“With the Pope’s Visit, the UAE Wants to Send a Message of Tolerance and Peace”

Majed Alraeesi is a political analyst for a United Arab Emirates-based think-tank, which specializes in terrorist groups andcounter-terrorism strategies. He holds a degree in international law from the University of the United Arab Emirates, and is very influential in his home country, with over 150 thousand followers on Twitter. He defines the UAE as “United Against Extremism” in his profile. I interviewed him to understand what the intentions of the UAE are in receiving the first visit from Pope Francis in the Arabian Peninsula, and how his country plans to tackle religious extremism and political repression in the region.

What does the United Arab Emirates hope to achieve with a Pope’s first visit in the Arab Gulf?

The historic visit of His Holiness Pope Francis of the Catholic Church carries a humanitarian message of peace and coexistence for the world. His visit comes at a time when we are witnessing increasing political, religious, and ethnic conflicts. To solve these rising tensions, the values of fraternity, unity, and tolerance are needed. In the United Arab Emirates, the start of each year is marked with a special name. In 2019, the UAE aimed to honour the legacy of our founding father – Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – who believed in freedom of religion and political pluralism. We called this year “The Year of Tolerance.” The Pope’s invitation to the UAE is honouring this tradition.

There are currently almost 1 million Catholics living in the United Arab Emirates, most of them immigrants, and the UAE has been praised for the construction of a second Catholic Church and raising wages for immigrants, contrary to most other Arab Gulf nations.  But many critics suggest this is merely a publicity stunt, and that Christians and non-Muslims in the UAE do not enjoy the same rights as Muslims, for example – they do not have political representation and there are still forbidden practices, like apostasy – what is your response to these criticisms?

The UAE is home to about 10 million people from different nationalities and religions. Our nation prides itself in treating all of our foreigners equally, and in doing so we have built many churches in Abu Dhabi. You’d be surprised to know that in 1992, the historian and writer Peter Heller discovered that in the Sir Bani Yas Island there was a church dating back to the 7th century AD. It was 1,400 years old, and he had wondered how the leader of a Muslim nation, Sheikh Zayed at the time, would accept such an archaeological discovery. People were speculating that it would have embarrassed him in front of his people. Heller, therefore, wondered if he should have kept it secret from the Sheikh. The following day, Sheikh Zayed asked Heller why he looked so anxious, and Heller at that point admitted: “We have discovered the signs of a Christian monastery.” Sheikh Zayed reassured him, by saying: “And what prevented our ancestors from being Christian before becoming Muslim?” He told Heller there was nothing to worry about and then ordered his team to preserve the monastery, as a sign of respect towards Christianity. This anecdote is enough to respond to those who question the UAE’s intentions.

What is your explanation on the recent case of Matthew Hedges – the British academic jailed with a life sentence for espionage and later granted clemency – which has raised many critics to suggest this shed light on political repression in the UAE?

The UAE and Britain share strategic ties, but they also protect their own national security. Matthew Hedges’s case was about a crime that affected the security and sovereignty of our nation. It was not a human rights issue or a matter of opinion. Hedges admitted during the trial he had collected sensitive and confidential information about the UAE for foreign intelligence services. The case was proved unambiguously, with hard evidence and his own confession. He had received instructions from a foreign agency to collect information on a number of sensitive issues. The information gathered by the convict could not have been classified as a simple study conducted by a researcher seeking to obtain some innocuous knowledge for academic purposes. Unfortunately, Hedges exploited the openness of our government to foreign researchers, by compromising our national security. After his conviction, our president issued a pardon during our “National Day”, when such pardons are extended to our prisoners to give them an opportunity to correct their ways.

What is the difference between the UAE’s view of Islam, and that of other nations in the Arabian Peninsula, like Saudi Arabia?

Like most religions, Islam is a religion that promotes peace, love, and universal goodness. Unfortunately, our religion has been misinterpreted by the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood, who use it for political purposes, by spreading division in Muslim countries. Even in the UAE, we weren’t immune from Brotherhood’s divisive activities, especially through its sponsor – the Qatari government. The UAE rejects extremism and the use of Islam for political purposes. Many Arab countries were affected by the Muslim Brotherhood’s advances, but it must be acknowledged that there is a wave of change in these same countries demanding an end to their destructive ideology.

How does the UAE intend to show the Western and Christian world that it is a better ally than Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood?

The blockade on Qatar by the UAE and Saudi Arabia was due to its support towards terrorism and extremism in various Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria and Libya. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is also one of the main causes behind the current European refugee crises. The people were displaced and their homes were destroyed due to the conflicts promoted by their pan-Islamist ideology. Both Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood distorted the true meaning of Islam in the region. Imam Al-Qaradawi, an extremist close to Qatar’s ruling family, called for the so-called Arab Spring, which turned millions into refugees and left thousands dead. European countries should pay attention to Qatar’s policies of supporting extremist practices, and pressure the nations who work with them to abandon them. Qatar shows a liberal image to the West, while it promotes political Islam in the East. Their country’s activities are facilitated by its state media channels and public relations offices, on which Qatar relies heavily in Europe and the United States. Also, Europe should be wary of certain “charitable” organizations and financial operations, which act as a cover for the Muslim Brotherhood’s fanatical activities. These kinds of organizations are among the dangerous tools used by terrorist groups to spread their ideology and to recruit their youth, who are later sent to war zones to fight for Qatar’s national interests – as we have recently seen in the case of Libya.