UAE tests its standing in the international arena with Hedges affair

Published in GSN, 29 November 2018

Matthew Hedges’ release from a life sentence in the United Arab Emirates, following a presidential pardon on 26 November, came as a great relief to his family – led by his wife Daniela Tejada – and to his many academic and other supporters. However, his ordeal has raised important questions about the state of bilateral relations between the UAE and United Kingdom, as well as concerns for the safety of academics, consultants, journalists and others working in the region, who often need to ask searching questions in the course of their work.

Hedges was convicted of spying for the UK on 21 November, in a legal process marred by numerous shortcomings. Hedges had spent long spells in solitary detention since his arrest at Dubai International airport on 5 May (GSN 1,068/4, 1,067/5); he lacked access to suitably qualified lawyers, consular staff and his family; suffered from a lack of disclosure of the charges and evidence against him; and received a swingeing sentence without any evidence being placed in the public domain.

The UAE authorities contest this interpretation and have continued to insist that Hedges was “100% a full-time secret service operative”. However, the way the investigation and trial were carried out did not inspire confidence in their conclusion. In a much-derided video shown at a press conference on the morning Hedges was released, he was seen confessing to being a ‘captain’ in MI6 – a position that does not exist in the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service.

Hedges’ plight captured headlines worldwide, not least because of Tejada’s persistent advocacy after losing patience with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), whose ‘back channels’ had little or no impact. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and UAE Armed Forces deputy supreme commander Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ) – the UAE’s ultimate decision-maker – is in regular contact with senior UK officials. MBZ’s office has long included former British officials on its staff, including his veteran adviser Will Tricks.

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt noted in Parliament on 21 November “the irony of a former MI6 officer who works in the outer office of the de facto ruler of the UAE, who has organised many of the excellent visits from this House to the UAE.” The usually well-informed Blunt, a former chairman of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, did not name the official.

These links did little to speed a resolution to the conflict, especially when Boris Johnson was secretary of state at the FCO (until 9 July). Johnson’s successor Jeremy Hunt became increasingly assertive as Tejada’s campaign gained momentum.

Cause for concern

GSN has maintained a close interest in the affair as Hedges was an occasional contributor to this publication since 2015, providing knowledgeable insight into the politics of both the UAE and Yemen. GSN stopped publishing the names of those occasional contributors who felt they had no problem being publicly identified in May after Hedges’ arrest (GSN 1,061/14).

His interest in these topics brought him to the attention of the authorities. An unnamed Emirati (probably an academic or think tanker) is thought to have told the Federal Security Service or other local authorities that the British visitor’s research was a little too cutting.

The case was unusual in a number of ways, not least the length of time Hedges spent in custody, reports that he was administered a ‘cocktail of drugs’ and the decision to press for an extended custodial sentence. While the authorities in the past have been only too willing to lock up their own citizens – including academic Nasser Bin Ghaith, activist Ahmed Mansoor and lawyer Mohammed Al-Rukn – they have generally preferred to deny entry to troublesome foreign academics or remove them from the country.

While the Hedges case was grabbing the headlines, other recent incidents in the UAE also serve to highlight the new climate of intolerance, including the expulsion of generally well-regarded bank staff. Whatever matter they may have been involved in, as with the Hedges case, it clearly caused great offence to the Emirati authorities.

The motivations underlying such incidents are hard to deduce and there are many competing theories. As one close observer of UAE politics noted while Hedges was still being detained “the UAE is trying to make a point; we just don’t know what that point is.”

The MBS factor and Yemen

Among irritants in bilateral relations with the UK is likely to be a view in London, backed up by British intelligence, that pins the blame for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2 October murder on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Unlike its US ally – where President Donald Trump has chosen to remain foursquare behind MBS even if a substantial number of Congress members are not – the UK may have decided that Saudi Arabia is more likely to prosper without the crown prince’s maverick influence.

MBZ is heavily invested in his relationship with MBS. There is speculation that were MBS to be deposed – which is still a less likely option – it would undermine MBZ’s domestic position. Although very rarely voiced, there is some internal opposition within the UAE’s political leadership to the MBZ/MBS partnership, not the least because of the economic consequences of their jointly pursued policies on Qatar, Iran and Yemen.

The UAE may also be concerned over its investment in the Yemen war. The UK has a leading role in the United Nations Security Council in supporting the efforts of UN Special Representative Martin Griffiths, a British national (and former FCO diplomat in a varied CV). The UAE has built up strong influence over large tracts of Yemen, particularly in the south; it may not relish the prospect of having to relinquish its position as part of any peace deal.

