Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this month has been hailed by some as evidence that the country is moving in the direction of greater religious and social tolerance. While previous Popes have visited Muslim-majority countries, Francis’ arrival in Abu Dhabi on February 3 represented the first ever visit by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula.

Pope Francis received a warm welcome from Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), signaling the beginning of a possible future relationship between the two major Abrahamic religions, at a time when both anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and anti-Christian attitudes in the Middle East are on the rise.

Shortly before the visit, Pope Francis praised the Emirati regime for “striving to be a model for co-existence, human fraternity, and meeting of faiths and civilizations.” Many observers, however, have suggested that the purpose of the visit was to boost the reputation of the UAE as a relatively open society. Indeed, the country has named 2019 the Year of Tolerance.

During his visit, Francis held an open-air mass for approximately 135,000 Catholics.

During his visit, Francis held an open-air mass for approximately 135,000 Catholics. It is estimated that some 800,000 Christians live in the UAE, practicing their faith in relative freedom, certainly as compared to the rest of the region. This is in stark contrast with nearby Saudi Arabia, where no non-Islamic religious buildings are permitted and where even Shia Muslims are harshly repressed.

However, the Gulf State’s repression of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its support for several so-called extremist organizations has done much to tarnish the reputation for tolerance the UAE is seeking. Perhaps the most severe threat to this reputation at present is the UAE’s involvement in the war in Yemen, a conflict which Pope Francis has publicly and strongly condemned.

Shortly before departing for Abu Dhabi, the Pope spoke of the excruciating plight of children suffering from famine across Yemen. In a speech to religious leaders upon his arrival in the UAE, the head of the Catholic Church called on religious leaders in the Gulf to reject war as a solution to political problems. He warned that the very survival of humanity could be under threat unless people repudiate the “logic of armed power… the arming of borders, the raising of walls.” Speaking also of the current wars in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, he called upon the world’s religious people to play a central role in reshaping the narrative surrounding armed conflict. 

Another specter hanging over the Pope’s visit to the Emirates is the lack of human rights. In recent months, many prominent human rights organizations have called upon the Pope to use his visit to put pressure on the Abu Dhabi leadership over its human rights record.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, have called for the release of Emirati political prisoners, such as human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor.

Skepticism about the openness and tolerance of the UAE has also intensified recently. First, there was the almost seven-month detention in solitary confinement of British PhD researcher Matthew Hodges on charges of espionage. The UK. government denied that Hodges was employed as a spy, yet he was “convicted” of the charges without a lawyer and only later after further imprisonment released when he was “pardoned” by the ruler of the UAE upon intervention from the highest levels of the U.K. government.

The Gulf monarchy expressly prohibits political parties and has significant restrictions on political dissent.

Further, the Gulf monarchy expressly prohibits political parties and has significant restrictions on political dissent. Many observers have commented that the authoritarian policies of states such as the UAE are the normal response of an anxious ruling class in the Gulf, following the so-called Arab Spring political uprisings of the last decade. When compared to the facts on the ground, the UAE’s rhetoric about openness and tolerance appears to be simply an effort at better positioning the monarchy to garner favorable international opinion and strengthening its authority at home.

Nevertheless, whether or not real tolerance is illusory, it is to the credit of the UAE that it is the first nation on the Arabian Peninsula ever to be visited by a Pope. While the relationship between the Vatican and the leadership of Muslim majority countries has been damaged on several occasions in recent decades (perhaps most notably by the previous Pope Benedict XVI’s offensive comments about Islam), Pope Francis is bent on improving it.

This visit could be a critical early step in future collaboration between the leaders of the world’s two largest faiths to tackle the problems of the modern world. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.