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The dark side of the United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates
Human Rights

Shadows on the pavement in Abu Dhabi. Thomas Galvez under a Creative Commons Licence

With its booming tourism industry and growing cultural footprint, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has never enjoyed a greater global influence. But the glamorous modern streets and well-managed public relations campaign hides a far darker side.

Many people in Britain and around the world would associate the UAE with tall, futuristic buildings, elaborate shopping complexes and Arsenal football club (sponsored by Emirates airline). But beneath the veneer of respectability and the carefully cultivated image there is an authoritarian monarchy whose behaviour and beliefs offer a sharp contrast to the liberal and flamboyant image that it likes to project.

I recently spent an afternoon with the Arab Organization for Human Rights at a conference on the human rights situation facing Emirate people. It was there that I met Mohamed Alaradi, a quietly spoken Libyan entrepreneur who was detained without charge and beaten in a secret prison in the UAE. His brother Salim is still there, alongside five others who have been confined for a full 12 months.

Unfortunately these men are not alone. As Human Rights Watch has made clear, the authorities have detained scores of people who have either criticized them or who have been accused of links to domestic or foreign Islamist groups.

The conditions for prisoners are dire. A report from NGO Reprieve found that 75% of prisoners report police torture. Similarly, a number of prisoners, including Ahmed Zeidan, a British student from Reading, have reported making a false confession under torture.

>These numbers are likely to have increased since last August, when the Emirate authorities introduced new ‘anti-terror’ laws that further criminalized political dissent. Every act that the law prohibits is treated as a terrorist offence, which advocacy groups believe could lead to terrorism charges and extended prison sentences for peaceful protesters. The crackdown has happened in tandem with the introduction of far-reaching cyber-crime laws, which have seen threats of deportation for those that have criticized the government.

It’s not just political resistance that is punished. There are also serious concerns about the working conditions of migrant workers. An investigation by The Observer found that labourers working on New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus were having their passports withheld, being made to work in squalid conditions and facing threats of deportation if they went on strike.

Unfortunately, these problems are not exclusive to that site and are well documented and widespread. The conditions in labour camps have been criticized by the International Trade Union Confederation, which has described the abuses as ‘systematic’, and by Indian Prime Minister Nadendra Modi, who has called for an end to the ‘rampant exploitation’ of the 2.6 million Indian migrant workers in the UAE.

Regardless of these abuses, the monarchy has spent recent years building its global brand and strengthening its international alliances. It has taken part in the destructive Saudi-led bombing of Yemen and has reinforced its ties to a number of Western countries, including through high-profile meetings with US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. The latter used his visit to agree a joint defence partnership.

All of these political relationships are underpinned by close military ones, fuelled by the UAE’s increasing military spending. In 2014 the small state was the fourth biggest arms importer in the world, with $2.2 billion in imports. Its military budget has been steadily increasing year on year since 2011; a trend that’s only expected to continue.

Throughout 2013, the British government was very active in lobbying the Emirate military to buy Eurofighter jets. The campaign was unsuccessful, but it enjoyed the full support of Whitehall and included representations from David Cameron, defence secretary Philip Hammond, and leading civil servants. Despite this setback, relations have improved, with $142 million of arms sales in the 15 months since, according to published figures. If military and dual-use licences are taken together, then the UAE is the world’s largest buyer of British military equipment, with the last government having approved $9.5 billion worth of licences.

This has been encouraged by an extensive lobbying exercise from the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organization, the civil-service body responsible for promoting arms exports, which met with UAE military representatives at the recent Security and Policing and Farnborough International arms fairs. At the last two arms fairs alone they met with UAE officials 5 times, more meetings than with any other country. The UAE is a regular attendee of British arms fairs and is almost certain to be among the guests at DSEI 2015, one of the world’s biggest arms fair, when it rolls into London in mid-September.

As long as countries like Britain use their global influence to arm and promote the regime, the chances of any meaningful reform and human rights for Emirate people are likely to be further eroded. Western arms sales and political support don’t just boost the monarchy; they also send a message that it can continue its policy of arbitrary detention and labour abuses.

It is impossible to support arms sales and dictatorships at the same time as supporting human rights and democracy. Even Sir John Stanley, the former Conservative Defence Minister and Chair of the Commons Arms Export Committee in the last parliament, understood that when he called for ‘significantly more cautious judgement’ when selling arms to authoritarian governments.

Until Britain stops selling arms to the UAE and other authoritarian states, it is actively undermining all of its rhetoric about supporting human rights and democracy. People like Mohamed and Salim Alaradi may not be household names, but they are suffering at the coalface of Emirate oppression and they deserve our support and solidarity.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATUK

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