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UAE deportations raise questions in Lebanon

As more than 200 Lebanese await answers over why they were ejected from the U.A.E., experts point to paranoia in Gulf nations over Iran.

Paul Salem at the Carnegie Center in Beirut says the deportations have to do with the paranoia Gulf countries currently feel about Iranian influence on the Shiite minority populations in the largely Sunni Arab gulf. Last week, the Yemeni government accused Iran of supplying Shiite rebels with weapons. Saudi Arabia has issues with its Shiite minority, and Bahrain is majority Shiite country but is ruled by a Sunni royal family. Salem says the kind of Shiite ascendancy in Iraq is what many of the Gulf countries fear.

“There is enormous concern there about Shiite radicalization because they fear Iran, which is the giant next door,” Paul Salem said.

But Salem points out that just as the Gulf countries fear Iran’s growing prowess, the Islamic Republic is also the U.A.E.’s biggest regional trading partner, and tens of thousands of Iranians live in the U.A.E.

So far, the Emirati government has not responded to charges that it specifically deported Lebanese Shiites, but commentators in the U.A.E. media, which is tightly regulated by the government, have rejected the claim.

“The U.A.E.’s relations with Lebanese Shia are a testament to Arab solidarity,” wrote Sultan Sooud Al Qassem, a regular columnist in Abu Dhabi’s National newspaper on Oct. 3. “After the devastating Israeli war on Lebanon in July 2006, the U.A.E. has poured a total of $300 million into reconstruction, humanitarian aid and de-mining in South Lebanon. And still we have to contend with audacious reports that the U.A.E. has been actively discriminating against some Lebanese Shia.”

After Lebanon’s foreign affairs ministry had no success in resolving the issue, Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, the highest ranking Shia in the government, went to Abu Dhabi to meet with U.A.E. President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Ali Hamdan, an advisor to Berri, says Nahyan assured Berri the U.A.E. is not against the Lebanese, nor were the decisions regarding the work permits and residency cards based on religion. Now, Hamdan says the issue is “no longer a problem,” and that the U.A.E. is reviewing the cases.

“They will be looking at every case,” Hamdan said. “This will take a little time, but we are on the right track.”

Massoud and Hassan have yet to hear any news. Hassan worries that if his record isn’t cleared, he won’t be able to be able to travel to other countries that share security information with the U.A.E. — like the U.S. or Canada. He says he’s also concerned about his reputation.

“A lot of my colleagues are avoiding me, like maybe I’m a terrorist or something,” he said. “When I call them they rush the call. So I’m like an outcast with my U.A.E. colleagues and friends.”