Saturday 24 November 2018

The Eighth Emirate No More?

Mark Almond writes:

At first glance, the behaviour of the United Arab Emirates over the British so-called spy Matthew Hedges is baffling. 

The charge of espionage against the Durham University research student appears as grotesque as the life sentence he was given by the court. 

And what makes this case all the more extraordinary is that the UAE – a federation of seven monarchies – has long-established friendly relations with this country. 

Hundreds of thousands of British tourists flock there every year, drawn by the duty-free high-end shopping and the permanent sunshine. 

Moreover, in a country of just eight million people there are more than 100,000 British expatriates, many of them working in hospitality, medicine, construction and even security. 

The ties between our nations are mirrored in a host of other ways, including the popularity of the Emirates airline with British travellers, or the regular visits by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York. 

The infamous quip by former foreign secretary Boris Johnson that London is ‘the eighth Emirate’ certainly contained an element of truth. 

That relationship – now threatened by the cruel treatment of Matthew Hedges – reflects the history of the Emirates, whose geographic position still makes them far more important than their size on the map suggests. 

Their strategic location in the Middle East, at the heart of Britain’s vital trade route to its Empire’s key trading centres in Asia, meant the Royal Navy guarded the Gulf ports for a century before oil was discovered – making them even more valuable – in the twentieth century. 

The federation gained independence from Britain in 1971, but the intimate connection has remained, especially in security and defence. 

Apart from purchasing plenty of BAE weapons, around 200 British servicemen and women are permanently based there. 

The UAE’s armed services and security police get equipment and know-how from us, while the Port Zayed is the most visited Royal Navy port in the world. 

With so many security contacts already in situ, I find the idea that the British government would rely on a PhD student to poke around for the Emiratis’ deepest secrets absurd. 

Indeed, the Foreign Secretary has broken protocol on intelligence matters to state that Matthew Hedges is not an MI6 agent. 

This strange episode is perhaps more explicable in the context of the UAE’s true political nature and its role in the Middle East. 

The image of the country as a beacon of pro-Western, tolerant and progressive attitudes is an illusion that is sedulously cultivated by its rulers and their spin machine. 

Yes, it is true that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who holds the real power in the land, has pioneered many superficial changes to give the UAE a modern image. 

He has opened up tourism, encouraged foreign investment, diversified from dependency on oil and hosted rock concerts and Formula One. 

But the reality is that, beyond the soaring skyscrapers and fashionable cultural events, the UAE is still a profoundly reactionary despotism, run by a hereditary elite which refuses to accept political dissent or real democracy. 

Western values such as freedom of speech or, as Mr Hedges discovered, due process under the law, are wholly absent.

In place of pluralism, there is paranoia, with the royal family utterly terrified of losing its authority. 

Paradoxically, the huge size of the foreign population in the UAE – just 8 per cent of residents are Emiratis – feeds this climate of brutal institutionalised distrust, where much of the public is viewed with suspicion. 

As a result, the UAE leaders – with the help of the CIA – have invested millions of dollars in surveillance technology to keep the citizenry under control. 

A key target in this crackdown is the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical movement that seeks to replace Middle Eastern monarchies with Islamic republics. 

The UAE government’s intense hostility to the Brotherhood may partly explain why Mr Hedges was targeted, since he was reportedly researching the part played by this organisation in the Arab Spring. 

Given that the 2011 revolutions in Middle Eastern countries were largely directed against family rule, anything connected with it was bound to raise the hackles of the UAE regime. 

In the totalitarian Emirates, there is no understanding of Western students being free to choose their own subjects and research them. 

There is a parallel here with the tragic Jamal Khashoggi, the investigative journalist who was recently murdered by the Saudi Arabian regime at its embassy in Istanbul. The Saudis accused him of being a spy for the Muslim Brotherhood. 

It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are close allies. Both ruled by their crown princes, both rich through oil, they are consumed by fears of internal and external threats to their dictatorships. 

Each is an enemy of Iran, their biggest regional rival, and this fact, too, could also have played its part in the Hedges saga. 

This year US President Donald Trump scrapped a controversial deal with Iran to restrict its nuclear programme and reinstated tough economic sanctions – a move that has been opposed by the British Government and that may have fuelled the UAE’s disillusionment with its old friend.

More importantly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been waging a brutal war in Yemen, where the rebels are supporters of Iran.

Our Government’s recent condemnation of this military campaign, based on both its barbarity and the famine it has caused, has provoked the anger of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which claim to be acting in the defence of their own vital national interests.

Indeed, the UAE’s rulers have proved keen to flex their military muscles, even intervening in the tribal conflict in Libya. 

They have the wealth and, thanks partly to British weapons and military expertise, the capability to throw their weight around abroad and at home. 

The case of Mr Hedges could be a further indicator that the UAE will no longer be a compliant ally of the West, refuses to be taken for granted and is going to set its own rules. 

Mr Hedges’s wife, Daniela Tejada, has complained that the Foreign Office has not handled the imprisonment of her husband with sufficient robustness, trusting in Britain’s historic connection to the UAE and reluctance to cause any embarrassment. 

But the UAE, which does not perhaps care as much about Britain as our diplomats believe, had no such hesitations – and the personal consequences have been felt all too horribly by the couple.

I believe Mr Hedges is the victim of a gross injustice, driven by regional politics and the determination of the Emirates to send a chilling message to dissidents at home and abroad.

The crucial question is what will Britain do now? Mr Trump has provided one possible course.

In his response to the Khashoggi case, he stated explicitly that however heinous the crime, realpolitik will prevail because Saudi Arabia is such a valuable ally of the US, particularly through its purchase of weaponry and planes.

The commercial needs of America will not be undermined by outrage over the murder of a journalist, even one who had made his life in the US.

But it would be impossible for Theresa May’s Government to follow this line. 

The public would rightly not tolerate such indifference to one of our own citizens. That kind of surrender to brutality would be intolerable. 

The right moral course is clear for Mrs May and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Their task is made all the more difficult because they are already trying to win the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual-national who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2016. 

Perhaps Mr Hunt will pull off a diplomatic coup by getting both of them released, but I am not optimistic. 

The mood has been ugly and paranoid in these Middle Eastern regimes since the Arab Spring, while our influence is in decline. 

However, the Government must not stop trying. 

The Emiratis’ money can buy many things here, but it should not buy silence about Mr Hedges’ unjust fate.

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