Human Rights in the UAE: A review of why Britain should care
You can often tell a lot about a person through the company they keep. In some respects, it is not so difficult to apply the same concept to relationships between countries during these unforeseeable political changes that are now shaping the country.
The UK and the United Arab Emirates share very strong diplomatic, trading and security ties. According to the Lord Mayor for the City of London, Alan Yarrow, the UK is the ''natural partner of choice for the UAE''. These are sentiments that have been clearly reiterated by Theresa May since becoming Prime Minister, as the two countries look to bolster trading and security links in a post-Brexit landscape.
In April, the International Campaign For Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) hosted a Parliamentary seminar entitled Human Rights in the UAE: Why Should Britain Care? which drew attention to people's struggles for human rights and political reforms in the United Arab Emirates, and the sacrifices many Emirati activists have endured as a result. Many of us simply cannot imagine being unable to speak our thoughts as we openly criticise our political leaders and roll our eyes whilst listening to a ramble of partially empty promises. We have the freedom to act like this, to openly criticise and debate with one another, to publicise our divergent opinions on social media without fear of us, or our families being incriminated or imprisoned.
However, in the United Arab Emirates, such ''luxuries'' cannot be afforded. Despite approximately 9 million people currently residing in the country, 88.5 percent are foreign nationals; an estimated 240,000 people of that percentage are British. In a context where certain forms of freedom of speech and expression are often ruthlessly suppressed by the authorities, what future could those residing in the UAE face when they make a home, a life, a family there? Will the future generations of British expats and other foreign nationals, as well as the Emirati people, be also forced to ''Keep calm and carry on'' in a submissive fashion to the lack of rights within a country they may live for many years? Regardless of whether the British inhabit a country or not, shouldn't we still advocate freedom to those who do not fully attain it? What further reason could there be to care about the fact of the lack of human rights within a powerful country other than the fact itself?
The history of British imperialism is said to have had many faces - oppressor, restorer, liberator, invader, facilitator. In order for one to understand a particular nation, it is imperative to delve into its past . After fast forwarding through the many conquering invasions and establishments of the British empire, we were reminded in the seminar that rights that we often take for granted today such as the right to vote were not merely passed down from on high, but were fought for, and ultimately won by the working class. This class fought for rights to have dissenting opinions and more substantial political representation than was afforded by the traditional liberal and conservative party's of the time. Women who were denied the right to vote as late as the 19th century, fought tooth and nail for their rights following submission of the suffrage for women in 1918. If ordinary people could come together and fight, and win then, we certainly can now. Our government's position on the world stage means that it can, if it chooses, influence international policies in a positive light. However, history shows us that fundamental change ultimately comes from below. The British people should stand in solidarity with those in the UAE who are fighting their rulers for rights that we similarly fought our rulers over years ago. We can do this by putting pressure on our government to take a stand against human rights violations in the UAE.
The British state likes to pride itself on being a liberal and global leader on human rights. However, our 'special relationship' with a tyrannical regime in the United Arab Emirates contradicts this, and renders the liberal values of which we boast hollow, and without substance in reality. The British government has failed to condemn human rights violations in the UAE. Why is this? The silence on behalf of the British government is arrived at due to three key areas of concern, oil and gas, trade and investment, and the need to sell arms. With the impending departure of the UK from the European Union, our government must start a process of reconstituting our trading relations with the rest of the world. With Brexit on the horizon, how will the UK's trade deficit be offset? Nasser A. Alsowaidi, Co-Chair of the UAE-UK Business Council offers us a clue: ''The diversification of the UAE’s economy and the UK’s future outside the EU both offer excellent opportunities for us to continue to expand our relationships and meet our bilateral trade and investment target by 2020." Bilateral trade between our nations had surpassed its target only 2 years ahead of schedule reaching an amount of £12.36 billion in 2013. The potential to invest even more is a likely decision to be made as we enter the era of ''independence''. Friendships will no doubt be strengthened in other places to compensate for the love lost between Britain and the EU.
