Repression in the UAE: The case of Matthew Hedges

The failure of the West to take a firm stand on repression in the UAE has precipitated Hedges’ detention.

Matthew Hedges
A handout picture released by the family of Matthew Hedges on October 11, 2018, shows British student Matthew Hedges and his wife Daniela Tejada posing in an undisclosed location [Handout/AFP]

Matthew Hedges, a British doctoral student at the University of Durham researching the United Arab Emirates’s response to the Arab Spring, was arrested at Dubai airport on May 5. He had just wrapped up a research trip focusing on the UAE‘s security policies and was about to head home. The arrest was kept out of the public eye until last month due to a recommendation from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, to stay silent. 

Despite the FCO’s advice and concerns about mistreatment in prison that could result from going public, Tejada exposed the details surrounding the arrest of Matthew Hedges to the British press on October 11. Days later, Hedges was charged with espionage by the UAE authorities and was ordered to remain in custody until November 21, when evidence relating to his case would be re-examined. Matthew Hedges was subsequently released on bail, but remains under constant surveillance and can be ordered to return to prison at any time.   

Although the revelation of Hedges’ arrest has provoked reactions of shock and alarm among the British academic community, for seasoned watchers of UAE’s political trajectory, it was a tragic inevitability. The chain of events that enabled this travesty began with the UAE’s reaction to the outbreak of mass protests in Tunisia in December 2010.

Reaction to the Arab Spring

While much of the Arab world rejoiced in the historic wave of political change that swept across the region in the first months of 2011, the political leadership of the UAE viewed the Arab Spring with alarm and suspicion. UAE officials saw the fall of Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali on January 14 and the demise of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak less than a month later, as a threat to the absolute monarchy in their own country and a gateway for the unchecked expansion of Muslim Brotherhood influence across the Middle East. The elections of Muslim Brotherhood governments in Tunisia in October 2011 and Egypt in January 2012 further fuelled those fears.  

To stop protests from spreading into the UAE, authorities increased pressure on the few political activists in the country. After 132 Emiratis signed a petition in March 2011 requesting all UAE citizens gain the right to vote, the UAE authorities swiftly arrested human rights activist Ahmed Mansour and leading Emirati economist Nasser bin Ghaith, who supported the petition. Along with three other activists, they have been charged with “publicly insulting” top officials in the UAE and conspiring “against the safety and security of the state in association with foreign powers.” These arrests were followed by the detention of 54 Emirati political and human rights activists in 2012 on charges of threatening state security and undermining public order. 

The perceived effectiveness of these detentions in deterring Arab Spring-style unrest in the UAE caused Abu Dhabi’s policy of viewing political criticism as an anti-state activity and punishing any demand for rights with detention to become institutionalised. In 2012, the UAE passed a repressive cybercrime law that effectively closed off the country’s only remaining forum for free speech. The law’s vaguely worded provisions provided “a legal basis to prosecute and jail people who use information technology to, among other things, criticize senior officials, argue for political reform, or organize unlicensed demonstrations”.

It is within this repressive climate that Matthew Hedges embarked on researching UAE’s involvement in Yemen, among other sensitive issues, which led to his unfortunate detention.

Sanctioning the UAE

Although the drivers of the UAE’s turn towards escalated repression were born within the country’s stifling political system, the international community’s reluctance to call out the UAE for its human rights abuses indirectly contributed to the arrest of Hedges. While other authoritarian countries, like Iran and Russia, have been chastised for their repressive policies, the UAE has been awarded a prized seat on the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and lucrative foreign investment contracts.

The enabling attitude of Western democracies towards the UAE’s repression caused Emirati officials to believe that arresting Hedges would not trigger a major international backlash. Given this risk calculation, it is possible that the UAE arrested Hedges to use him as a bargaining chip in its diplomacy with Britain.

A prominent Washington, DC-based expert on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) recently told me that the UAE could have arrested Hedges to pressure the British government to label the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, and extradite Emirati dissidents living on British soil.

While this theory is difficult to verify, the United Kingdom‘s long-standing refusal to stand up to the UAE over its arrests of British tourists could have convinced Emirati officials that Britain would make concessions to avoid a confrontation over Hedges.

In order to prevent further tragedies of this kind, Britain and other Western democracies need to take a firm stand against the UAE’s arrest of the British researcher. Much like the United States punished Turkey for its detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, Britain should consider enacting targeted sanctions against UAE officials that are directly involved in repressing dissent and place arms contracts that support the UAE’s military intervention in Yemen under review.

These actions could inspire a chorus of similar responses from European countries and give the United States no choice but to pressure the UAE over Hedges’ continued detention.   

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.