The UK is prioritising trade over human rights in UAE

The UK is prioritising trade over human rights in UAE
Comment: The UK government needs to apply more pressure on the UAE if it is to ever change its atrocious record on human rights, writes Joe Odell.
5 min read
13 Oct, 2017
The UK announced earlier this year it would double its trade with the UAE [AFP]
Cracks in the UAE's carefully crafted image of a world class tourist destination are starting to appear following a string of bizarre arrests of British holidaymakers in the country.

Although human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have long documented the repressive nature of the Emirati state with regards to its treatment of Emirati nationals, especially human rights defenders, UK nationals are increasingly vulnerable to similar treatment.   

And yet, as the UK government attempts to secure lucrative trade deals with the UAE on leaving the EU, it  remains steadfastly quiet on issues of human rights abuses in the country.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that British citizen, Jamie Harron was arrested and detained for allegedly touching a man's hip whilst in a bar in Dubai. The Scotsman has since lost his job in the UK after being stuck there for three months and has spent more that £30,000 in expenses and legal fees. He awaits trial on 22 October, and if found guilty faces three years in prison.

Only a few weeks prior to this, Jamil Mukadam, a government IT worker from Leicester, was detained in Dubai for making a rude hand gesture whilst stuck in a traffic jam. After spending £15,000 in legal fees, he was released a couple of days ago as his accuser failed to show up in court.

Mukadam said he was stunned at how little support he received from the British government and how many other people are in this situation

Commenting on his ordeal, Mukadam said he "was stunned at how little support [he] received from the British government and how many other people are in this situation."

There seems to be a common thread of criticism levelled against the inaction of the UK government amongst the many British detainees unjustly imprisoned in the UAE. Last week it was revealed that the British Foreign Office reportedly urged the family of Billy Barclay, the Edinburgh man accused of forging a £20 note whilst on holiday in Dubai, to refrain from publicising his case in the media and enlisting the advice of Detained in Dubai, an NGO that has a proven track record of securing the release of British nationals in the UAE.

Billy's partner Monique complained that "the advice of the FCO was clearly not what would be best for us, but only good maybe for the UAE, to keep the issue under the carpet", whilst Detained in Dubai accused the British government of putting lucrative trade deals ahead of the welfare of British citizens.

Pressure however is indeed building on the UK government to do more to address these issues. At a Parliamentary seminar earlier this week organised by the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE and chaired by Alistair Carmichael MP, a distinguished panel of speakers including an academic and filmmaker, explored the links between human rights violations in the UAE and UK arms exports to the country.

A key explanation for the deafening silence on behalf of the British government on the above cases can be found in the recent announcement that bilateral trade between the UK-UAE is set to double to £25bn by 2020. Parliamentary Coordinator for Campaigns Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), Ann Feltham, discussed the centrality of the UK weapons industry to this trade deal, and within the British economy more broadly in the context of Brexit at the seminar earlier this week.

Read more: London's DSEI arms fair welcomes the world's war criminals

She explained: "Between 2012 and 2016, UAE was the 10th biggest export [destination] for UK arms. There is no doubt that governments and the arms industry would like that figure to be more... Whenever arms sales are on the agenda, the UK government goes silent on human rights."

A BBC investigation recently revealed that British company BAE systems had negotiated trade deals to sell the UAE cyber surveillance technology which the Emirati regime has used to spy on its citizens.

James Shires, an Oxford University DPhil candidate, whose research focuses on the emergence of cyber surveillance in the Middle East, scrutinised this revelation in more detail at the Parliamentary seminar, contextualising it within a framework that explored the linkages between technology, cyber security, and human rights.

"The primary threats [of cyber surveillance technology] are to people's personal information... While nation states worry about espionage in cyberspace, they also carry out espionage themselves," he explained. "In the UAE cybercrime laws and technology have been used to identify statements on social media that are deemed threats to the regime."

Between 2012 and 2016, UAE was the 10th biggest export [destination] for UK arms

According to the Emirates Media and Studies Centre, in 2016 alone around 300 people were detained as a result of their social media use.

Filmmaker and artist, Manu Luksch, provided a case study of the UAE authorities using cyber surveillance against citizens to stifle political dissent. Earlier this year she interviewed Ahmed Mansoor, prominent human rights defender who was arrested and detained in March this for his social media activity.

As cases such as these become more frequent, it is imperative that the British government do more to hold the Emirati authorities to account for their systematic human rights violations.

A crucial component to this would be to make sure that future trade deals are conditional on adherence to international human rights legislation. However, although the legislation for such a mechanism is in place, the political will to implement it is, sadly, not. This must change if there is to be effective change in the country.

Joe Odell is Press Officer at the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE. He has an MA in Middle Eastern Politics and regularly writes and speaks on the Middle East, especially the Gulf region.

Follow him on Twitter: @JoeOdell3

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