline, which requires only a few highly educated workers. The consolidation of wealth amongst this small group and their bosses is a strong anti-democratic force. Emphasizing this point, many oil companies in the region are state-run, and their workers’ interests often align with the state, which sweetens the deal by allowing tax-free income. Furthermore, these nations invest heavily in a security apparatus to further limit the ability of workers and citizens to make demands by making the cost of revolting too high. Therefore, they control those who would dare fight for freedoms with intimidation, threat of prison, and torture. That political environment has allowed Emirati society to become highly restrictive and exploitative because it is politically convenient for the government to construct it as such. In this case, when citizens add the costs and benefits together, it simply doesn’t make sense for them to cross the government for increased freedom of expression, especially considering how critics have been treated.
Alzaabi claims that trading freedom for security is a cost “all citizens rightly view as worthwhile paying,” but this generalization is unfounded. In 2014, the government arrested human rights defender and blogger Osama al-Najjar and allegedly tortured him for tweeting concerns that the government was mistreating his father (also a jailed activist) in prison. Despite completing his three year sentence in March 2017, al-Najjar remains imprisoned because the prosecution still views him as a “threat”. The government has also jailed Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights activist, for social media posts. Yet, despite this, Alzaabi wrote that, “the proper functioning of such a society requires that the state maintains relative control over public opinion,” and elaborates that the detention of these men and the murder & dismemberment of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi are justifiable. Besides the morally reprehensible nature of the aforementioned actions, it is clearly not beneficial to a citizenry to have this immoral, detached view. Alzaabi himself noted that his studies in America allowed him to become a better critical thinker and that critical thinking aims to improve society. Yet, this contradicts the aims of Gulf countries’ governments. For them, it is not beneficial to have critical thinking citizens like Khashoggi, who aim to improve society. As evidenced by Western prosperity, free thinkers are a far greater social force than any government, but this would mean de-centralizing power from the central governments to the people. This is precisely why the Emirati government and many others across the Gulf crack down so harshly on dissidents.
The perceived societal rejection of government opposition is a result of a docile citizenry and lack of power parity in both Emirati and the larger Gulf society. Through pacifying welfare benefits to citizens and the perseveration of migrant workers’ status quo, the government successfully removes calls for accountability. Furthermore, by creating harsh conditions for human rights activists, governments make the incentive structure crystal clear for citizens. Publicly fighting for freedom of expression could rip away a lucrative job, free healthcare, and tax-less income for a jail cell and torture. Even worse, if one lives in the diaspora and writes in support for increased freedoms, you could be lured to your eventual murder. Alzaabi sees no pathway to a more open society, and a quick structural look at Gulf society could make one agree. While migrant workers work around the clock to build the future and citizens of the Gulf remain keen to not “bite the hand that feeds them;” few within the region will have the resources or the motivation necessary to push for increased freedoms. But while one should not hold their breath for incensed freedoms in the Gulf country just yet, we cannot pretend the status quo is for the good of society.