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As the UAE's authoritarianism grows, Western governments remain silent Open in fullscreen

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

As the UAE's authoritarianism grows, Western governments remain silent

Hedges was detained for six-months when trying to leave Dubai [Twitter]

Date of publication: 20 November, 2018

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Creating an image of a modern, progressive, tolerant haven for tourism, the UAE has traditionally gained less spotlight for its harsh violations, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
The United Arab Emirates' detention of British PhD student Matthew Hedges has drawn further negative attention to the country's authoritarian nature, which appears to be worsening as the regime tightens its grip on public freedoms.

Creating an image of a modern, progressive, tolerant haven for tourism, the UAE has traditionally gained less spotlight for its harsh violations compared to its close ally Saudi Arabia.

Hedges was detained for six-months when trying to leave Dubai, accused of being a "spy" for Britain while carrying out research, and was kept in solitary confinement in deplorable conditions. He reportedly had to sleep on the floor for much of his sentence.

Read also: HRW slams UAE over 'cruel' treatment of British student jailed without trial

The UAE did not give clear reasons for his detention however, causing surprise to Hedges' colleagues as he was regularly known there. Rights groups like Human Rights Watch and academics worldwide had expressed concern over his imprisonment and conditions.

Academics are often barred from entering or leaving the UAE. Countless foreign students and academics have been targeted within the country, suggesting the state is dangerous for research.

Increasing authoritarianism

Hedges' case appears to be indicative of a rise in authoritarianism within the country, says Devin Kenney, Gulf Researcher at Amnesty International.

"The UAE's government seems to fear losing control on power and is increasingly hostile to any form of criticism. Even mild manifestations of reformist dissent have been crushed. Today, the UAE has succeeded in silencing all their critics within the country," he told The New Arab.

The UAE's government seems to fear losing control on power and is increasingly hostile to any form of criticism. Even mild manifestations of reformist dissent have been crushed. Today, the UAE has succeeded in silencing all critics within the country

In the past year alone, the UAE has implemented stricter regulations on digital freedom. Among these changes include the creation of the Federal Public Prosecution for Information Technology Crimes last year, aimed at locating and arresting any critic of the UAE on social media.

According to Emirati state news agency WAM, this aimed at tackling "misuse of the internet with the intention of damaging public morals" as well as "calling for or abetting the breach of the laws of the State and the organisation of marches or other demonstrations."

Then in March the National Media Council moved to govern all electronic and digital activities in the country. All media enterprises and social media influencers having to obtain permission and a license from the state to continue publishing content.

Expressing sympathy with Qatar, who the UAE have blockaded alongside Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt since June 2017, was also deemed a criminal offence in May.

"What is worrying is the fact that the UAE's clampdown on freedom of speech and expression has only been accelerated, de jure, by the current UAE leadership," Robert Andrews, Head of the Gulf Department at the Arab Organisation for Human Rights [AOHR], told The New Arab.

"These recent changes present clear examples of a government that is trying to curtail any form of expression while simultaneously pushing its citizenry to adopt a specific narrative or viewpoint regarding global issues."

Amid these new changes, the UAE has targeted a wide number of dissidents. Among these include prominent activist Ahmed Mansour, sentenced to ten years in prison and fined 1,000,000 Emirati Dirham (approximately $270,000) in May for social media posts. Also university lecturer Nasser bin Ghaith last year was sentenced for ten years for criticising Egypt in a tweet; Amnesty International described the sentence as "ludicrous".

Kenney from Amnesty said that the UAE judiciary is corrupt as "defendants are not granted the required guarantees to ensure a fair trial – like access to a lawyer from the moment of arrest – that characterise an independent legal system."

Shana Marshall, Associate Director at the Institute for Middle East Studies, said that the UAE's crackdown on academia and free speech is unprecedented, as arrests and detentions are increasing.

"Regional issues such as the war on Yemen and the blockade against Qatar are giving justification for the UAE to increase surveillance of its citizens and increase detentions, and this trend of authoritarianism has risen sharply since the Arab Spring," she told The New Arab at a solidarity event for Hedges' release.

Regional issues such as the war on Yemen and the blockade against Qatar are giving justification for the UAE to increase surveillance of its citizens and increase detentions, and this trend of authoritarianism has risen sharply since the Arab Spring

The UAE has shown increased paranoia since the 2011 Arab Spring. While the uprisings were celebrated across the MENA region, the UAE watched with fear and scepticism.

Both Ahmed Mansour and Nasser bin Ghaith, among many others, were previously detained in 2011 for calling for reforms in the UAE including free elections.

Continuous Western impunity

"We are monitoring developments closely and have made the Emirati authorities aware of all our concerns. We continue to do everything we can for Matthew and his family," a spokesperson from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) told The New Arab.

Hedges' wife Daniela claims she was 'blackmailed' by the FCO into silence and not speaking to the press about the situation, indicating the UK government was trying to divert attention away from the case.

The UK along with the USA have not addressed the UAE abuses, and show reluctance to do so, as the Gulf state is seen as an increasingly important trade partner, and regional security ally in the so-called war-on-terror.

In fact, the UAE was given a prized seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, for "achievements made… in its human rights record over recent years."

Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor at the Hamad bin Khalifa University, told The New Arab that trade ties with the UAE give it impunity with Western countries, especially with Brexit fast approaching. He warns that if Britain "overtly criticises the UAE it will potentially prejudice numerous contracts."

Britain has since the 2016 Brexit vote eyed up greater trade deals with Middle Eastern states with poor human rights records, including the UAE, to compensate for potential loss of EU trade.

Trade ties with the UAE give it impunity with Western countries, especially with Brexit fast approaching... If Britain 'overtly criticises the UAE it will potentially prejudice numerous contracts'

Kenney urged greater international actions towards condemning the UAE.

"Countries like the UK and the USA that have close financial, military and political relationships with the UAE must step up the pressure on the UAE authorities and make sure that their financial and trade relations are not used as a justification for further human rights abuses in the country," he said.

To divert the global public's attention from its autocratic nature, the UAE has extensively commissioned PR firms, to carry out targeted advertising about the UAE and promote it as positive in the West, said Andrews from AOHR. The UAE even created a controversial Tolerance Ministry, which was criticised by the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE for misleading observers about the country's human rights record. It has also spent lavishly on advertising itself as a tourism and business hub.


Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

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