At a seminar in Westminster, London hosted by the Middle East Monitor (MEMO), journalists and human rights experts gathered to hear discussion around one of the lesser known traits of the United Arab Emirates, its human rights record and treatment of political activists in the wake of the Arab Spring. Dr Azzam Tamimi, a leading media personality, opened the session noting that when most people think of the UAE, Dubai being a prime example, they think of a growing metropolis, shopping malls, horse racing, tourism and the huge levels of expatriate employment. Yet the reality after the Arab Spring has been in stark contrast to this and the UAE's role as a key player in events in the MENA region began to emerge.
Dr Tamimi explained that that the UAE began to talk about groups threatening the domestic order of the country, including groups of lawyers, judges, civil servant, professors, students and even business people. As the waves of change spread across the region people from all backgrounds ended up in jail, facing accusations that they were undermining the ruling elites. A number of people from these groups were then forced to flee, seek refuge in other countries and remain in exile outside of the UAE. Dr Tamimi described this as a new phenomenon, "previously unheard" of in the UAE. In addition, Arab expatriate communities suspected of political activity faced similar treatment, including Syrians suspected of being affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinians who were suspected of sympathising with Hamas were also detained, tortured and forcibly removed from the country.
It was clear that as the Arab Spring unfolded two camps were emerging in the MENA according to Dr Tamimi. In one camp there were countries such as Qatar and Turkey where sympathies seemed to lie with the popular desire for change and reform. Yet in other countries, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, including the UAE, there was a concern of the threat that such calls for democracy could bring about. Whilst it may have been Ben Ali in Tunisia at first, the idea that such popular feeling could spread to other nations and threaten their hold pushed these countries to pursue an active policy of attempting to supress the Arab Spring.
As Dr Tamimi explained the UAE have been able to rally countries behind it in order to quell the uprising as they occurred across the Middle East. Indeed, he said that it was "no secret" that the UAE had been behind the coup of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. It is against the background of the Arab Spring and the spread of popular demand for political reform that the UAE's human rights records has somewhat loosed even further.
Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch said that the UAE in fact often slipped under the radar, but was in fact a brutal state that wanted to shield its brutality by seeking influence. He argued that prior to 2011 and the Arab Spring the signs of the UAE's brutality were in fact already there. But it was after the Arab Spring and a petition in the UAE which called for mild reform, giving the Federal National Council legislative powers, with elections of its members that the UAE responded in a more brutal manner. The regime saw the petition as an "existential threat" and a "threat to stability" due to the Arab Spring effect.
The UAE 5 were accused of insulting the ruler and the UAE 94 faced farcical trials, during which the cases were presented as a national security issue, where the political Islamists were painted as the 'bogeymen' of the UAE. In the UAE political activists who were arrested and detained had no lawyers and were often facing the regime on their own.
Political activists have described the torture and degrading treatment they faced in jails in the Emirates, being subjected to abuse, violence, solitary confinement amongst many other things. Those that have been targeted by the regime have faced all kinds of harassment from having their cars stolen, to their money stolen, their bank accounts being accessed and to their families being threatened. Treatment in prison ranged from beatings, to being hanged in stress positions, disorientation, the use of extreme heat and extreme cold.
Yet despite these reports, Nicholas McGeehan explained that the UAE has continued to maintain its positive image. Through its aggressive lobbying (including being the top spending foreign lobbying body in Washington) to supporting hospitals, disaster relief efforts and cultural events which paint them as philanthropists the UAE have used these efforts to gain favour with and support for their regime from foreign powers, specifically the US and the UK. And of course, the Emirates have used the ultimate tool of soft power to strengthen these associations such as their huge spending on the football club Manchester City, two football stadiums named after the country amongst a number of other ventures.
It is perhaps this part of the story which is so worrying for those in the Emirates calling for reform, democracy and development. Whilst human rights activists outside the UAE acknowledge the sufferings of political activists in the country – foreign powers are regularly turning a blind eye to the country's complete disregard for human rights in favour of the UAE's influence. Political activists in the UAE are calling on foreign countries to call out the UAE on their abuse of human rights, to not offer them diplomatic immunity but instead to understand the plight of those living in the UAE and oppose these abuses.