This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More …


Over the past decade, police reform in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region has been mainly implemented through community policing programs, gender inclusion, and youth and expatriates outreach, with the overarching purpose of promoting a positive image of the police. These top-down “soft policing” projects have developed in countries where authoritarianism persists and where governments are seeking to recalibrate social pacts, as well as to cope with new economic challenges and elite generational change. In this context, policing takes an interesting “community building” shape, especially in Abu Dhabi, where women, youth and expatriates are at the core of official programs aimed at strengthening urban cohesion. More broadly, the Al Nahyan-led emirate is betting on the re-branding of its police forces to boost an Abu Dhabi-tailored nation-building process in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) while supporting the federal messages of tolerance[1] and happiness.

Policing in the GCC states: A Snapshot

Community policing refers to the police force actively working with the local community and adopting non-coercive elements of police work to focus on crime prevention and reduction (i.e., soft policing). Some scholars and police officers are skeptical about the benefits of community policing. Nevertheless, many governments consider community policing — as a goal, a tool, and an overarching strategy — as being integral components of Security Sector Reform (SSR). For the GCC monarchies, soft policing practices contribute to conveying an improved and locally-connected image of the agents of coercion, both at a domestic and foreign level, while reproducing — at a micro, urban level — a sense of nationhood and community belonging in relatively young states such as United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. However, Shia remain marginalized, if not entirely excluded, from police forces in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, despite the cautious opening that occurred before the 2011 uprisings.

Digitalization has played a role in narrowing the distances between residents and police authorities. In 2017, for example, Dubai opened the first smart police station in the world, which provides 60 services, some of them with virtual connection to a police employee.[2] But community policing is the fil-rouge linking police reforms across the GCC region. Bahrain’s community policing program, which was established in 2005 and has at least 1,500 members (all of whom are unarmed) is the only one of its kind in the region which allows Shia to join.[3] Since 2014, British police officers have trained Oman’s police forces in Belfast, with a specific training focus also on community policing.[4] The Qatari community policing department was founded in 2014.[5]

This elite-driven, vertical community policing orientation aims to produce bottom-up positive feedback from Gulf societies, in terms of civic engagement and urban and national cohesion, as happens with conscription and militarized nationalism in most of the GCC states.[6] On the one hand, these community policing approaches aim to present a new police face to the numerous Gulf millennials, who are not only increasingly conscious of their duties, but also possess high citizenship awareness and expectations. On the other, these approaches aim to foster the formation of a new, young generation of police officers who are informed and committed to soft policing methods that complement the traditional toolkit of police work with which those who have had military experience are more familiar.[7]

In Gulf monarchies’ Community Policing Programs (COP), youth, women and expatriates are prominent targets and agents of community-oriented projects of police reform. For instance, in 2018 Qatar’s Police College, in collaboration with the community policing department, launched the “Officers of Tomorrow Program.” The 2019 edition of this initiative engages 2,000 Qatari students (ages 9-11) in a two-week summer camp that includes acquisition of public safety-related skills, sports activities, policing and military training under the slogan “Today’s generation…Tomorrow’s Officers…Leaders of the Future.” By outfitting participants in special military uniforms, the program aims to make young Qatari boys aware of their duties to the nation, “to develop a sense of national identity” through policing learning.[8]

Women in increasing numbers are being enrolled in Gulf police forces, and state media are promoting female police officers as role models for girls.[9] Bahrain (1970), Oman (1974) and the UAE (1977-78) pioneered the establishment of female police training institutes and induction of women into the police. Kuwait started recruiting women into the police force in 2008 and Qatar five years later. Saudi Arabia opened female police stations in Riyadh and Jeddah in 2010 to pursue personal, financial and real estate cases. As of 2018, Saudi women have been permitted to apply for jobs in the traffic police.

