David Olusoga writes:
Everything about the United Arab Emirates is unlikely.
Nothing about its transformation over the past century from a string of tiny, backwater Arab emirates, best known for their pearls and pearl divers, into a petroleum-fuelled federation of extraordinary wealth and ambition was particularly likely.
Even for the Middle East, where the laws of econophysics rarely seem to apply, the UAE is exceptional.
Equally unlikely was the decision by the rulers of the seven emirates to use a hefty chunk of their vast wealth to do more than just buy Ferraris and build skyscrapers.
In 2007, the UAE and the French government began work on the creation of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The star of this billion dollar gallery is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, bought in 2017 for £351m, making it the most expensive painting ever sold.
Nine years earlier, Sheikh Mansour, the UAE’s deputy prime minister and a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, spent a mere £210m on buying up Manchester City FC.
Since then, Mansour has used his family’s fortune, estimated in some quarters at around $1tn, to supercharge Manchester City, building the club into the football powerhouse it is today.
City are not just another football club with a wealthy foreign owner but part of a wide-ranging geopolitical strategy, aimed at transforming the UAE into what its rulers from time to time refer to as a “soft power superpower”.
So having bet the farm on soft power and the cultivation of global influence through sport, art and tourism, the past few days have been among the most unlikely in the UAE’s history, as so much of that influence and carefully managed reputational capital has been thrown to the winds.
By stumbling, apparently unprepared, into the crisis surrounding the dubious conviction of Matthew Hedges, a 31-year-old PhD student from Durham University, on charges of spying, the UAE has garnered exactly the wrong sort of publicity.
Attention has been cast not just on the handling of the Hedges case but on the UAE’s soft power strategy and our complicity in it.
But it’s not just the rulers of the UAE and its allies that have been grappling with moral questions.
The first were the fans of Manchester City – and Hedges’s life-sentence came just a week after Amnesty International had argued that the UAE’s investment in City and its success is an attempt to “sports-wash” – to use football and the loyalty of supporters to whitewash the UAE’s “deeply tarnished image”.
The emotional compact between football clubs and their supporters is visceral and usually lifelong.
The abandoning of a football club, an institution at the centre of supporters’ lives, self-image and sense of community, is not like switching toothpaste. It is more akin to a self-inflicted amputation.
It is perhaps not surprising – though nonetheless depressing – that City fans have taken to social media to defend the UAE and its legal system.
Others constructed convoluted, moral-relativist hypotheses designed to at least get them through the week.
Followers of the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the late inventor of the five-stage model of grieving, might recognise this as indicative of the bargaining stage of grief, the one that comes right after denial and anger and just before depression and finally acceptance.
The other group thrust into the same dilemma were a handful of Britain’s best-known and most loved authors and historians, who had all signed up to take part in the 2018 Dubai festival of literature.
The historian Antony Beevor, celebrated for his groundbreaking books on the Second World War, was not one for bargaining or acceptance.
Seeking unconditional surrender, he was among the first into the frontlines, withdrawing from the festival in support of Hedges.
Reinforcements arrived in the form of the novelist Sabine Durrant and Frank Gardner, the BBC journalist and security expert.
For all three, the thought of sitting on stage while Matthew Hedges sat behind bars was too much to bear. Joining Beevor, both Durrant and Gardner withdrew from the festival.
Other writers due to appear at the festival are, like thousands of Man City fans, monitoring the Hedges case and hoping for a quick resolution that would allow them, in good conscience, to walk to the stage in Dubai or take their seats at the Etihad Stadium.
Hopes are pinned on a hearing on Thursday, with reports that UAE officials are already studying a request for clemency from Hedges’s family.
If, as seem entirely possible, some accommodation is reached and Hedges released, then how much of that will be down to the diplomacy of the Foreign Office (whose minster and officials are rather belatedly proactively involved in the case) and how much will be down to some fans and a bunch of UK novelists and historians?
Has the UAE’s desire to become a “soft power superpower” rendered this autocratic, absolute monarchy strangely sensitive to public opinion in distant lands? Can, in this instance at least, soft power be made to flow both ways?
If so, the season ticket holders of Premier League teams with links to the Middle East could become players rather than pawns in the game of global influence. Can they, from the terraces and through social media, pioneer a new form of inverted sports-washing?
This moment is one in which we can think not just about Matthew Hedges – still facing the prospect of a life behind bars for the crime of researching his PhD – but also about our personal interactions with repressive states.
And we might want to reflect on the fact that what brought this dilemma home was the plight of one of our fellow citizens rather than the UAE’s role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen against the Houthi militia.
All year, pictures of skeletal Yemeni children have been displayed on our screens and littered across our newsfeeds.
Yet despite those images ,sales of tickets to the Etihad Stadium, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Dubai festival have so far been little affected.