Abu Dhabi, UAE. Photo by Flickr user Luca.
To the extent we think of the United Arab Emirates at all, most Americans consider it a friendly Persian Gulf ally. Travel-minded Americans may even consider it a friendly nation that happens to run a first-class international airline with pretty good fares.
But there is a difference between friendly and friendship. Sometimes friendly doesn’t go any further than a transitory coincidence of interests and objectives. When those interests diverge, the friendliness tends to vanish.
For an example, we need look no further than the UAE’s neighbor and close ally Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, President Donald Trump continues to downplay the substantial evidence, including a reported conclusion from the CIA, implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the journalist’s death. In effect, the president is simply observing that as long as our strategic interests align, they will override any impulse to “punish” the Saudis in ways that ultimately hurt our own cause. Whether or not you agree with Trump’s conclusion, the circumstances are nothing new in dealing with the Persian Gulf region as a whole.
The UAE itself recently illustrated a different aspect of the difference between friendly actions and true friendship. The country has long had a close relationship with the United Kingdom, ever since a British decision to withdraw allowed the nation’s founding in the late 1960s. But that did not protect a British academic from nearly spending his life in an Emirati prison for skirting too close to sensitive information.
Matthew Hedges, a 31-year-old doctoral candidate at the U.K.’s Durham University, was detained in May and eventually charged with spying for the British government. On Nov. 21, he was sentenced to life in prison. His family members reported that the hearing lasted less than five minutes and that his lawyer was not present. The evidence against Hedges reportedly consisted of notes for his dissertation and a signed confession. In a statement to the media, Hedges’ wife noted that he neither reads nor writes Arabic, the language in which the confession was composed.
U.K. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt and other prominent Britons expressed outrage at the verdict. “UAE claim to be friend & ally of the UK so there will be serious diplomatic consequences,” Hunt tweeted. British intelligence service MI6 routinely does not confirm or deny whether an individual works for the organization, but Hunt noted that he saw no basis for the charges against Hedges. And even beyond the language barrier, the “confession” was dubious. As BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner noted, a video released by the Emirati government in which Hedges also supposedly confessed included a reference to his serving as “a captain in MI6;” no such rank exists.
Hedges, a researcher and consultant as well as a PhD candidate, describes himself as “an intelligence analyst at a cyber-intelligence firm in the UK” and has longstanding ties to the UAE. His academic interest focuses largely on national security. The title of his master’s thesis was “What has driven the UAE’s military spending since 2001.” Durham University has confirmed that his research was consistent with his planned dissertation on the changes in national security strategy in the region following the Arab Spring movement that began in 2011, and that the university had seen no evidence Hedges was conducting anything beyond the scope of legitimate academic work.
While it seems a stretch to believe that Hedges was actually an employee of MI6 given the public information in the case, it is not unreasonable to assume that his consulting work on Emirati military matters would be of interest to British intelligence – and to American intelligence, for that matter. The none-too-subtle message in the way his case was handled is that the UAE doesn’t want anyone looking too closely at how it deals with security matters. “Anyone” includes citizens from friendly Western nations, right alongside Emirati citizens, Iranian spies and others.
Had Hedges’ sentence stood, it would have entailed a maximum of 25 years in an Emirati prison followed by deportation. However, only five days after the verdict, the UAE issued a pardon to Hedges, one of more than 800 granted as part of its National Day celebration. Hedges was allowed to return home to the U.K., though the UAE does not acknowledge his innocence or that the original verdict was in any way incorrect.
Although Hedges’ release is a good thing, there was nothing friendly about the incident. Denial of legal counsel and consular access is a violation of the country’s obligations to its foreign partners and their visiting citizens. According to his family, Hedges was held in solitary confinement for more than five months during the ordeal, and faced repeated interrogations without a lawyer present. This incident would make me think twice before I would allow a child to study abroad at a Western campus in the Emirates – particularly if I thought that child might pursue any politically sensitive course of study. It doesn’t make me especially eager to fly Emirates again either, although that decision is really more a matter of principle than practicality.
The recent events in the Gulf are a useful reminder that we may have friendly interactions with those countries, but they aren’t our friends – at least not in the sense of sharing a commitment to civil liberties or human rights. It is important to remember who our friends are, and also who they aren’t.