Change on a smaller scale

Qatar and the United Arab Emirates may not be facing mass uprisings, but they are still feeling pres

The drama and pace with which events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have developed make it easy for the media to ignore countries feeling the pressure but not embroiled in mass protests.

Significant changes are happening elsewhere in the Middle East. You need only look at Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for evidence.

In these oil-rich states, where wealth has acted as a smokescreen for a lack of democracy, the need for revolution seems small compared to the vast economic incentives on offer.

UAE has invested heavily in its infrastructure; leisure, health care, public transport and education have all been improved hugely, at tax-free cost. The country ranked 30th in the 2010 Legatum World Prosperity Index, well above other countries in the region.

In the same year, however, the UAE ranked 148th out of 167 countries on the Economist Intelligence Unit's democracy index, behind Egypt and Tunisia.

Despite holding its first elections in 2006 (with nominees and voters chosen by the country's six ruling families), significant political reform still appears to be a pipe dream, amid concerns about the UAE's commitment to human rights and free speech.

Amnesty International recently called for the government to explain the arrest and detention of Hassan Mohammed Hassan al-Hammadi, a former teacher who expressed solidarity with the Egyptian protesters. It followed a string of stifling actions reported by Human Rights Watch.

But fast-forward two weeks, and a gathering of roughly 100 protesters at the Libyan embassy in Dubai to denounce Muammar al-Gaddafi's regime was allowed to continue by police. This rare act of tolerance was not a coincidence.

With the eyes of the world fixed on Arab leadership issues and a population as engrossed in the protests as the rest of the world, a lighter touch was necessary. The UAE is a country reliant on a strong international PR campaign – so putting a bad spin on things could be disastrous.

With its fellow gulf state Bahrain erupting in a wave of protests, UAE's government has been tentative in its approach to change. The country recently announced that it will triple the number of voters allowed to take part in parliamentary elections. This still accounts for less than 1 per cent of the population, and half the members of parliament.

Progress could well be slow.

In Qatar, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are allowed (in theory at least), an environment for legitimate democratic discussion appears to be gestating.

In November, at the Doha Debates, a monthly forum held in the country's capital, 63 per cent of audience members voted in favour of democratisation over economic liberalisation. Though not representative of a nation, it reflected how a new generation of young Qataris is pushing the issue of democracy.

In recent weeks, those same young Qataris have demonstrated in solidarity with the Egyptian and Libyan protesters. Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani's government has also issued a denouncement of the treatment of protesters in Tripoli. Qatar has the potential to be an arena where peaceful democratic discussion can thrive.

The strength of such discussion is another question. Qatar, like the UAE, offers infrastructure and relative prosperity to its people. A popular uprising on the scale we have witnessed in recent weeks seems unlikely in either country. Yet, with small yet significant changes taking places, the UAE and Qatar may decide it is easier to jump than be pushed.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.