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Should the UK Government Really Be So Friendly with the UAE?

No one seems to be questioning the Emirati government's human rights abuses.

by James Tennent
30 July 2013, 7:00am


David Cameron making a speech in Dubai. (Screen grab via)

Unless you're a member of the Young Conservatives or a political cartoonist with writer's block, government press releases aren't exactly the most inspiring of reads. But the recent relaying of David Cameron's meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was particularly dull, reading like an account of the most boring dinner party you've never attended: a bunch of noncommittal statements about various Middle Eastern crises and a continuing course of stronger ties between the two countries.    

As cheery and affable as that might seem, there was an unfortunate undertone that could have driven a little more interest to the meeting if it too had been included in the press release: the ten-tonne elephant of human rights abuses squatting directly on top of the box of dates His Highness undoubtedly brought along as a gesture of goodwill.  

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) doesn’t have the greatest track record on human rights. There have been reports of activists being held in secret while their lawyers are intimidated, significant problems in the treatment of migrant workers, systematic torture in jails, unfair trials and the recent case of the Norwegian woman who was jailed (and recently pardoned, along with her alleged attacker) for having extramarital sex after reporting that she'd been raped. Then there are the individual cases of UAE royal family members doing their bit to tarnish the country's human rights record.

For instance, those of us lucky enough to have watched the tape of Sheikh Issa torturing an Afghan grain farmer will have little trouble remembering the image of a uniformed officer helping him shove sand into the man’s mouth before running him over with his car.


A royal welcome for UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan earlier this year. 

But for those of you who couldn't give a shit about what happens to people from other countries, start freaking out uncontrollably, because it's been happening to British people, too. After reportedly being tortured in a Dubai police station and made to sign confessions in Arabic that they couldn’t understand, three British men on trial for drugs charges were released last week as part of a Ramadan pardon list – a handout of get-out-of-jail-free cards where a number of people charged with minor crimes are pardoned during the holy month.

I asked Rori Donaghy from the Emirates Centre for Human Rights whether this was a hopeful sign for the future. "The authorities make magnanimous gestures to try to sweep bad stories under the carpet rather than engaging in proper reforms," he told me, quashing any sense of hope I had. Then I remembered the fact that Lee Bradley Brown, another British citizen, died in police custody in 2011 and realised that a couple of pardons for some tourists with minor drug possession charges don't quite signify a light at the end of the UAE's very depressing human rights tunnel.    

The crown prince's recent visit managed to time in perfectly with a few more human rights abuses in the UAE; earlier this month 69 people were found guilty of sedition after a long investigation into al-Islah, an Islamist group that has been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is banned in the UAE for fear that it could compromise the security of the state, which is why the 69 were being tried in the first place. However, while admitting that they share a similar ideology, members of the group have repeatedly denied the government's accusations that al-Islah is an arm of the Brotherhood.

Despite their refrains, we were told that those found guilty had "the aim of turning the public against the state". However, it's unclear exactly how because no evidence of al-Islah working with the Muslim Brotherhood has been released and, according to Donaghy, the trial wasn't exactly legitimate in its practice:

"What’s crucial here is that, since they’ve been convicted, the evidence hasn’t been published or made available, so we don't know on what evidence they were actually convicted. Domestic media seems to be suggesting they were convicted of membership of a group rather than anything else. They acquitted all the women involved and then a select number of the others to make it appear like there was a process of sorts."


Family members of the imprisoned al-Islah group protest for their release. (Photo courtesy of The Emirates Centre for Human Rights)

I asked Rori whether it was another case of the authorities simply trying to maintain the appearance that they were doing things by the book.

“Well, yeah. We sent a legal delegation to observe the trial, and while they were barred access from the court – as foreign media and international services weren't allowed in [Reporters Without Borders ranks the UAE 114th of 179 on the Press Freedom Index] – it concluded that there was no process involved that met international fair trial standards.

"Allegations of torture [during the accused's detainment] have consistently been dismissed without investigation, even though they’ve grown in credibility as time has gone on."

Of course, without any evidence being released, we won't know if the guilty verdict was justifiable or not. But regardless of that convenient hiccup, clearly everyone any anyone should be entitled to a fair trial. Speaking to Rori, it became apparent that the verdict might have had something to do with personal vendettas rather than a court following the fair course of law: "I have a feeling that what [Cameron and the crown prince] actually talked about was the Muslim Brotherhood’s role to play in the Middle East," he told me. "The crown prince is a known [Muslim Brotherhood] hater, along with the chief of police in Dubai.”

The problem is that the UK government are too scared about losing lucrative business deals in the country to speak out against these abuses. In fact, what has been said about the UAE by the British media has already caused enough problems as it is; according to Human Rights Watch's 2013 world report, “In June, 'industry sources' in Abu Dhabi cited criticism of the UAE in the UK press as one factor in a decision not to invite British oil company BP to tender for 2014 oil concessions.”


Eurofighter Typhoon jets at RAF Coningsby. (Photo via)

And it's not just oil the government has to worry about; the UK has been trying to sell 100 Eurofighter Typhoon jets – worth up to £6 billion – to the UAE, and any public questioning of their potential buyer's human rights abuses aren't likely to sweeten the deal.

In fact, last year, when asked about using overseas trips to sell defence equipment to the UAE, bearing in mind its questionable human rights record, David Cameron made sure to dampen the issue, saying, "On human rights, there are no no-go areas in this relationship. We discuss all of these things but we also show respect and friendship to a very old ally and partner." Only, it seems that "respect" in this case translates to completely foregoing any discussion whatsoever and just pandering to the Emirati top brass instead.    

Of course, we can't rely on Boris to raise any of these issues since it emerged that, bizarrely, he's signed away his right to criticise the UAE government or royal family. And, going by that quote, it looks unlikely that Cameron will crawl out of from under his blanket of compliance to jeopardise any business interests with the UAE for the sake of standing up against some pretty serious human rights abuses any time soon.    

For now, all we can do is watch on as the government continue to quietly wrong its own citizens and any foreigners deplorable enough to be raped on its shores. Another trial, scheduled for the end of Ramadan, will try 30 Emirati and Egyptian members of al-Islah accused of trying to set up a branch of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE. Whether they'll get a fair trial and the courtesy of having the evidence used against them released to the public remains to be seen.   

Follow James on Twitter: @duckytennent 

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