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The London lobbyists spinning for UAE

Last month, the UK Defence Secretary called the United Arab Emirates "one of our closest allies and partners." His statement comes from a long tradition of sucking up to the oil rich Kingdom.

But why is the UK partnering so closely with what Nick McGeehan, Human Rights Watch researcher on the Gulf, recently called "a black hole" for human rights?" (He, and his organisation, were later permanently banned outright from entering the country).

Another human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, used the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend to release their own report into the moral depravity of the ruling Bin Zayed family. The autocrats are blessed that nearby Saudi Arabia and Iran take most of the criticism over human rights issues. Many are aware of the regional superpowers disdain for freedom of expression, but aside from occasional furores over UAE's mistreatment of migrant labourers – almost no Western coverage demonstrates the Bin Zayed's silent capacity to viciously take out their political opponents. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the dirty secret of the Gulf, where freedom of expression is little more than a sick joke.

Amnesty calls out the case of activist Osama al-Najjar, 25, who was arrested in March 2014 after he tweeted concern over the ill-treatment of his father, Hussain Ali al-Najjar al-Hammadi, and other political prisoners held at al-Razeen Prison in Abu Dhabi. After his arrest, he was held in solitary confinement where he says he was punched and beaten repeatedly all over his face and body and threatened with electric shocks.

His father is serving a total of 11 years' imprisonment after being convicted under vaguely-worded national security charges following two mass trials. He was held in solitary confinement for eight months in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance following his arrest in 2012.

Amnesty's report also looked at the case of prisoner of conscience Dr Mohammed al-Roken, a prominent human rights lawyer who had for years been a target of government harassment. His crime was criticising his government's human rights record and supporting democratic reform. Now, he is serving a decade for his boldness – following a deeply flawed mass trial of nearly a hundred activists before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court – widely known as the "UAE 94" trial.

The trial was marred by irregularities and its proceedings were deeply flawed and unfair. The justice system in the UAE is neither independent nor impartial, say Amnesty. Courts are filled with rubberstampers in gowns, briefed to carry out the orders of the monarchy.

Reports of forced "confessions" and torture prior to the cases taking place are common. These episodes are not taken into account when the judge makes his decision. A recent study conducted in Dubai by the prisoners' charity Reprieve found that 75 per cent of prisoners experienced some form of abuse following arrest. Overall, Reprieve have submitted twenty cases of torture by the UAE authorities to the United Nations.

The UK are active participants. Last month, ADS Group, a subsidiary of UK Trade and Investment, itself a subsidiary of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, co-organised a fair with the Dubai Police. According to the UKTI website, the two day event was designed "to support and encourage UK exports" to "UAE law enforcement and security markets." The night before the show opened, the UK Embassy in Dubai, UKTI and the Dubai Police hosted a reception for all participating firms.

David Cameron himself has said he found reports of one British student, who reported being severely tortured and forced into signing a confession in Arabic, "deeply troubling." Yet he remained silent when it came to the trial. It's typical of his approach.

It helps that the UAE have friends in high places – many with direct links at the highest levels of successive Conservative governments. The public relations firm Quiller Consultants has represented the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs in London since 2010. The company was founded in 1998 by Jonathan Hill and John Eisenhammer, both previously of Bell Pottinger Consultants. Hill was political secretary to John Major during the 1992 general election and Eisenhammer had worked as both European affairs and financial editor of the Independent. Quiller's current Chief Executive is Howell James, who became a Special Adviser to the Thatcher Cabinet back in 1985, then the Department for Trade & Industry (now Investment). He then did a five years stint as Director of Corporate Affairs for the BBC, before returning to government to advise Conservative Prime Minister John Major. Following Party defeat in 1997, he set up his own PR firm, before taking a job as Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Barclays, then a public relations role at Christies Auction House, and was finally appointed to CEO of Quiller Consultants in June. Quiller Consultants is owned by the public relations conglomerate Huntsworth, which is headed by Lord Peter Gummer of Chadlington – a veteran PR man who runs the Conservative Party in David Cameron's constituency of Witney, is the Prime Minister's known confidante, and was also an adviser to John Major.

Quiller Consultants: "promotes and defends the interests and reputations of businesses, institutions and individuals," according to its website. Currently it acts as Secretariat for the "United-Kingdom-United-Arab-Emirates All Party Parliamentary Group," a group of MPs who promote "good relations" between the Emirates and the UK. The group is currently chaired by Alistair Burt, until last year the Foreign Office Minister responsible for the Middle East. Parliamentary records show that Quiller Consultants are paid by the UAE Embassy to manage the group.

Aside from their disproportionate influence within the current government, Quiller Consultants have their own experience of quashing democratic dissent, albeit not with torture tools. In 2010, they were appointed by the City of London Corporation to manage the fall-out from the Occupy movement. According to an account in "A Quiet Word," an account of Westminster lobbying by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell, Quilliam's spindoctors boasted about their success minimising the media impact of the democratic outburst:

"According to analysis of coverage of the Occupy protest commissioned by Quiller, only 10 per cent of stories were unfavourable to the City of London Corporation, despite it being a central focus of the protest. This dropped to 6 per cent without the Guardian, which was the major exception to the overall tone of the coverage. The stories that did negatively focus on the Corporation, it noted, did not get followed up by others."

The methods used by Quiller to repress media coverage of the protests are not clear (but I've had a few lobbyists yelling down the phone at me and it's not particularly pleasant). Combine their spinning (or bullying) expertise, with police and judges in the UAE prepared to torture and imprison at will anyone who steps out of line – and you have the ideal recipe for the most repressive state nobody knows about. Welcome to the United Arab Emirates.

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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