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Inside the secret world of Gulf ‘GONGOS’

Two British human rights workers have finally made it back to the UK following their unexpected stay with the Qatari security services. They were arrested while investigating abuses against migrant workers in the wealthy Emirate.

After the usual protestations from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the men’s own Norwegian employers – The Global Network for Rights and Development (GNDR)– Qatari authorities sheepishly admitted, after a week of silence, that they were holding the men.

The pair hadn’t been given access to a lawyer, nor allowed contact with their families during their detention. Gundev Ghimire and Krishna Upadhyaya, both experienced human rights activists, had been sending frantic texts to their employers claiming that they were being followed by plain-clothes personnel and had decided to bolt for the airport. They never made it. It was a public relations disaster for Qatar – newspapers, magazines and TV stations across the West picked up the story – with headlines speculating if the men were being tortured and the families calling on FIFA to strip Qatar of the World Cup.

While the men were still “missing”, I met with a Qatari in London, a source with good knowledge of their case. I was doing some digging because something didn’t feel right with the NGO Ghimire and Upadhyaya were employed by, GNDR.

According to my Qatari source, the men were both bona fide human rights workers, probably hired on a freelance basis – but had been inadvertently working for the United Arab Emirates government. He said he’d seen bank transfers linking GNDR bank accounts with the Emirati security services.

Although my Qatari source was close to the case, he couldn’t show me the bank transfers to prove what he was saying was correct. We met in a quiet park in Mayfair, a wealthy London quarter home to Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs and dozens of foreign embassies. While we spoke, the men were still missing in Qatar, stuck in a police cell being endlessly interrogated – and the government were yet to announce they were holding them.

My source confirmed they were – saying the men had been arrested when they started asking questions at the security cordon around the World Cup sites.

The circumstantial evidence to support my source’s strange allegation, that GNDR is a fake organisation set up by the UAE government, is overwhelming.

Last year, GNDR issued a “human rights index” which ranked the UAE as number fourteen globally for respecting human rights – even as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department slammed the country over political persecutions, use of torture and appalling conditions for migrant workers. In January, I asked GNDR for the methodology they used to compile the index – but they refused to share it.

Given GNDR’s head office is in Norway – it’s also strange they remained silent when a Norwegian woman was sentenced to sixteen months in prison in Dubai last year, after she reported her own rape to a local police station. GNDR didn’t issue a single press statement calling for her release.

GNDR has well over a million followers on Twitter, despite having tweeted just 373 times. According to analysis by social media data company Social Bakers, over 90% of these followers are fake accounts.

An official, who didn’t want to be named but works for a household name human rights NGO, told me that GNDR’s office in Dubai was also reason to be suspicious. Almost no human rights organisations are permitted to operate in the country.

There’s no love lost between UAE and Qatar. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al Jazeera, especially their Arabic channel, has seen the UAE ambassador dramatically withdrawn from Doha, Qatari nationals arrested in UAE, a war of words played out in the Gulf media – and a painfully slow reconciliation process.

So UAE had a motive. Sending in human rights investigators secretly paid for by the UAE government could only end well for them. Either GNRD would publish a highly critical report of Qatar’s shockingly poor treatment of migrant workers, generating negative headlines about Doha. Or the GNRD employees would be arrested – again generating negative headlines. From a propaganda point of view – this was win-win.

The GNDR is known as a “GONGO” – or a government organised non-governmental organisation. These are organisations which pose as “civil society” organisations, but are usually set up or funded by governments to achieve specific domestic or foreign propaganda aims.

When GNDR published their supposed human rights index in 2013, which put UAE at number fourteen globally, it was enthusiastically reported on by state-sponsored or state controlled media in UAE and other places in the Gulf, but ignored elsewhere.

Perhaps more discerning editors sniffed a rat when the group claimed that “2000 international observers” had ratified the index, but yet not a single one could be named.

What makes GONGOs especially relevant in the Gulf (and there are a few more GNDR lookalikes floating about), is how seriously these Gulf states take their international public image. Qatar, UAE and the other members of the Gulf Co-Operation Council each spend millions on Western public relations to “launder” their own reputations and discredit their opponents. GONGOs are just another part of this propaganda machinery.

The UAE, according to leaked documents recently published by the New York Times, hired lobbyists The Camstoll Group to influence American journalists, briefing them to write articles suggesting Qatar is funding the Islamic State. How the New York Times got hold of these documents, or who gave them to them, is anyone’s guess.

Likewise Qatar have hired Tim Allan, a former adviser to ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair and founder of Portland Communications. He’s tasked with presenting Qatar positively in the Western media – a challenge given ongoing FIFA corruption allegations and the appalling abuses of migrant workers’ rights.

So editors beware these bogus GONGOs – and if you’re a human rights activist doing freelance work, it might be worth doing some background checking about who your employers really are.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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