With the Houthis undefeated militarily, all parties know that, even if an agreement is reached which delivers peace in the short term, it is likely instability will return in time. The Yemeni port of Aden is also an important part of the string of logistics and shipping hubs the UAE has been developing in and around the Horn of Africa region.

Among other recent thorny issues may be Abu Dhabi’s possible irritation with the UK’s involvement in the recent large military exercises in Oman (GSN 1,067/8). Some analysts – not least in Muscat – believe the Saif Sareea 3 exercise has strengthened Oman ahead of a period when the UAE may seek to influence proceedings once the time comes for a successor to Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said to be chosen.

At the same time, the UK has reason to tread carefully in the Gulf these days, given its domestic political turmoil. London has no desire to alienate a key financial and strategic partner who can offer the sort of support that is much needed during the UK’s painful Brexit process.

In Hedges’ case, the issue may have been cultural as much as anything else. The information he was collecting for his PhD at Durham University on political, security and military matters is highly sensitive and perhaps easy to misinterpret by over-zealous or paranoid security personnel. The fact that Hedges has also worked as a consultant is likely to have added to the confusion.

Once arrested it may have appeared less embarrassing to continue pushing the issue rather than admitting a mistake had been made. No credible evidence has yet been produced to back up the UAE’s allegations. Sources said it would be a departure from MI6’s normal source-handling procedures for Hedges to have been recruited and tasked as an agent.

Abu Dhabi plays hardball

Whatever the underlying reasons, the UAE has decided to play a tougher diplomatic game. It may have been influenced by the position taken by Saudi Arabia towards critics in the West, including Canada and Germany; Riyadh, on MBS’s watch, is quick to take offence at any perceived slight and slow to back down.

Some analysts have interpreted recent events as suggesting the UAE wants to be seen as a more assertive power in its own right, as is apparent in its spreading influence in the Horn of Africa and other regions. 
Abu Dhabi appears to have been caught off guard by the response to Hedges’ situation once it became public knowledge (which became even more ferocious after the life sentence was passed). Blunt and another prominent Conservative backbench MP, Johnny Mercer, called for the UK to reconsider its mutual defence accord. Mercer told his followers on Twitter “We have no interests with the UAE that outweigh the rights and freedoms of our citizens abroad.”

Foreign secretary Hunt issued an unusually strong statement saying the court verdict ran counter to earlier assurances given by the UAE. He added that “the handling of this case by the UAE authorities will have repercussions for the relationship between our two countries.”

There have been episodes of tensions before. Between 2012 and 2014 Abu Dhabi told the UK on a number of occasions it was unhappy with its tolerance of Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood) – a persistent target for MBZ’s fire. Then prime minister David Cameron tried to placate Abu Dhabi by ordering an investigation into the group’s activities; the conclusions, published in early 2016, were a classic diplomatic fudge (GSN 1,007/14).

Questions for government and academia

Both sides will now be viewing an undoubtedly complex and deep relationship through different perspectives, as will academics. At least 12 British universities have opened branch campuses in the UAE and many more have cultivated extensive ties. Most chose to keep their heads down while Hedges was being held – with the notable exceptions of Exeter and Durham universities, once it was decided to lift the FCO’s vow of silence – but pressure is growing to be more active in defending the principal of academic freedom. Other international universities also confront difficult questions, including New York University, which has a branch in Abu Dhabi.

There are questions to be asked about the diplomatic tactics employed by the UK. Hedges’ family was repeatedly told by FCO officials to avoid going to the media. GSN and other informed media and institutions followed Tejada’s wishes by not mentioning the situation for many months. It was only when Tejada lost patience with the FCO and general media interest was stirred that official efforts were stepped up, leading eventually to Hedges’ release.

The fact that many academic researchers such as Hedges now double up as consultants and journalists to help finance their studies is a complicating factor. It may not be clear to the Emiratis and other host countries where the information gathered by researchers is going. The Hedges affair has put that issue into an unaccustomed spotlight. But it should not detract from the unwelcome fact that autocratic regimes are increasingly cracking down on independent researchers – a trend attested to by ever more cases, not least the murder of Girton College, Cambridge University researcher Giulio Regeni, who is widely believed to have been murdered in Cairo in February 2016 by Egyptian security operatives.