The UAE has led the way for the inclusion of women in police forces. There are currently 15,000 women employed in the country’s police forces — the largest number in the entire Middle East. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been at the forefront of women’s inclusion in police forces. Ras al-Khaimah (RAK), the most conservative of the emirates and the one with the highest concentration of nationals, announced its first female cop team for criminal investigations in 2019.[10]

The rise of police women has developed hand-in-hand with — and can be seen as a result of — the community policing approach. The inclusion of women in police forces has had the additional benefits of enhancing female participation in the job market, reducing unemployment and increasing the number of workers among nationals. The Dubai Police established child care centers and introduced flexible hours for breastfeeding. However, as the Emirati researcher Thuraiya Alhashmi points out, gender inclusion does not mean gender integration, since police women remain “primarily restricted to gender segregated roles,” that is, they deal exclusively with female victims or offenders.[11]

In Qatar, expatriates can take part in COP programs under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior. Thanks to these projects, nationals and expatriates develop “mutual respect and understanding of cultural norms, laws and religious practices emphasizing that all are partners in the security of the state of Qatar.”[12] For instance, the community police department organized a workshop in 2018 to educate representatives from the 400,000-strong Nepalese expatriate population about community policing and Qatari law.[13]

Policing in Abu Dhabi: The Emirati Laboratory

The Abu Dhabi Police was founded in 1957 with British support  Each emirate currently maintains its own separate police force academies since full federal integration has not yet been achieved. The Abu Dhabi Police College, founded in 1985, is engaged in a process of gradual professionalization. In 1992, the length of the police training course was extended from two to four years. Among the Gulf monarchies and within the UAE, Abu Dhabi can be considered a “policing laboratory” where youths, women and expatriates are targets and agents of many state-led soft policing initiatives. Abu Dhabi’s Department of Community Police, established in 2003, is dedicated to crime prevention and awareness, as well as participation in local events and coordination.[14]

The campaign “We are all police” synthesizes which kind of message Abu Dhabi’s authorities want to convey, under the slogan “The police are our community and our community is the police.”[15] This voluntary program, which consists of nearly 20,000 participants and is open to applicants from all backgrounds and nationalities residing in Abu Dhabi, aims to “give something back to [the] community” and enhance the happiness of the Abu Dhabi public through a “sustainable, community-based police program.”[16] In practical terms, this means that those selected as participants, after completing a series of training courses, become “linking rings” between police officers and the general public, supporting the Abu Dhabi Police in working in and around the community to identify and address a variety of challenges. “We are all police” volunteers also take part in the Abu Dhabi Police anti-drug campaign, “My life is priceless.”[17] In furtherance of the nation-building goal, the initiative is publicly anchored in the past and present history of the emirate.

Launched in 2016, “the happiness patrol” bets on the idea of positive reinforcement.[18] If a police patrol of this kind stops someone, it is to award good drivers with appreciation certificates,[19] confer a “happiness/gift voucher” at a prominent shopping mall or retail shop,[20]  or in the case of a minor traffic rule violation, present the driver with a yellow voucher that declares “your safety concerns us.”[21]

The idea Abu Dhabi’s authorities want to spread is that police stations are not only place to denounce crimes, but also venues of community sharing and socialization: this is the intent of initiatives like “comprehensive police stations,” which allow the public to join the stations in specific occasions to learn about available services, or “Ramadan Gatherings” and “Youth Gatherings” to enhance citizen awareness, in the first case, about traffic safety at night and, in the second, to highlight the dangers of street racing.[22] In Abu Dhabi, complementing the traditional police work toolkit with a community-oriented approach aims also to prevent and reduce crime rates, as well as counter radicalization and violent extremism, thus supporting, on a micro-level, the broader strategy of Emirati nation-building. Not by chance, HEDAYAH, the Abu Dhabi-based center devoted to counter violent extremism, organizes training seminars on Community-Oriented Policing (COP), the “COP Trainings,” with the purpose of integrating “COP philosophy in police efforts to counter violent extremism.”[23]

The 2007 Golden Jubilee of the Abu Dhabi Police was a vivid example of community-building. The celebration was decisively social in its orientation, including sports activities, community programs, lectures and a mass wedding ceremony. The Abu Dhabi Police has also implemented a catchy “brand-ization” strategy, appealing to young UAE residents. In 2009, for example, Falcon Bike, a motorbike exclusively designed for the Abu Dhabi Police, was showcased in some at popular events such as the Abu Dhabi International Motorbike Show to heighten residents’ awareness of urban road safety and security requirements. This is a smart nation-building strategy, juxtaposing in an iconographical way the falcon, symbol of the UAE, with the motorbike, one of the symbols of the police.

