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Saudi Princess Fahda bin Saud bin Abdulaziz (right) slammed Emirati diplomat Yousef al Otaiba (left) for saying he'd like to see "more secular, stable, prosperous, empowered, strong governments" in the region.

The Emirati ambassador to the United States raised some eyebrows during a recent interview with Charlie Rose. Speaking of his country and Saudi Arabia's dispute with Qatar, Yousef al Otaiba explained that it was more a philosophical than a diplomatic disagreement. "If you asked the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain what kind of Middle East they want to see in 10 years," he said, "they would have opposed that of Qatar." Instead, al Otaiba went on, these countries are pushing for "strong, stable and prosperous secular governments."

To the vast majority of Emiratis and Saudis inculcated with Islamic teachings during their formative years, al Otaiba's talk of a secular state seemed disingenuous, if not blasphemous. The ambassador's words drew sharp criticism from Saudi Arabia; Princess Fahda — daughter of the late King Fahd — called al Otaiba's comments a conspiracy against the kingdom and against Islam.

Of course, al Otaiba's words weren't intended for a Saudi audience, but rather were tailored to Rose's American viewers. Strong relations with Washington have become central to Abu Dhabi in its bid to project power beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council. And as ambassador to the United States, al Otaiba was trying to firm up those ties, appealing to Western thinking to convince American viewers of his country's political legitimacy. In reality, however, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) can scarcely even pay lip service to the notion of secularism without jeopardizing its legitimacy back home.

The Dangers of Secularism

Sharia law forms the foundation of Emirati society. Maintaining it, moreover, is essential to safeguarding social stability and cohesion. The country, whose small geographic size belies its tribal diversity, relies on religion to unite its population. The Emirati national anthem spells out the people's inextricable bond to Islam in the line, "You have lived for a nation whose religion is Islam and whose guide is the Koran."

UAE rulers can scarcely even pay lip service to 'secularism' without jeopardizing their legitimacy.

Introducing secular elements into the UAE's political system would risk upsetting the balance in the country's society. Furthermore, as the Saudi princess's response to al Otaiba's interview suggests, the mere mention of secularism can inspire outrage.

Imposing secularism also would plant the seeds of political development in the country. Secularism and democracy go hand in hand. Empowering governments by popular consent, in turn, has a way of transforming a country's subjects into citizens who know their duties, responsibilities and rights. For the Emirati system, political awareness is anathema. Leaders place a premium on the population's unquestioning loyalty and obedience. The government rigorously censors its citizens and uses a heavy hand when dealing with dissidence; in 2017, the Human Rights Watch World Report accused authorities in the country of "arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment of detainees."

Drawing a Line

Despite the centrality of Islam in Emirati society, the country's leaders have been careful to moderate its role in government. The UAE, for example, successfully implemented a secular public service sector — an accomplishment that prompted its leaders to boast of their forward-looking political system. In addition, its foreign policy rests on three principles: wisdom, balance and temperance.

In 2010, Chief of Dubai Police Dahi Khalfan Tamim accused the Muslim Brotherhood of leading "an international plot against [Arab] Gulf states ... to take over our fortunes."

Abu Dhabi had a chance to test this pragmatic strategy during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when Islamist movements began gaining traction across the region. Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which eventually reached power in Egypt, posed a potentially existential threat to the Emirati system, driving leaders to action. Abu Dhabi has taken aggressive steps to quash the Muslim Brotherhood, though it enjoys only a modicum of public support in the UAE, and to douse the fires of political change in the region.

Still, promoting religious moderation and espousing secularism are two different things. Islam, in fact, generally was noted for its religious tolerance prior to the rise of its fundamentalist version — a tendency that by no means implied a recognition of secularism. The UAE has played a leading role in consolidating the foundations of international peace since Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan came to power in 1971. It has stood up against the threat of Islamist extremism in the intervening years as well. At the same time, though, the country devoted a staggering $600 million toward the construction of a grand mosque in Abu Dhabi, a project that hardly embodies secularism.

The secularism al Otaiba recently described probably refers to a system in which parties and leaders cannot use religion as a means to political ends, such as overthrowing the existing government. The Emirati ambassador also clearly understands the differences between his country's domestic and foreign policies. He issued his statement on secularism not at home but in a foreign country where his local audience would expect a different political discourse from what the Emirati public is accustomed to.

Back in Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, leaders would not even mention secularism in passing. The UAE neither aspires to a secular system, nor is it capable of attaining one under the current model of governance. And were it not for the speed with which Al Jazeera picked up the sound bite, al Otaiba's statement on the subject may well have slipped by unnoticed.

Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.