Foreign Office ministers continue to give UAE a cover of respectability the authoritarian regime does not deserve
Editorial The Guardian, Friday 19 October 2012
Human rights are so essential to Britain’s foreign policy objectives that they are part of our DNA. That is what a Foreign Office spokesman said with a straight face when the foreign affairs select committee rightly criticised the government for refusing to back a boycott of the grand prix in Bahrain. Are they part of Alistair Burt’s DNA? The Middle East minister lavished praise and friendship this week on the United Arab Emirates in a speech to the 4th Abu Dhabi Investment Forum.
The UAE is many things to many people. It is home to 100,000 Britons. It is Britain’s 16th largest export market, with exports last year worth £4.7bn. By the same token, the Emiratis are all over Britain. Think the Emirates Skyline, the London Gateway, or Manchester City.
To some of its own citizens, the UAE presents another face, that of a petrified, authoritarian monarchy which cracks down on peaceful demonstrations, throws 64 political and human rights activists in prison, tortures some, strips others of their citizenship, and carries on in a manner which would make Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak glow with pride. In fact, when Mubarak’s security chief Omar Suleiman fled Egypt, it is no coincidence it was to the UAE that he went.
Its rulers are petrified because what is happening in the rest of the Arab world, and particularly Egypt, is also taking place there. Emirati society is close-knit and homogenous, and lacks the Sunni-Shia schism that plagues Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia. This means hardliners in federal government like Sheikh Khalifa’s half-brother Mohammed bin Zayed cannot blame Iran for trouble at home. They do blame the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation which the UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan denounced as an organisation encroaching on the sovereignty and integrity of nations. All that is encroaching on this Gulf state is the need for democratic reform. In the UAE’s case it was expressed moderately and non-violently in the form of a petition lodged with the president in March last year, demanding the establishment of an elected national assembly. Only 30% of UAE citizens are allowed to elect only half of the assembly members. The signatories were secular as well as Islamist, but the reaction to it was ferocious. Waves of arrests, detainees held without contact, lawyers arrested, solitary confinement and regular beatings.
What makes the UAE interesting is the cover of respectability Britain continues to give it. If it ignores the wishes of citizens, the UAE is sensitive to its international image, which Mr Burt protects and adorns. Is support for autocracy in the post-Arab spring world part of Britain’s DNA too? Mr Burt is also minister for north Africa , where Muslim Brotherhood governments are supported by Britain.