The number of policewomen in Abu Dhabi is on the rise. Although exact figures are not publicly available, the demographic of the Abu Dhabi Police comprises about 76% of men and 23% of women employees.[24] In 2019, the fourth Regional Women Police Association Conference was held in Abu Dhabi. The Emirati Women Police Association (EWPA) became the first association of its kind in the Arab world to affiliate with the International Association of Women Police (IAWP).

Abu Dhabi Police Reform: Spinning Emirati Nation-Building

“Definitely, the police are our Kudwah; we need them to be our Kudwah because we need them to be dependable in time of need. Why do you think our kids dress like police officers? Why is the police academy graduation such a big deal that the Emir himself attends the ceremony? Police have an oath to take which is to protect and defend us [the community].”[25] This extract from an interview reported by Talal Almutairi conveys well how police forces are traditionally seen and perceived by Gulf societies, with particular regard here to Kuwait: as an example and an inspiring model to follow (kudwah). This suggests a vertical, hierarchical relationship between the police and the society, which is radically different from a community policing approach, which instead emphasizes the horizontal, “win-win” linkage between residents (both citizens and expatriates) and police forces. Soft policing complements traditional police work and, as the Abu Dhabi laboratory attests,  can generate positive community dynamics in the form of civic engagement and urban cohesion.

Interestingly, in the Abu Dhabi case, the subtle connection between the urban and the national (here federal) level boosts the Abu Dhabi-tailored process of nation-building in the UAE. As the leading emirate within the federation, Abu Dhabi is at the forefront of police reform efforts, with specific attention to community policing. Abu Dhabi projects its police-related messages and image beyond the emirate level, with the intent to reach the all of UAE society. For instance, the UAE Ministry of Interior magazine, 999-Security and Safety for All, stresses the police’s rebranding strategy across the federation: “While the primary job of police forces in any country is law enforcement and crime prevention, the UAE police forces also work to put smiles on every face,” underlines a recent cover story.[26] As a result of this elite-driven effort, the responsibility towards the Abu Dhabi community becomes also, for residents, the duty to “give something back” and serve the Emirati nation.

 

[1] On the geopolitics of tolerance in the UAE, see Eleonora Ardemagni, “The Geopolitics of Tolerance: Inside the UAE’s Cultural Rush,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), ISPI Commentary, February 3, 2019 https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/geopolitics-tolerance-inside-uaes-cultural-rush-22155.
 

[2] See, for example, “Dubai introduces world’s first smart police station,” Al Arabiya, September 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTckn0Cafo8; and Ali Al Shouk, “Fully automated police station opens at City Walk,” Gulf News, September 17, 2017, https://gulfnews.com/uae/government/fully-automated-police-station-opens-at-city-walk-1.2091514.
 

[3] Jodi Vittori, “Bahrain’s Fragility and Security Sector Procurement,” Working Paper, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Vittori_Bahrain_final.pdf; and Staci Strobl, “From colonial policing to community policing in Bahrain: The historical persistence of sectarianism,” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 35, 1 (2011): 19-37.
 

[4] Jamie Merrill, “UK trains Oman’s police and special forces in ‘public order’ tactics,” Middle East Eye, September 22, 2017, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/uk-trains-omans-police-and-special-forces-public-order-tactics.
 

[5] Leslie Walker, “New Qatar community policing arm created as part of MOI reshuffle,” Doha News, July 9, 2014, https://dohanews.co/moi-creates-new-community-policing-directorate/.
 

