As host of UN COP28 climate talks, the autocratic UAE is now allowing in critics it once kept out

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — As participants at the United Nations’ COP28 climate talks filed in Sunday for another day of talks, they found themselves greeted by a rare sight in the United Arab Emirates — a protest.

From activism about the Israel-Hamas war to environmental issues, activists allowed into the UAE can demonstrate under strict guidelines in this autocratic nation. Others from organizations long banned by the country also have been let in, providing them some the opportunity for the first time in over a decade to offer criticism — though many acknowledge it may see them never allowed back in the country.

The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms led by Abu Dhabi’s ruler, bans political parties and labor unions. All power rests in each emirate’s hereditary ruler. Broad laws tightly restrict speech and nearly all major local media are either state-owned or state-affiliated outlets.

Laws also criminalize the very few protests that take place by foreign laborers over working conditions and unpaid salaries, which can see them get partial settlements but then be promptly deported. The Emirates’ overall population of more than 9.2 million people is only 10% Emirati.

The rest are expatriates, many of them low-paid laborers seeking to send money back home to their families, skewing the country’s gender balance to nearly 80% male. Many avoid saying anything as they see their livelihoods at risk for speaking up as their visas and residencies remain tied to their employers.

However, the U.N. and the UAE agreed before COP28 that free expression would be allowed. Activists described a process of having to seek approvals with organizers for their demonstrations.

Early Sunday, a dozen demonstrators held up a sign calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, some reading a long list of Palestinian children’s names and their ages who had been killed in the Gaza Strip. Israeli security personnel from a pavilion on site briefly argued over the protest with United Nations police on hand guarding the Blue Zone, an area overseen by the U.N. where the negotiations take place.

Criticism of Israel’s conduct in the war has peppered much of the summit from world leaders, as well as activists who can be seen through the site wearing the traditional checkered keffiyeh, or scarf, associated with the Palestinians.

Babawale Obayanju, an activist with the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice from Benin City, Nigeria, taking part in Sunday’s protest, told The Associated Press that it was important to highlight the killing of civilians in the Gaza Strip as “it’s time for the world to take action” on that and the environment.

“Every opportunity we have, every arena of this struggle is one that we must embrace,” Obayaju said. “And the COP is in that arena of struggle.”

At the demonstration, one passer-by briefly unfurled a Palestinian flag before those leading the protest asked him to put it away. U.N. rules bar the use of national flags in demonstrations.

For Alice McGown, a Los Angeles-based activist, that meant dressing in a dugong outfit, holding a sign saying: “No More Fossils.” It also meant getting preapproval from authorities, dragging the dugong through security and dressing into its heavy felt in the still-hot desert environment of Dubai’s Expo City, where COP28 is taking place.

“It’s like a seacow — we are sometimes mistaken for a mermaid, as you can tell,” McGown said, sweat pouring down her face from inside of the costume.

But while looking cartoonish, McGown offered serious criticism of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.’s plans to expand its offshore ultrasour gas operations into a protected area home to the dugong.

“It’s a little risky,” she said, as gawking onlookers stopped to photograph her. “Civil society does not have much of a place to speak out against these actions.” ___

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