With the economic fall-out from Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic looming, it is not in the UK Government’s interests to confront the UAE over its human rights abuses, reports Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

The United Arab Emirates’ mirage of tolerance and progressiveness again came under fire after allegations by the Hay literary festival curator Caitlin McNamara of sexual assault of by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, a leading Emirati royal family member and head of the UAE’s so-called Ministry of Tolerance. 

McNamara says that she was summoned to a remote private island villa under the pretence of discussing preparations for the first-ever Hay Festival in Abu Dhabi last February, where the alleged assault took place. She is pursuing a case with the Crown Prosecution Service, which decides whether to prosecute criminal cases in England and Wales.

“It seemed clear from the set-up I was not the first or last,” McNamara told The Times. “It really took a massive mental and physical toll on me for what to him was probably just a whim.”

The Hay Festival has pledged to sever ties with the UAE while al Nayhan remains in position, claiming that he “tragically undermined his Government’s attempt to work with Hay Festival to promote free speech and female empowerment”.

The decision of Hay – considered a prominent festival of British culture and promoter of literary freedom – to host the festival in the Emirati capital came despite criticism of the UAE’s intolerance of free speech from leading writers including Stephen Fry and Noam Chomsky, and forty NGOs including Amnesty and PEN International. They co-signed a letter highlighting how the Government is “promoting a platform for freedom of expression, while keeping behind bars Emirati citizens and residents who shared their own views and opinions”.

Leading UK lawyer, Helena Kennedy QC, has said that the Crown Prosecution Service must be “brave” and take up McNamara’s case. Al Nayhan could be tried under “universal jurisdiction” and this would set a new legal precedent for sexual assault cases under international law, she has argued. 

Appearances Versus Reality

The UAE has embarked on a PR crusade to garner an image of tolerance to western audiences, which aims to cover-up its harsh human rights abuses and attract lucrative international investment.

In 2018, British academic Matthew Hedges was detained for six months in solitary confinement and psychologically tortured under charges of “spying” for the UK Government, whilst carrying out his PhD research. David Haigh, a former chairman of Leeds United turned human rights lawyer, was repeatedly beaten during a 22-month imprisonment without charge in Dubai. These are but a few cases of foreign individuals who have been targeted within the UAE.

“The UAE invests heavily in the funding and sponsorship of institutions, initiatives and events, such as the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, that are aimed at projecting a favourable image to the outside world,” Sofia Kaltenbrunner, campaign manager at the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE, told Byline Times. “In reality, freedom of speech is not tolerated in the UAE and women’s rights are severely restricted.”

Britain, a close ally of the UAE, has remained silent on the imprisonment of detained human rights activist Ahmed Mansour, jailed for 10 years despite several calls in Parliament to address this and human rights in the UAE generally. This is despite the UK’s leverage over the UAE through weapons sales and investments. 

“As a poet and human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor was the embodiment of free speech, fearlessly speaking out about injustice,” Kaltenbrunner said. “For this, the regime rewarded him with a 10-year prison sentence. 22 October marked Ahmed Mansoor’s 51st birthday. He will spend this day in a dark isolation cell in an Abu Dhabi prison.

“The UAE is clearly not a nation of tolerance, but one whose global standing relies on the appearance of having Western values. It is time that the international community stop believing the myth of tolerance and wake up to the realities of systematic repression.”

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was slammed in May after calling the UAE “true friends and valued partners” in a tweet after announcing bilateral COVID-19 cooperation. Matthew Hedges wrote in the Guardian that “it seems that not only does the UK Government not value British lives abroad, it is happy to ignore terrible human rights abuses by regimes like the UAE”.

The UK’s Vested Interests

The UK has considerable economic ties with the UAE, on which it is placing a greater importance amid the inevitable economic damage from Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Leaked documents, court filings and public records reveal a £5.5 billion ‘real estate empire’ in London owned by the President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and emir of Abu Dhabi. His investments surpass that of the Duke of Westminster, who owns significant amounts of property across London. Many of his properties have a market value of up to £20 million. 

Many Dubai buyers have also flocked to London, targeting lucrative areas such as the King’s Road in west London, Battersea and White City.

The UAE also maintains economic influence in the UK through other means. Asides from its targeting of English Premier League football, including UAE Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Maktoum al Nayhan’s notable purchase of Manchester City in 2018, Abu Dhabi has also funded universities including Durham, Exeter, Birmingham and the London School of Economics – with higher education facing an economic loss from Brexit.

Meanwhile, the UK encourages its own firms to invest in the UAE, such as BP, Shell, and Rolls-Royce.

With already extensive economic ties, the Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash declared Brexit as a “catalyst for free trade” between London and Abu Dhabi last February. The UAE has increased its investments in the UK since the 2016 Brexit referendum – Emirati banks, for instance, increased their investments in the UK by 23% to £12 billion in the first quarter of 2020. 

Britain has encouraged Dubai investors to engage in the post-Brexit UK economy and surely hopes that Abu Dhabi will also help fill the gaps left from Brexit and the COVID-19.

With substantial pressure over its human rights abuses unlikely, the UK Government continues to rubber-stamp the UAE’s tolerance myth for an easy path to economic security.


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