Alwaght- With a comprehensive economic roadmap over the past few decades, the United Arab Emirates has managed to become a trade and investment hub not only in West Asia region but also in the world. This feature apparently makes it distinct from other oil-wealthy Arab monarchies.
But when it comes to the political and social freedoms and human rights, the Arab emirate fully keeps its similarity to other despotic Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf. At the time being that the social awareness and demands for freedom are rising the UAE leaders find their closed political system facing a challenge. In other words, despite the modernized face the Emirati leaders have managed to present of their country, their main challenge remains the way of dealing with the rights-related criticism which is targeting their destabilizing foreign policy in the region. The challenging nature of the criticism against the Emirati rulers becomes even more understandable if we consider the lack of legitimacy and dependence of the Arab monarchies on the West.
Trying to address this challenge, the UAE seeks to burnish its image in the eyes of the global public. A recent move to this end has been the invitation of Pope Francis to visit the country, the first in the history of the UAE.
Criticism-rocked first visit
This is the first time in the history of the Arab monarchy that the Pope visits the country. The trip to Abu Dhabi was aimed at “promotion of peace”. This is while the UAE, allied with Saudi Arabia, is leading the most devastating and bloodiest war against neighboring Yemen.
Pope was invited by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to take part in an international religious summit that is part of the plans for the “year of tolerance.” But anti-UAE criticism seems to seize the media headlines and not the invitation and pope's meetings with the Emirati officials.
Experts cast aspersions on the visit. Emile Nakhleh, a former CIA officer, told the National Catholic Reporter newspaper that the visit to the UAE while Abu Dhabi is involved in the Yemen war is unjustifiable.
“I don’t know how his holiness will justify that,” he was cited as saying.
Nakhleh added that while the UAE continues its crimes in Yemen, the trip to Abu Dhabi is not a right choice. If he does not raise the Yemen case during his meetings, he will lose a large part of his credibility in the region.
Also a priest at the Pax Christi, a pro-peace Christian movement, hoped that the Pope can convince the Emiratis to find an alternative policy to war against Yemen.
Human Right Watch Demand of Pope
The Human Right Watch on Sunday while the Pope was flying to the UAE wrote a letter to the pontiff asking him to raise the human rights issue during the trip. The group called on the Vatican leader to press the Emirati rulers to stop the “heavy violations” and crackdown on the home critics.
Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the Middle East and Africa division of the HRW, noted that the UAE made no efforts to improve its human rights record.
"It will take more than symbolic meetings to gloss over the UAE's appalling human rights record,” she said, adding that the Pope should press the Emirati leaders to stand for rights commitments inside and outside of the country.
The HRW also added that Abu Dhabi played a “key” role in the Saudi-led Arab coalition against Yemen. Since March 2015, the date the campaign was launched, the HRW went on, the coalition forces have been indiscriminately bombing markets, homes, schools, and hospitals. The bombardment on the civilians featured cluster bombs and blocked the aid delivery to the people under siege.
Pope reacts to visit criticism
The rising voices against the Pope travel motivated reaction from him. Before boarding his plane to the UAE, he called on Abu Dhabi to end the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, adding that the “cries of these children and their parents rise up to God.” But the Pope’s call for peace does not appear to influence the negative looks at the visit.
UAE seeks to improve image
The invitation of the Pope matters for Abu Dhabi. Over the past few years, the country’s image was heavily destroyed because of the war crimes and torturing of the Yemenis in secret prisons. This motivated them to decorate their face in the Western eyes.
In addition to the secret prisons, the UAE runs at least 13 public prisons and 8 military camps in Yemen. Earlier, rights groups talked about massive tortures that led to the death of 23 Yemeni prisoners. SAM for Rights and Liberties, an international NGO monitoring rights violations, on January 23 called for launching an investigation body to probe death of 23 Yemeni prisoners killed in prisons run by the Security Belt Forces, a tribal militia directly backed by the UAE.
Seeking to cover its atrocities in Yemen and pose as a modernized country with respect to the human rights, the UAE invited the Pope to a conference dubbed religious tolerance which will also include opening a church in the country.
So far, the UAE image was hardly damaged amid continued violation of rights both at home and abroad. But the leaders are optimistic that the Pope visit will work like a professional plastic surgery eliminating the rights record notoriety. But the outcry caused by the trip shows that the anti-Emirati pessimistic atmosphere cannot be changed easily. Rather, it can extend to hurt the Pope’s iconic image and name in the eyes of the world.