With the UAE’s ‘World Tolerance Summit’ taking place this week, it is seeking to create a façade of tolerance while crushing dissent – why are the UK and US enabling this?

The United Arab Emirates’ so-called World Tolerance Summit is another step in its worldwide campaign to present itself as a bastion of tolerance.

Hiding behind the glamorous guise of skyscrapers, shopping malls and touristic luxury with its leading emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as being a hub for economic ambition and opportunity, this conceals the true nature of the UAE. 

This week’s summit was led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s Vice-President and the Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. More than 70 speakers were invited from around the globe and thousands took part in various activities and workshops designed to increase awareness of tolerance. 

It is part of the UAE promoting its ‘Year of Tolerance’ across education, the workplace, culture, community, the media and legislation – a move designed to apparently showcase it as “the global capital for tolerance”. Clearly, the UAE is using this as part of a broader campaign to consolidate its international links, while creating a positive image of its society.

However, 20 human rights groups signed an open letter calling for speakers to withdraw from the event, including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, the Association for Victims of Torture in the UAE, PEN International and Front Line Defenders. The letter, posted by the London-based International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE), stated that the event falsely “promotes a misleading image of the United Arab Emirates as a model of tolerance and openness”. According to the ICFUAE, the summit also “demonstrates a further attempt to gloss over the Gulf state’s appalling human rights record”.

The UAE’s repression and crackdown on civil society has soared since the 2011 Arab Spring, showing mass intolerance. Like elsewhere in the region, some Emiratis campaigned for greater reforms and democratic elections. Yet the UAE swiftly crushed these and has since moved to stem all forms of dissent. It has often arbitrarily detained and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared individuals who criticise the authorities, placing them in harsh conditions. 

The case of Ahmed Mansour, a prominent Emirati human rights activist, in particular symbolises the dark side of the UAE. Mansour was arrested in May 2018 for social media posts on Facebook and Twitter that were deemed to be offensive and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Held in solitary confinement for more than two years with no water or a bed, he has received beatings and been on a hunger strike and protested his mistreatment. As his charges were the publication of “false information” to damage the UAE’s reputation abroad and portraying the UAE as a “lawless land”, his case clearly shows the regime’s desperation to prevent a negative global image of the Emirates. 

Emirati authorities have also grossly mistreated foreign nationals. British PhD student Matthew Hedges was detained in 2018 for seven months for carrying out research for his thesis and kept in solitary confinement with gruelling interrogations and threats of torture. He was forced to sign a statement in Arabic ‘confessing’ his crimes and sentenced to life in prison accused of “spying” for MI6, until international media pressure helped secure his release. 

Countless other foreign nationals have faced long detentions in brutal conditions for seemingly innocent actions. English teacher Christian Wilke was imprisoned for nine months and faced sleep deprivation after agreeing with a friend’s comment on his Facebook post, of a road sign with a camel on it, that the Emiratis cared more about the lives of camels than humans. 

Meanwhile, the UAE has purged activists, academics, lawyers and figures from political parties including al Islah – the Reform and Social Guidance Association.

All of this shows that, far from being a progressive beacon of tolerance, the UAE has upmost intolerance for any challenges to its regime. 

However, many Western countries are keen to support the UAE. The UK not only sells millions of pounds worth of weapons to Abu Dhabi, it delivers hi-tech surveillance equipment to the Emirates. Britain is clearly therefore complicit in the UAE’s repression. Other global powers such as the United States fail to utter a word of criticism towards the UAE’s blatant abuses. Motivated by economic interests, blind eyes are turned.

The UAE is seeking to create a façade of tolerance, while carrying out clear human rights abuses – enabling it to secure its own political and economic fortitude. Repression in the UAE will be rife while such impunity continues. 


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