The British FCO Must Do More to Help British Nationals Detained in UAE
As Jamie Harron arrives back in the Scotland today after his bizaare ordeal in Dubai, serious questions should be asked about the relative passivity of the British government in the face of mounting repression in the UAE that is now affecting its own citizens.
Although human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have long documented the repressive nature of the UAE state with regards to its treatment of Emirati nationals, especially human rights defenders, UK citizens are now seemingly increasingly vulnerable to similar treatment.
The recent spate of arrests of British nationals in the UAE has inevitably raised questions over the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office's handling of the issue. So much so that British ambassador to the UAE, Philip Parham, felt compelled to issue a statement last week rebuffing criticisms levelled at the FCO for not doing enough to help its citizens in the UAE.
In it, Parham maintained that he was “proud” of the consular team efforts in assisting Brits in the Emirates. Confirming that there had been 213 new detainee cases in 2017 alone, the ambassador made assurances that FCO staff “are there to support.. [British detainees].. and take an interest in their welfare.”
However, this runs counter somewhat to reports regarding the support provided by the FCO to detainees such as Ahmed Zeidan, a British student from Reading who has been imprisoned for four years in Dubai after police found 0.04 grams of cocaine in a car he was travelling in one night. Monal Zeidan, Ahmed's father, maintains that on the contrary to taking an interest in his welfare, the FCO has “forgotten” his case with help amounting to no more that a monthly visit from an British embassy representative.
Parham's statement goes on to assert that representations are made if a “British person is being held in conditions which fall short of international standards”. However, little action was taken by the FCO in response to Zeidan's allegations that at the time of his arrest he was held in solitary confinement for two days where he was strip searched, brutally beaten, threatened with rape, and forced into signing a confession in Arabic, a language he doesn't understand.
Despite this, the British government refused to request a pardon, a decision which was heavily criticised by human rights charity Reprieve, who at the time stated that there “was more than enough reason for the British government to request his release”.
Recent UAE detainee Jamil Mukadam, a government IT worker from Leicester, who was detained in Dubai for making a rude hand gesture whilst stuck in a traffic jam and only released after his accuser failed to show up in court, commented on how “stunned” he was at “how little support [he] received from the British government at how many other people are in this situation”
Indeed, there have been many examples in recent years of unsuspecting tourists being detained for seemingly bizarre reasons, in many ways exemplifying the contradictory course that modernity has taken in Dubai that on the one hand sells itself as a thriving cosmopolitan tourist hub, but on the other, continues to be ruled by an authoritarian hereditary monarch.
Taking this into account, Parhman's statement goes on to say there are “limits to the support we can provide. We [UK FCO] cannot interfere in the legal processes or prison systems of other countries (just as we would not allow other governments to interfere in ours).
This is understandable. Because of this however, a crucial component to securing the release of British prisoners detained in the UAE has been that of building a strong public campaign through an effective media strategy. In doing this, NGO Detained in Dubai have a consistent track record of securing the release of foreign nationals that have been unjustly detained in the UAE. It's unlikely that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum would have exonerated him Jamie Harron yesterday if it weren't for media attention that has surrounded his case.
However despite this, a couple of weeks ago it was reported that the British Foreign Office urged the family of Billy Barclay, the Edinburgh man accused of forging a £20 note whilst on holiday in Dubai who has since been released, to refrain from publicising his case in the media and enlisting the advice of Detained in Dubai.
Billy Barclay's partner Monique was appalled by the advice given to her by the FCO, arguing that “if we had not gotten Radha (CEO of Detained in Dubai) involved, I know Billy would still be stuck there. The advice of the FCO was clearly not what would be best for us, but only good maybe for the UAE, to keep the issue under the carpet”.
Radha Stirling, who is the CEO of Detained in Dubai said at the time, “If Mr. Barclay had followed the embassy's advice, there is no question that he would still be in the same dilemma, and quite possibly have ended up facing jail time for something he didn't do.”
She continued, “It is astonishing that the embassy would take such a position, and one can't help but wonder how many innocent British citizens are currently detained in the UAE, following the embassy's advice to keep their heads down and suffer in silence. The British government appears to be as concerned about the UAE's public image as the Emirates government is itself.”
Soft power and image management are hugely important factors to the Emirati regime in terms of its geopolitical ambitions and trading relations. The UAE authorities go to great lengths to stress that the country is both open and tolerant, a thriving business hub that is welcoming of foreign nationals wishing to travel, reside or work in an otherwise hostile and often closed region.
However, the recent string of bizarre arrests of UK nationals in the UAE demonstrate that there is a divergence between the image that the UAE seeks to project, and the underlying realities on the ground. This reality will not be exposed and the rights of those in the UAE will not improve as long as the British government and the wider international community remain silent in the face of such frequent injustices.
A key explanation for the deafening silence on behalf of the British government on the above cases can be found in the recent announcement that bilateral trade between the UK-UAE is set to double to £25bn by 2020. From the perspective of the British government, stories of human rights violations in the UAE dotted across the UK media put awkward obstacles in the way of this. By actively attempting to detract media attention away from such issues as in the above case, one can't help but conclude that the British government is now putting lucrative UAE trade deals before the welfare of British citizens.