As highlighted by David Wearing, lecturer at SOAS University of London, oil is the ''lifeblood'' of the global economy. Despite the fact that Britain is not the UAE's main consumer of oil, it's important for the UK to have influence over its global distribution and flows. He also stated that Saudi Arabia accounts for half of British arms sales. This in turn allows the UK to maintain its status as a global military power. However, these deals come in spite of the fact that 71% of the British public have declared it unacceptable to sell arms to Saudi Arabia in light of its war crimes in Yemen. In recent years, the United Kingdom's exports of small arms, ammunition and armoured vehicles to the United Arab Emirates sky rocketed from £18.3m to £93.2m. These figures were compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade in the years leading up to the Arab Spring, which raises the important question as to whether the UK is profiteering from the domestic repression in the UAE. “The 2011 uprisings should have caused countries like the UK to re-evaluate how they do business with the Middle East and north Africa, but they did no such thing,” said Andrew Smith of CAAT. “The arms sales have increased, even where the repression is getting worse.” Yet we continue to provide sticks and stones to break others bones and all the while words still have the propensity to cause pain.
The constitution of the United Arab Emirates states in Article 30: Freedom to hold opinions and express them orally, in writing or by other means of expression shall be guaranteed within the limits of the law. So in other words meaning; you can say whatever you want, so long as I like what you are saying. The sad irony of such a law results in the imprisonment of many people, Emirati and non Emiratis alike, including the well known case of Mr Ahmed Mansoor and the case of Mr Ahmed Al Nuaimi's brother Khaled, currently jailed in the UAE for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The UAE Cybercrime Law No 5 of 2012, issued by President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, includes severe punishments that could go up to a life sentence and/or a fine varying between Dh50,000 and Dh3 million. Cybercrime includes using the internet or social media sites to criticise the leadership, advocate democracy, or even to object to the wrongful imprisonment of loved ones and family members.
Emirati speaker Mr Al Nuaimi recounted the heartfelt story of his brother Khaled at the seminar; he spoke of his brother being held without legal justification or consultation. After physical and psychological torture, Mr Al Nuaimi's brother was unrecognisable, even by his own family. One's own kin could barely recognise him after the light in his eyes had been vanquished. An unfair trial held in 2013 after spending one year in solitary confinement; Khaled was sentenced to 10 years in prison with no right to appeal. The UAE authorities also often extend their punishment to the families of the detained. They are denied the right to own and run their own businesses, to education, and citizenship is often revoked as the authorities confiscate their passports, rendered stateless by their country of birth. If you lose your identity, in essence; you lose your voice.
Mr Ahmed Al Nuaimi is currently living in exile, awaiting, and longing for some positive changes in his country so he can return home. When asked at the seminar, did he believe that the UAE will change? His answer did not falter; ''Absolutely, it will change; because we are not silent.'' Although Mr Al Nuaimi has lost his voice in his home country, living in the UK has given him the opportunity to speak out and raise awareness for his beloved people. Though he offers a powerful message to the people of Britain, are we truly listening to him? And if we are, then what action will we take to follow those words?
During the 7 week gap between the snap elections, the British people have a window to propose change to the politicians trying to wave flags in our faces . As the people are once again given the judgement on who will form the next perspective government, we must decide as a people what kind of relationship we want with the rest of the world. With potential funding for investment opportunities of up to £25 billion by 2020, do we want to sell weaponry to tyrannical regimes around the world, or do we want to promote human rights and social justice? With the arms industry heavily subsidised by the British taxpayer, the people of Britain should have more of a say with who we trade with. Bullies have always seemed like giants in the eyes of their victims, however history shows us that if ordinary people come together in common interest they can rise taller than any giant. Countries like the UAE need us, so why don't we use the strongest weapon that we have? Unity, protest, and speech.