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A Dearth of Politics in Booming Dubai
Abdullah, the political scientist, described it as a mix of pride in what Dubai represents and fear at the costs it entails.
"There is hardly anybody in the city who doesn't feel a bit of fear inside him, a fear of losing it all at a time when we have it all," he said. "Do you call it alienation? It's much beyond that. We live in the best of times and, in some ways, the worst of times."
For Roken, the challenge of alienation is an unusual one. He wants to embolden citizens -- a distinct minority -- to raise their voices against an authoritarian government he says caters to expatriates, the majority. The government provides Emiratis with generous housing loans, pays for schooling and ensures free health care. But Roken is more unsettled by the intangibles: entering a mall where virtually everyone is a foreigner, beaches populated by swimmers in dress he considers immodest, and wine-tasting parties at luxury hotels. Only a more democratic polity, albeit entrusted to a minority, can stanch what he sees as Dubai's more flagrant excesses.
"The majority sets the rules of the game," the 44-year-old lawyer said. "If we keep ourselves passive, the identity, the culture will fade away very quickly. Activism is a way of protecting our identity and our culture, in a positive way."
"A one-voice society has been tried in other countries and failed," he said. "We shouldn't repeat other people's failures."
As a way of adding voices, Roken has pushed for a more aggressive role by professional unions, often the arena of activism in the Arab world. But he said the government has imposed restrictions on their work. The government has canceled activities, including his own talks; security forces, he said, sometimes vet the names of participants in conferences abroad.
"The space for freedom has become smaller and smaller," said Mohammed al-Mansoori, who heads the Jurists Association.
Like Roken and others, Mansoori laments the loss of what he says was an intimacy with the ruling families a generation ago. Since the 1980s, he said, the clans that run the Emirates have increasingly assumed the trappings of power, distancing themselves from those they govern. As the traditional society fades, Mansoori has pushed for a more modern alternative: an independent judiciary, human rights and labor laws consistent with international standards and freer elections.
Among his pursuits: ways to protect the country's identity.
"Nobody wants to listen," he said.
Mansoori, 49, fled to London last July after a disagreement with a government official he says was politically motivated. It followed several official warnings, he said, to stop speaking to foreign media about topics from Musabih's shelter to wildcat strikes to the rights of children of Emirati mothers. He plans to return, with a British lawyer, in coming weeks.
"It's normal to be nervous," he said. "But I've prepared myself to face anything."
He paused on the phone for a moment, with a hint of unease. "We'll see."