It's About Time the British Government Spoke Out on Human Rights Violations in the UAE
Last month, UAE state authorities rapidly stepped up their repression of public criticism and dissenting voices within the Emirates. Prominent human rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor, was arbitrarily detained by security officials, whilst journalist, Tayseer al-Najjar, and academic, Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, received heavy prison sentences for social media comments. Although the UNHRC, and international rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have heavily criticised the recent crackdown in the UAE, the British government has yet to voice condemnation.
On Wednesday, the 16th of March, UAE courts sentenced Jordanian journalist, Tayseer al-Najjar to three years in prison on charges relating to social media posts he made criticising the foreign policy of the UAE. Four days later, the prominent human rights activist, and 2015 winner of the Martin Ennals award for human rights defenders, Ahmed Mansoor was arbitrarily detained by authorities after 12 plain clothes security officials raided his family home at 3:15 in the morning and took him to an unknown location. He is currently being detained al-Sader prison without access to a lawyer. The month of repression in the UAE culminated with the sentencing of the prominent academic and economist Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith to ten years in prison for posting tweets that the authorities deemed to “damage the reputation of the UAE state”.
This recent crackdown in the UAE quite aptly demonstrates the authorities' attitude towards public scrutiny, critical debate, and peaceful protest within its borders, and should be understood within a wider context where arbitrary detention, the use of torture, and the incarceration of political prisoners has become increasingly common practice in the Emirati state.
The repressive arm of the UAE government has become increasingly coercive since the Arab Spring of 2011, as authoritarian regimes across the region ramped up security and surveillance practices to quell any potential domestic unrest. As pro-democracy movements swept across the Middle East in 2011, 94 UAE citizens signed a petition calling for democratic reforms. Signatories included Ahmed Mansoor and Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith along with other prominent academics, lawyers, teachers, and student leaders. The authorities responded by forcibly disappearing and eventually sentencing many of them in a mass trial, commonly known as the 'UAE 94'. Many of those that signed the petition remain in prison today.
Since then, the authorities have rapidly stepped up their repression on dissenting voices, curtailing rights such as freedom of speech and assembly by instituting vague 'cybercrime laws' that, according to the Emirates Media and Studies Centre, saw as many as 300 people in 2016 alone being detained for voicing opinions on social media.
However, whilst western media coverage of the Middle East has rightly drawn attention to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, and Egypt in recent years, similar crackdowns on freedom of speech and assembly, the use of torture, and arbitrary detention by the UAE authorities have received comparatively little attention.
Unlike other Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, which have a tarnished international reputation when it comes to human rights violations, many in the West continue to view the United Arab Emirates in a positive light, associating it with the luxury and grandeur of Dubai's golden sandy beaches and five star hotels. To many, it's a luxury tourist destination for the rich and famous, a beacon of modernity where skyscrapers pierce the blue skies. The UAE has also managed to situate itself firmly within the UK entertainment industry. It has become part and parcel of the glamorous world of premier league football. In this world, the term 'The Emirates' is inextricably linked with the sponsorship of the Arsenal Football Club and the Emirati Royal Family are merely the wealthy benefactors, gifting us the style and verve of Pep Guadiola to institute a scintillating brand of football at Manchester City's Etihad Stadium.
This is an image that has been carefully crafted by the authorities over the years, who have consciously reconstituted and marketed the UAE as a sort of consumer brand in the West. In some respects, an effective PR campaign constitutes an exercise in soft power which opens up investment opportunities for the UAE as the the regime seeks to diversify its economy beyond oil. Importantly, by spending billions of pounds a year on the maintenance and development of this brand, the UAE authorities are able to conceal to the international community the darker side of life in the Emirati state.
However, cracks beneath this glossy image are beginning to appear. The recent escalation of repression by the Emirati authorities has been slammed by international bodies and rights organisations. The UNHRC recently issued a statement condemning the detention of Ahmed Mansoor and demanded his immediate and unconditional release. Similarly, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued a call for action regarding Tayseer al-Najjar, and Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith.
In spite of these mounting condemnations, the British government has continued to remain relatively quiet on human rights violations in the UAE. Perhaps this should come as little surprise in light of the recent announcement that the UK is looking to increase its trading relationship with the UAE to up to 25bn by 2020 as Theresa May looks for investment opportunities post-Brexit.
However, it is precisely in the context of Brexit that the kind of relationship the UK has with the rest of world obtains increased importance. Increasing trade relations with the Gulf suggests that the UK arms sector will be a key component of economic growth in the post-Brexit era. And rather than reinvigorating a British export led economy around the diversification of UK industry and manufacturing, the UK's trade deficit look to be offset through an increasing reliance on shipping weaponry to authoritarian states around the world.
This helps neither those living and working in the UK, or those suffering under the weight of oppression in the UAE and the Middle East more generally. It is within this context that people in Britain should ask themselves what kind of relationship they want with the rest of world on leaving the EU. Do we want a foreign policy which is guided by the need to sell weaponry, or one which is based around human rights and social justice? The failure of the British government to condemn the recent escalation of repression in the UAE suggests that it is currently the former vision that holds sway in the halls of Westminster.