by Eldar Mamedov
On February 19, the Sub-Committee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, jointly with the Delegation for Relations with the Arabian Peninsula, held a hearing on the situation of human rights in Persian Gulf countries. The event featured an impressive line-up of speakers, such as Matthew Hedges, a British scholar who was jailed in the UAE on trumped-up espionage charges. Other witnesses included Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish academic and the fiancé of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Ali Alaswad, former member of Bahrain’s parliament from the outlawed al-Wefaq party.
In recent years, the human rights situation in the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf has finally received the scrutiny it deserves in the European Parliament. EU governments consider the countries in question as their strategic allies in terms of regional security, energy, trade, and, disturbingly, burgeoning arms exports. This geopolitical status, however, no longer shields them from public criticisms.
This new scrutiny, however, is somewhat unevenly applied. Saudi Arabia has attracted by far the most attention. This is partly because of its size and special status in the Islamic world as the “guardian of the two Holy mosques.” Saudi Arabia also makes an easy target because it is perceived as a “medieval kingdom” ruled by a capricious prince who bombs and starves civilians in Yemen, jails women´s right activists, and has his critics bone-sawed—not to mention the worldwide spread of militant Wahhabism, a particularly puritanical strand of Sunni Islam, and laxity over terrorism financing and money laundering. The European Parliament condemned these abuses in its resolutions. It also demanded, repeatedly, sanctions such as an end of arms sales, asset freezes, and travel bans for the individual Saudi perpetrators.
By comparison, the closest Saudi ally in the region—the United Arab Emirates—gets kid-gloves treatment. True, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the UAE for persecuting human rights defenders such as Ahmed Mansour. The house also voted to call for an arms embargo on the UAE, alongside Saudi Arabia, for the country’s role in Yemen. This would have been unthinkable only a couple of years ago.
Overall, however, the reaction to human rights abuses in and by the UAE is much more subdued. This is because the Emiratis enjoy a much better image in Brussels and other Western capitals than their Saudi peers. Emirati diplomats and lobby firms at their service portray the country as a beacon of modernity, tolerance, and inclusion in a region where these values are often found wanting. The recent visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi for an interfaith meeting was instrumental in promoting this positive image of the UAE. By tapping into the existing biases and fears of Western public opinion on Islam, the UAE positions itself as a successful model of a Muslim society in the twenty-first century.
However, the relative social openness and the interfaith dialogue are only the visible side of the Emirati model. The other, much less glamorous, side involves a strictly authoritarian regime and repression.
None is better qualified to cast a light on this dark side of the UAE than Matthew Hedges, a British PhD student who is researching the Emirates security apparatus. He was arrested in the UAE in May 2018 on espionage charges and spent seven months in solitary confinement. Hedges gave powerful testimony about this experience in the European Parliament.
He spoke about how he was interrogated non-stop during six or seven weeks, at times for 15 hours a day. He was kept in a small, dark, and windowless cell, from which he could hear other inmates being tortured. Hedges was drugged and manipulated into confessing to crimes he did not commit. Only after he confessed, under heavy duress, to spying for the British intelligence service M16 was he allowed to contact the British embassy.
Hedges’s tormentors made a mockery of a fair trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Eventually, after UK diplomatic intervention, he was released on a pardon. The UAE presented it as a gesture of magnanimity towards a citizen of a friendly nation. However, a pardon means that technically the conviction for espionage still stands. It also does not compensate for the violations of his human rights or the consequences to his health of forced drug injection.
There are many others who are still languishing in Emirati prisons for their political activities and can count on virtually no international support. In 2013, a 94 activists were arrested and accused of being members of the Islah party (the Emirati Muslim Brotherhood) and conspiring to overthrow the government. Mohammed al-Roken, the last human rights lawyer in UAE, was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for essentially exercising his profession. According to the Human Rights Watch, in March 2018, the UAE imposed a 10-year prison sentence on prominent academic Nasser bin-Ghaith, whom authorities forcibly disappeared in 2015, for charges that included peaceful criticism of the UAE and Egyptian authorities.
All this repression is conducted by the State Security Court, which operates outside the ordinary legal system, with no oversight and accountability of any sort. And the definition of “state security crimes” is so broad that it can cover not just political opposition activists, but anyone with a semblance of independent thought. In December 2018, the UAE also widened the scope of the penal code in a way that enables the authorities to treat almost any information as a secret vital to the country’s defense.
Hedges concluded his testimony by calling on EU governments to hold the “despotic regimes” accountable. At the very least, he said, “enjoying the friendly, blossoming relations with the UAE should not lead us to pretend that we share the same values.”
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.