UK courting UAE despite human rights alarm

UK courting UAE despite human rights alarm
Comment: For the UK, cultural ties, such as the British Council-UAE collaboration act as a lubricant to facilitate the easy flow of capital, writes Tom Charles.
7 min read
14 Nov, 2017
BAE Systems supplies the Emirati government with cyber surveillance technology [AFP]
The UK government is deepening its warm relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Travel, trade, education and the arts flow freely between the two countries. 

On the surface, a normal, healthy relationship. But, the UK's continued bond with the dictatorship relies on minimal scrutiny and limited public understanding.

Under the shiny Emirati surface lies a raft of abhorrent abuses which the UK should demand an immediate end to.


Earlier this month, in a sign of the thriving friendship between the two countries, the British Council announced its programme for the "UK/UAE 2017" collaborative arts programme. The programme is being delivered with the British Council's partner, the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.

In early 2017, over 140 arts events and 90 film screenings were held across the seven Emirates. The extensive programme was supported by the UK government's "GREAT Britain" campaign. The next phase of the enterprise was announced this week, and will "explore the themes of community, inclusion and the next generation".

The events are certainly rich in content and include a digital exhibition of a seventh century Quranic manuscript held by Birmingham University, one of the earliest examples of the Quran in existence. The exhibition will be accompanied by educational talks and workshops.

Soft power

The organiser of the UK/UAE arts collaboration, the British Council, is a prestigious, state-backed charity, established in 1934. It describes itself as "the UK's international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities".

It "brings artists together and supports the development of skills and policy in the arts and creative industries", building links that "create trust and lay foundations for prosperity and security around the world".

The British Council website does not explain how such an ambitious programme can be delivered in a state that practices extensive repression of free expression. However, the charity stresses that its primary raison d'être is to provide benefits to the UK.

The British Council website does not explain how such an ambitious programme can be delivered in a state that practices extensive repression of free expression

Through its work the British Council says it creates "opportunities for international learning and business" and increased trust in the UK among other nations, which encourages people to visit Britain to study and do business.

In short, it promotes financial investment in the UK by "attracting people who matter to our future".

Read more: Raped in a UAE cell, victim turns to Scotland Yard

The British Council is keen to showcase its role as a tool of the UK's "soft power" supporting what is sees as the government's commitment to "support for stability… reduced inequalities… poverty eradication".


For the UK, cultural ties act as a lubricant to facilitate the easy flow of capital. The UK sells arms to the UAE, currently being used to commit alleged war crimes in Yemen.

British company BAE Systems supplies the Emirati government with cyber surveillance technology that it uses to spy on its own citizens' social media to identify "threats" to the dictatorship. In 2016, around 300 Emiratis were detained for their social media use.

The Conservative government in London sees the UAE as a lucrative post-Brexit trading partner, and bilateral trade is expected to double to £25 billion by 2020.

The UAE became with third largest importer of UK arms between 2012 and 2016. Many weapons held by the Emirates are exported to already war-torn states such as Sudan, Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, in contravention of United Nations Arms Trade treaties.


For the UAE, the collaboration with the UK is part of a huge propaganda campaign that also includes highly visible investment in western cultural and sporting institutions that have normalised the Emirates as a source of investment and prestige in daily European life.

For example, Manchester City Football Club, currently top of the premier league, is owned by the unelected deputy prime minister of the UAE, known as Sheikh Mansour. Without the Emirati billions, City were perennial underachievers, even a laughing stock in British sport. Where Man City's mega wealth really comes from, is not up for debate on British TV, as viewers enjoy the club's array of talent.

Sheikh Mansour's colleague, Noura Bint Mohammed Al-Kaabi, the UAE's minister of culture and knowledge development, has hailed the latest Emirati collaboration with the British Council as helpful in promoting Emirati culture internationally.

UK/UAE 2017 is organised under the patronage Prince Charles and Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and the deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces.

Human rights abuses

The exchange of culture and knowledge would not be an issue were it not for the litany of abuses committed by the UAE and detailed by human rights organisations, and which are either explicitly or tacitly supported by Theresa May's minority government.

Abroad, the UAE has increasingly become militarily involved in regional wars. After engaging militarily in Iraq and Syria, the UAE joined the Saudi-led proxy war on Yemen, which has left the Middle East's poorest nation on the verge of a "famine of Biblical proportions" with seven million Yemenis on the brink of starvation, as well as killing over 10,000 civilians and causing a cholera epidemic.

The UAE became with third largest importer of UK arms between 2012 and 2016

At home, the UAE is known to "disappear" people, including foreign nationals, into detention for months or years at a time. These "disappearances" are secret and go unacknowledged by the Emirati government. "Disappeared" people undergo interrogation, and Amnesty International has said that, upon release, some have reported being tortured.

According to Amnesty, state torture is common in the UAE and "committed with impunity" without any government investigations ordered in to allegations of torture despite it being a violation of the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture.

During 2014 and 2015, six Libyan nationals were arrested in the UAE, and held for between one and two years after being kept in incommunicado detention that included torture in the form of beatings, electric shocks and sleep deprivation. Human Rights Watch has described the UAE's "draconian counterterrorism laws" that prevent victims and their families from speaking out about their experiences.

Read more: UAE arrests two Swiss journalists over Louvre coverage

The State Security Chamber (SSC) in the Emirates is notorious for prosecuting individuals based on vaguely worded charges related to national security. People are denied their right to effective defence, and the SSC accepts evidence that has been obtained by torture.

One example of this was reported by Amnesty: Egyptian national, Mosaab Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Ramadan spent three years in a UAE prison for running a group affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He is alleged to have "confessed" only after being tortured during months of enforced "disappearance".

Abuse of migrant workers

Migrant workers form 90 percent of the UAE's private sector workforce. Under the Kafala (sponsorship) system, these workers are denied collective bargaining rights and trade unions are banned. Any worker going on strike faces deportation and a one-year ban from entering the UAE.

Workers are therefore vulnerable to ill treatment and abuse which includes forced labour and human trafficking. Although some new laws have been recently passed to improve conditions, these laws do not cover the large number of domestic workers - mainly African and Asian women - who remain explicitly excluded from protections.

Dissent, a cornerstone both of democracy and of free artistic expression is absolutely and brutally forbidden in the UAE

Additionally, there are extreme restrictions on free speech, freedom of expression and association in the UAE, where Human Rights Watch describes an "intolerance of criticism" on the part of the state authorities.

A Jordanian journalist was prosecuted for criticising Egypt and Israel over their blockade of the Gaza Strip, while others have been jailed for the content of their Tweets.

Human rights organisations are banned from entering the UAE, blocking much-needed transparency. Speaking with a human rights organisation incurs a penalty of arbitrary detention or imprisonment, while human rights activism is carefully surveilled.

The future 

Labour has recently stated unequivocally that it would impose an arms embargo on the UAE. Meanwhile, the UK's minority government hangs on and looks to consolidate power, showing no interest in reining in its support for human rights abuses in the Middle East.

Dissent, a cornerstone both of democracy and of free artistic expression is absolutely and brutally forbidden in the UAE. During the autumn season UK/UAE Arts Programme, the Sharjah book fair will take place, offering the British Council an opportunity to showcase the UK's excellence in writing and publishing.

Presumably the numerous eloquent, forensic human rights reports on the UAE's abuses will not be showcased. And the rulers and "soft power" advocates of both the UK and UAE will wilfully ignore the truth of what happens to those Emiratis who even promote this article on social media. 

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.