[6] On conscription in the Gulf states, see Zoltan Barany, “Big News! Conscription in the Gulf,” Middle East Institute, January 25, 2017; on conscription in the UAE and Qatar as a tool of nation-building, and on Gulf monarchies’ militarized nationalism, see: Eleonora Ardemagni, “Emiratization of Identity: Conscription as a Cultural Tool of Nation-Building,” Gulf Affairs, OxGAPS-Oxford Gulf & Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum, Oxford University (Autumn 2016): 6-9 https://www.oxgaps.org/files/analysis_ardemagni.pdf; “Yemen’s War Reshapes Arab Gulf Armies,” Middle East Institute, November 15, 2017 https://www.mei.edu/publications/yemens-war-reshapes-arab-gulf-armies; “Building New Gulf States Through Conscription,” Carnegie Sada, April 25, 2018 https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/76178; “Icons of the Nation: The Military Factor in the UAE’s Nation-Building,” LSE Middle East Centre Blog, February 1, 2019 https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2019/02/01/icons-of-the-nation-the-military-factor-in-the-uaes-nation-building/; “Gulf Monarchies’ Militarized Nationalism,” Carnegie Sada, February 28, 2019 https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/78472; and “Gulf National Days: Military Symbols and Patriotism,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies, ISPI Commentary, May 16, 2019 https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/gulf-national-days-military-symbols-and-patriotism-23089.
 

[7] Rhonda Kaye DeLong, “An Analysis of Police Perceptions of Community Policing and Female Officers” (1997) Dissertations.1640, https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/dissertations/164.
 

[8] “Police College organises Officers of Tomorrow,” Peninsula, June 25, 2018, https://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/25/06/2018/Police-College-organises-Officers-of-Tomorrow-program.
 

[9] See Thuraiya Alhashmi, “Cracking the Glass Ceiling: Gulf Women in the Police,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, April 9, 2018 https://agsiw.org/cracking-glass-ceiling-gulf-women-police/.
 

[10] Ahmad Shabaan, “RAK to have their first women CID officers,” Khaleej Times, March 13, 2019,  https://www.khaleejtimes.com/nation/ras-al-khaimah/rak-police-to-have-their-first-women-cid-officers.
 

[11] Alhashmi, “Cracking the Glass Ceiling.” [I would like to thank Ms. Thuraiya Alhashmi for sharing secondary sources on Gulf policewomen.]
 

[12] “Doha Plan of Action for Community-Oriented Policing in a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Context,” Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), https://toolkit.thegctf.org/Portals/1/Documents/En/Doha_Action_Plan_for_COP_Tool_for_CVE.pdf.
 

[13] “Workshop on policing for Nepali expats,” Peninsula, February 15, 2018, https://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/15/02/2018/Workshop-on-community-policing-for-Nepali-expats-held.
 

[14] 999-Security and Safety for All 80 (September 2018): 18.
 

[17] “Abu  Dhabi Police launches ‘My life is priceless’ campaign,” Gulf News, September 15, 2018, https://gulfnews.com/uae/government/abu-dhabi-police-launches-my-life-is-priceless-campaign-1.2278590.
 

[18] “Abu Dhabi police launches Traffic Happiness Patrol,” Emirates 247, October 31, 2016, https://www.emirates247.com/news/emirates/abu-dhabi-police-launches-traffic-happiness-patrol-2016-10-31-1.642902.
 

[19] Jasmine Al Kuttab, “Here’s why police officers are stopping few cars on UAE roads daily,” Khaleeji Times, November 8, 2018, https://www.khaleejtimes.com/nation/abu-dhabi/-Here’s-why-police-officers-are-stopping-few-cars-daily-on-UAE-roads.
 

[20] “Good drivers to get ‘happiness vouchers’ from Abu Dhabi police,” Filipino Times, November 2, 2016, https://filipinotimes.net/top-stories/2016/11/02/good-drivers-to-get-happiness-vouchers-from-abu-dhabi-police/.
 

[22] Mohamed Saif Alhanaee, “Using Soft Power for Crime Prevention and Reduction: The Experience of Abu Dhabi police,” MSc Thesis, Canterbury Christ Church University (2018) 19.
 

[23] “Doha Plan of Action for Community-Oriented Policing in a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Context.”
 

[24] Alhanaee, “Using Soft Power for Crime Prevention and Reduction: The Experience of Abu Dhabi police,” 24-25.
 

[25] Talal Almutairi, “Police-Community Relationship in Kuwait: Public Relations Perspective.” Doctoral dissertation. Communications, Media & Culture School of Arts and Humanities. University of Stirling (2013) 143.
 

[26] 999-Security and Safety for All, 18.