Tunisia airline row: UAE 'political miscalculation'?

The UAE banned Tunisian women from flying into the country on Friday. (Reuters)

The UAE banned Tunisian women from flying into the country on Friday. (Reuters)

The ongoing row between Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates over Emirates airline’s decision to impose a blanket ban on Tunisian women flying into the country was a “political miscalculation” that reflects an increasingly fraught relationship between the two countries, experts say.

Nicholas Noe, a Tunisia-based political analyst and editor of MideastWire.com, said the UAE’s contentious move reflected its “immaturity”, both from a political and security perspective.

“If we believe that there [were] underlying security concerns ... then definitely the way in which this was handled, it both represents a political miscalculation and political immaturity,” Noe told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview.

Roundly condemned by Tunisian women, human rights groups and state officials, the UAE announced that Emirates would stop accepting all Dubai-bound female passengers from Tunisia on Friday.

UAE officials later said the decision was motivated by security concerns and a “terrorist threat”.

While they have insisted they are trying to calm the situation, Tunisian officials responded by suspending all Emirates flights to and from the country.

Emirates is the flag carrier of Dubai, but analysts believe it is the oil-rich capital, Abu Dhabi, that sets the foreign policy of the UAE, a federation of seven emirates.

Within Abu Dhabi’s royal family, real power is believed to rest with the crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, popularly known as MBZ.

“What it really looks like is the UAE is not necessarily used to playing politics well in actual democracies, and Tunisia is an actual democracy,” Noe said.

“Tunis has a strong women’s rights record and a strong women’s movement”, he said, and UAE officials “don’t have the political maturity and acumen to deal with democracy”.

Public apology

On Monday, Khemaies Jhinaoui, Tunisia’s foreign minister, told a radio station that his UAE counterpart, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, called to offer him a personal apology for the ban.

Jhinaoui said a public apology was also necessary, however, since the decision was widely perceived as being discriminatory against Tunisian women.

“I ... [told the UAE foreign minister] that the perception is there because the move happened, and so there is no way that we can maintain business as usual,” Jhinaoui told Shems FM.

Youssef Cherif, a political analyst based in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, said the UAE’s blanket ban was an over-reaction that was exacerbated by strained ties between the two countries.

The rift first emerged after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution toppled long-time Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had maintained strong relations with the UAE.

Before that year, the UAE was Tunisia’s second-largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa, after only Libya, Cherif explained.

The relationship worsened when Ennahdha, a moderate Islamist party, was electedto lead a new Tunisian constituent assembly, less than a year after Ben Ali was forced to step down.

Ennahdha’s rival, the secular party Nidaa Tounes, won the most seats in the next elections in 2014.

However, Nidaa Tounes eventually entered into a power-sharing agreement with Ennahdha to form a government, displeasing some of the party’s supporters in the region.

“Ennahdha remained in government after the election of 2014 [and] was not banned, as some people in the UAE would have expected,” Cherif told Al Jazeera.

More recently, the Tunisian government has taken a balanced approach to the crisisengulfing Arab countries in the Gulf, which has pitted Qatar against its former allies within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in early June and later imposed a land, sea, and air embargo on the country, which remains in effect.

While Nidaa Tounes is seen as being more closely aligned with the UAE, Ennahdha has stronger ties to Qatar.

Last year, Qatar pledged $1.25bn to help boost Tunisia’s struggling economy.

Cherif said Tunisia’s weak economy and lack of influence on global politics have forced the country to try to keep a more neutral position in the region.

“When the Qatar crisis began, Tunisia stayed neutral and refused to join the UAE and Saudi side, but also refused to be completely in the Qatari or Turkish camp,” he said.

“From an Emirati perspective, this was not accepted very well.”

Domestic impact

While members of both of Tunisia’s major political parties have come out against the Emirate’s action, the airline spat has given fuel to groups that are critical of the UAE and its domestic allies, like President Beji Caid Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes party, Noe, of MideastWire.com, explained.

Ennahdha officials “have taken advantage of this and they’ve embarrassed the president” and have “been able to get in their political potshots”, he said.

The incident is especially important for Essebsi since it involves women’s rights, Noesaid: the president gained domestic and international praise earlier this year after he lifted a decades-old ban to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men.

Aswat Nissa, a women’s rights organisation, urged the Tunisian authorities to “urgently” deal with the airline issue, calling the UAE’s ban a “shocking decision” and “an insult to Tunisia”.

“No motive justifies this type of discrimination against women,” the group said in a statement posted on Facebook on Friday.

The kerfuffle also comes as Tunisia prepares to hold municipal elections next year, the first since the 2011 revolution.

“Now Ennahdha and their allies get to punch the president and [his] allies ...
over the issue of women,” Noe said.

‘Dangerous leadership’

Despite the tit-for-tat airline bans, Cherif said it is too soon to describe the tiff between Tunisia and the UAE as a “crisis”.

The Tunisian authorities, he said, are trying to “calm down the Emiratis” and temper the effect of the decisions taken in the last week.

“If the Emiratis do not want to transform it into a crisis, it’s in their hands,” he said.

Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, reiterated this week that the ban was enacted for security reasons.

“We have met with our brothers in Tunisia about security information that has imposed specific and circumstantial measures,” Gargash told Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper on Monday.

“In the UAE, we are proud of empowering women, we appreciate Tunisian women, and respect them. We should avoid misleading attempts at misinterpretation and misrepresentation.”

However, Noe said the row has shown many Tunisians that the UAE “is working against the Islamist-secularist power-sharing democracy that is working relatively well” in their country.

It also demonstrates that “the UAE and the other monarchies are guided by extravagantly wealthy men that can make exceedingly poor decisions not least because they are unchecked in their power”, Noe said.

He said the Tunisia-UAE situation was reminiscent of what happened earlier this year when Saudi Arabia tried to pressure Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, into resigning.

The move was reportedly taken because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wanted to sideline Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia political faction backed by Iran, the Saudis’ main regional rival.

Saudi Arabia was also reportedly angered by the power-sharing agreement in Lebanon that saw Hariri’s Future movement, a Sunni bloc that has traditionally been aligned with the Saudis, working alongside Hezbollah.

For many in Tunisia, the row with the UAE is another example that “we’re in for some really dangerous leadership from the GCC states”, Noe said - Al Jazeera

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours has reported from across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in South and North America, Asia and Europe. Her work covers immigration, refugees, political conflict and human rights issues. Read more from Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

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