The United Arab Emirates has succeeded in one of the most brilliant reputation-laundering operations of modern times. Nearly all of the outrage mustered by Western liberals, leftists and hard-working human rights activists has landed at the door of Riyadh or Manama, and even the UAE’s current arch-enemy, Qatar.
Meanwhile, the UAE and its appalling human rights record stands largely ignored, apart from sporadic interest in the plight of migrant construction or domestic workers. Rarely, though, has the core of the UAE’s horrendous climate of fear been addressed, especially its use of torture.
The UAE police use torture immediately on detention, as some British tourists have experienced first-hand. It is required automatically for Emirati human rights activists, democratic Islamists and anyone else whom the state deems to be a threat.
The West’s blind eye towards such blatant evil may be changing, though. There is hope.
Dogged reporters from Associated Press, collaborating with activists and prisoners, have revealed that brutal sexual assaults of male prisoners in certain Yemeni prisons is commonplace. These prisons are said to be run by UAE security officials as part of their military operations in the country. Such behaviour abroad is not far off how such officials treat their own citizens at home. Albeit indirectly, the veil of secrecy about this is lifting.
The reports make difficult reading as they provide vivid descriptions of penetration of the anus with batons, electrocution of prisoners’ testicles and the ripping open of rectums. All in a day’s work, it seems, for your average state-employed Emirati thug.
Remarkably, Britain’s Foreign Office has so far failed to list the UAE in its annual reports on human rights as a “country of concern”. Officials are due to publish another report next month, with an updated list of such countries. Will the UAE be among them?
The challenge for the Foreign Office is that the UAE is considered to be a key ally, both in economic terms and in the fight against terrorism. It was only thanks to the hard work of human rights workers toiling for many years that similarly “key allies” Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were finally included in that list of “countries of concern”, alongside places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and China.
British ministers are reluctant to list such allies, though, as they do not want to offend their friends in the Gulf. Hence, the odds of the UAE being considered as a “country of concern”, despite anal rape apparently being state policy, are more remote than ever.
Perhaps the agony suffered by men in Yemen’s UAE-run prisons may stir some consciences, but there is little appetite for upsetting potential trade allies in the Middle East. Britain is, after all, striking out from the European Union and will be on its own in the hunt for advantageous trade deals.
There seems to be a particular cruelty about the mindset of the Emirati state security officials. People aren’t just arrested in the UAE, they go missing with no explanation, for weeks or sometimes months on end. Judges preside over ludicrous court procedures in which dissidents have their nonsense confessions read out, with everyone present knowing full well that they were obtained by the use of torture.
The megalomaniac nature of Mohammed Bin Zayed, the powerful Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, does not help matters. A hedonistic playboy, Bin Zayed insists that the UAE is an authentic Islamic state which is now promoting women to high office. Meanwhile, he hosts one of the world’s largest red light districts, to whose charms he is rumoured to be less than immune.
One sector of the lucrative prostitution industry in the UAE draws heavily on women trafficked from various Asian countries. The other is made up of professionals who travel from Ukraine, France or Britain, for example, to delight in the immoral playground and the high earnings that the UAE’s permissive culture encourages.
In character, Bin Zayed “reminds one of Uday Hussein,” said one reserved Western businessman, with good knowledge of the UAE’s royal courts. The same source, incidentally, actually met the infamous son of Saddam several times, back in the day when his father was one of “our guys”, which was what made his comparison so striking.
“It’s not just the girl thing,” he told me, “it’s how obsessed he is by the military hardware. It’s a perversion both have (or had): death and sex.”
None of this will look good in a Foreign Office report about the human rights situation in one of Britain’s closest allies. Even if the comparison with Uday Hussein is overblown, it’s chilling that the thought even comes to mind.
Of course, all this bleating about human rights in the UAE will fall largely on deaf ears. It always does. The ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia — just lifted — is much more interesting to most people. Nobody wants to think about male sexual assault as a tool to control society, but give people an easy-to-understand gender or ethnic injustice to mull over, such as migrant workers or the chaperone culture in Saudi Arabia, and there will be endless interest.
The particular cruelty of the UAE needs to be addressed. It truly stands out in the Gulf as a country where rampant physical cruelty, moral hypocrisy and indifference from Westerners go hand in hand. Next month’s human rights report provides an ideal opportunity for the Foreign Office to tackle this head-on. Let’s hope civil servants and ministers take it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.