Michael Burleigh writes:
With its luxury hotels, lavish malls and pristine beaches, Dubai has become a destination of choice for British tourists looking to combine relentless sun with shopping.
Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is bringing culture to the desert sands with galleries, museums (including a branch of the Louvre), a new international literary festival and a motor-racing Grand Prix for those bored by all that art and history.
The twin glass and steel cities dominate the United Arab Emirates, a collection of princely statelets on the Persian Gulf and between them, Abu Dhabi and Dubai attract a million British tourists every year.
They certainly work hard on their reputation, employing an army of publicists while roping in celebrities such as former cricketer Andrew Flintoff as ‘ambassadors’.
Manchester City is under Abu Dhabi ownership. Dubai spreads the word by sponsoring Arsenal’s vast new stadium through its Emirates airline.
But the welcoming, even cultivated, image that the UAE so eagerly projects is a sham – one that has now been violently exposed by the treatment of British academic Matthew Hedges.
Arrested at Dubai airport on May 5 and accused of spying, he was last week sentenced to life imprisonment after a five-minute trial.
No one can truly imagine that 31-year-old Mr Hedges was engaged in espionage. A Durham University student, he was in the UAE to study for a PhD.
His research involved interviews which touched on sensitive areas. Someone denounced him, and he ended up in jail, for life.
That is how it works there. The kitsch glamour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi is no more than a distraction from a sinister reality.
Britain should be ashamed of its cosy links with the regime – and of the craven advice it gave to Mr Hedges and his wife, Daniela Tejada.
For months, she has been anxious to publicise the outrageous treatment of her husband, yet the Foreign Office told her to stay silent.
When it comes to the truth about the UAE, the grim prison cells containing Mr Hedges are a good starting point.
Political opponents are routinely held without trial and on occasion tortured, as David Haigh, the former managing director of Leeds United, can testify.
Haigh spent two years in an Abu Dhabi jail on charges of fraud and says he was raped, Tasered and punched. A guard told him: ‘Be careful, British prisoners die here.’
Female foreign workers who fall foul of the law are often raped. Haigh saw fellow prisoners being tortured with electric shocks and being beaten before they disappeared.
No wonder Mr Hedges was shaking when allowed a brief meeting with his wife.
The dark impact of the UAE goes well beyond its own parched borders.
The Emiratis have become a leading force for Middle East instability, starting with the influence they hold over Mohammed bin Salman (known as MbS) the notorious Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
He is widely blamed for ordering the grotesque murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Fearing liberals and Islamists in equal measure, MbS and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the 57-year-old Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, have embarked on reckless foreign adventures.
In Yemen, the UAE has enthusiastically joined the Saudis in the grinding, bloody war against Iranian-backed Houthi militias, which had ousted the regime that the Saudis support.
More than 10,000 people have died while millions are at risk of famine.
Unlike the Saudis – who are conducting an air war, advised by the RAF – the UAE has boots on the ground in Yemen’s killing fields, with around 1,000 special forces troops.
Their methods are not pretty. It has been authoritatively reported that they run torture centres where inmates are attacked by dogs or sexually assaulted with metal poles.
The UAE has paid mercenaries to travel to Yemen and stoke the conflict.
At first, these were former paramilitaries from Colombia and El Salvador, but latterly a private company run by an American-Israeli called Abraham Golan – the ‘go-to guy for crazy s***’ in the words of the CIA – has supplied former American special forces troops for £1.16 million a month.
Together, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have tried to blockade Qatar, a commercial rival to the UAE, and in so doing have ruptured regional alliances with countries including Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.
The Emiratis have also meddled in Syria and Libya. Their malign influence is felt around the globe, in fact.
Wahhabis – followers of the very hardline version of Islam accused of inspiring IS – have significant influence in the UAE, and it is in the fleshpots of Dubai and Abu Dhabi that militant financiers, arms dealers and terrorists mingle – along with plane-loads of Russian and Colombian prostitutes which, unlike mild-mannered academics, are generally welcomed in Emirati clubs, restaurants and bars.
Yet until the sentencing of Mr Hedges, the UAE escaped even the mild admonishments that the British Government has occasionally handed to the Saudis.
Why do we have such cordial relations with a gangster government?
There are historical reasons. From 1853 to 1968, the ‘Trucial States’ were under the protection of this country. The region, moreover, has always captured the imagination of a certain type of diplomat.
A brilliant old Foreign Office hand once told me that, whereas no one working for the Chinese or Russian ‘desks’ had any illusions about the crimes of the regimes they monitored, diplomats with the ‘Camel Corps’ were different.
Romantic Arabists abounded, enthralled by the legend of T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and fascinated by tribal monarchies based on deference.
There are hard-nosed reasons, too. The UAE has strategic significance and controls the narrow entrance to the Persian Gulf.
Because the UAE claims to be curbing the regional influence of Iran, we and other Western governments are willing to sell them huge quantities of weaponry.
The UK is also deeply involved in the arming and training of its military and security forces, and it’s no surprise to find that the chief security adviser is a former MI6 agent, appropriately called Will Tricks.
We are the biggest foreign direct investor in the country.
Major British firms and banks have bases in the UAE and ten British universities have satellite operations there, though that might change now that Dubai has shown what it really thinks of academic freedom.
In return, the UAE has huge investments in this country. Thames Water, Gatwick Airport, Travelodge and London’s new ring sewer system, for example, are all dependent on its money.
The UAE also spends prodigious sums on PR and lobbying firms to influence our politicians.
The Emiratis know that the oil and gas on which their wealth is based will eventually run out, so they are scrambling for influence instead.
And we are all too happy to oblige – hungry for their money, desperate to pretend that Britain is still a global player.
Earlier this month, the UAE enjoyed something called a National Festival of Tolerance, promoting the country as ‘a role model for tolerance and peaceful co-existence that gains the respect and appreciation of the whole world’.
Mr Hedges and his family will take a different view.
It is time for the Foreign Office to get off its knees and tell the truth. We have done enough kowtowing to this repulsive regime.