DUBAI: A young woman hunched in a dark university auditorium plastered with Emirati flags suddenly pipes up amid fellow students attending the first open political discussion in their lives.
“Sometimes change doesn’t come from being polite and restrained,” the girl shouts to cautious applause. “Sometimes, you have to get your hands dirty.”
The United Arab Emirates, largely insulated from political dissent by its vast oil wealth and rapid growth, has so far been spared the wave of protests that has swept through the Arab world.
Older Emiratis, who remember when their families lived in humble fishing villages, have long been content to remain politically silent as their rulers turned the coastal desert state into a business hub of gleaming skyscrapers.
Yet for the first time, a younger generation is starting to question the cost of their parents’ genteel quiescence.
“I’m well off. I don’t need a revolution because I’m hungry. I want my freedoms, my dignity,” said a 21-year-old woman, wrapped in a gauzy black abaya. She gave her name as Alia, but said it was an alias for fear of pursuit by security forces.
“The Alia after the Egyptian uprising is not the same person she was before. Now we know what young people are capable of.”
She is not alone. A small but increasingly active number of Emirati students are questioning, often on social media Twitter and Facebook, why they should not seek the same democratic changes demanded by street protests elsewhere in the Arab world.
They ask why the right to vote for a quasi-parliament, itself toothless, does not extend to more than a fraction of nationals. They want that parliament to have legislative powers.
Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a UAE professor, said change was inevitable but would not appear overnight.
“I think the country, probably five years down the road, will be more democratic as well as stable,” he said.
UAE officials say changes should be implemented gradually.
But the young are impatient: “Times have changed, they need to change their mentality,” said Alia, slamming down a book. “They act like we’re kids. We’re conscious, educated people.”
After UAE University’s first political forum, still timid compared to similar debates elsewhere, some attendees eagerly discuss ideas for future public meetings, possibly on democratic reforms, or on how their country’s oil wealth should be spent.
Others plan to meet in secret to avoid drawing the security forces’ attention. Their murmurings have not gone unnoticed by the state, trying to improve the quality of life as Arab revolts rage in nearby countries, spurred partly by economic discontent.
In the Gulf, only the UAE, with the world’s highest per capita income, and Qatar have been untouched so far.
Fatima, a friend of Alia, suggests focusing on economic issues of more immediate concern to nationals in the world’s third biggest oil exporter, who often complain that public health and education services lag despite the UAE’s wealth.
Many complain of unemployment, at 23 percent, although official statistics say most are jobless by choice.
“Young people can’t get jobs. We have bad hospitals … and this is a wealthy country?” said Fatima, her short hair, pink t-shirt and fashionably ripped jeans poking out from under her black abaya.
UAE analyst Christopher Davidson at Durham University said an online campaign questioning how oil wealth is spent could be effective in spurring ordinary Emiratis to action.
“They need to educate the population with the truth, with how the oil wealth is spent, how the budget is divided between the different emirates, and most importantly what chunk of the annual oil surplus goes directly to the royal family members.”
Student activists say the fear barrier is their biggest obstacle. Supporters of the status quo are also using the Internet to reinforce their views.
One Facebook post has pictures of some activists’ faces and names above a noose, that reads: “Hang the traitors.”
Police arrested five activists who signed a petition in April urging democratic reform. They were accused of insulting UAE leaders and threatening national security. In past years, some activists have had their passports taken and jobs revoked.
“We are trying, but I’m not optimistic,” Fatima said. “People are too scared, yet inside they are motivated.”
But Davidson said that if activists continued their efforts they could succeed later on.
“The arrests have intensified opposition sentiment because people who were making very straightforward demands have been silenced … there is an opposition organizing itself and planning. We haven’t heard the last of this.”
A more public figure, Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim, recently added his voice to youth concerns in an article in Al-Khaleej calling for legislative powers for the Parliament.
“National resources belong to citizens and they should decide the standards for spending them,” he wrote.
Fatima and Alia, who say the arrests only inspire them, are now meeting with friends to plan videos on parliament reform to post on YouTube and Facebook or circulate by mobile phone.
Another student, planning a talk on women’s rights on campus, said she thought the government would eventually respond although concessions would probably be small.
“It’s like wave. If the whole world is changing and this wave is coming and taking everyone with it, well, it’s somehow going to cross this place as well.”