UAE deportations raise questions in Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon — When Hussein Massoud returned to the United Arab Emirates from his summer vacation in Lebanon on July 17, he entered the immigration line at Sharja airport like he has hundreds of times before over the past 34 years.

But on his most recent trip, the Emirati immigration officers told Massoud that his work permit and residency card had been canceled, and that he had to take the next flight back to Lebanon. Further, neither he nor his family could return.

The sense of shock that his life could change so quickly remains weeks later.

“After 34 years they cancelled it very easily, more easily than drinking a cup of water,” he said.

Massoud had made the U.A.E. his home. He is one of thousands of Lebanese who grew up in the U.A.E., where a majority of the workforce is foreign. He owns a house, land, several cars and an aluminum fabrication business that does millions of dollars of business every year. His kids were raised there.

Hussein Massoud shows his cancelled U.A.E. residence visa.
Hussein Massoud shows his cancelled U.A.E. residence visa.
(Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

So upon returning to Lebanon he naturally sought help at the ministry of foreign affairs, thinking all the while that his situation was unique.I n fact, he was told he was the 13th person to call with the same complaint.

Now, he among of a group of more than 200 Lebanese claiming they have been unfairly expelled from their homes, jobs and lives in the U.A.E. They include businessmen, lawyers and doctors. None was given an explanation, and they all have one thing in common: they are Lebanese Shiites.

Wahab Hajj Hassan, another Lebanese who was deported in July, was working as a legal advisor to the U.A.E. Ministry of Education for two years. He says the deportation was meant to send a signal — perhaps at the behest of the U.S. or Israel, that Lebanese Shiites shouldn’t support the Iranian backed Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah. But he says he’s baffled, because he’s not a Hezbollah member or supporter. He didn’t even vote for them in the last election.

“They [deported] the Shia because it is the biggest sect that supported the resistance, regardless if I am [personally] supporting the resistance or not,” he said, referring to Hezbollah.

Hassan says he was told his residency card and work permit had been canceled for “security reasons” by the U.A.E. federal government. He tried to have friends with connections in the Emirati government help him, but to no avail.

“They couldn’t reach anything,” he said. “All that I knew was that it was a decision from the minister of interior, because they have something on me. What’s this something, I still don’t know so far.”

Massoud says he suspects he was were kicked out because he refused to spy on other Lebanese the U.A.E. government suspected of supporting Hezbollah. He says he was once asked by an Emirati intelligence officer to spy on his fellow Lebanese Shiites, in an effort to discover Hezbollah sleeper cells.

“He said we just need from you to make small email, and we’ll ask you some names, and you give us reports on them,” he said. “And I said well, you should know, I don’t know anybody. I’m not in touch with anyone.”

Now he fears that decision may have led the security services to point to him as a threat. But he says that’s just a suspicion. He doesn’t really know what happened, because he was never given an explanation.

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.”