If I was the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor I would be a trifle annoyed. I enjoy his “Today’s World View” column on a daily basis. He is a very talented journalist who writes incisively, wittily and sometimes sardonically about issues of concern such as the humanitarian disaster that is the ongoing war in Yemen; the appalling treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar; and the enormous damage that Donald Trump is doing to America’s reputation abroad and to the fundamentals of American democracy at home. I don’t know the man, but he would, I believe, describe himself as a proud liberal and a staunch defender of a free press, free speech, open democracy and an independent judiciary.
Those are all values that are signally not available in the United Arab Emirates, yet there, smack dab in the middle of his column on 25 September, was an advertisement with the headline “Partners for a peaceful, prosperous Middle East”. The advert came with an acknowledgement that the content was courtesy of the UAE Embassy in Washington; it further noted that the UAE, “a dependable ally, works with the US to create a better future.”
Open it up and you are told that “with common values and a shared outlook… the UAE and the US are working together to promote regional security, create economic prosperity and address pressing global challenges.” A plethora of infomercials follows, dozens of them gathered under the rubrics of “United in Security” (where you will find a piece explaining the UAE crackdown on terror funding), “United in Prosperity” (with details on topics like renewable energy and the UAE mission to Mars) and “United in Outlook” (extolling the “shared Principles of Tolerance and Inclusion” while putting in a plug for New York University Abu Dhabi).
Unsurprisingly, given the source, the UAE Ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, figures prominently throughout. Al-Otaiba is the most effective Arab ambassador in DC; an assiduous, very savvy player of the diplomatic game and a close confidant of Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East special envoy, Jared Kushner.
Now I do understand that this is an advertisement so, of course, there is no mention of the UAE’s dark side, but “common values”? Even in the America that Trump is shaping, a prominent human rights activist would not be seized by security forces and held for several months in an unknown place before being put on trial and convicted on evidence that every indication says strongly was secured under torture.
That is what happened to Ahmed Mansoor. He was arrested on 19 March 2017, held incommunicado for months, then brought to court earlier this year and convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison with a fine that was the equivalent of US$270,000 for “publish[ing] false information, rumours and lies about the UAE [which] would damage the UAE’s social harmony and unity.”
Mansoor had already been imprisoned in 2011 before an international outcry caused the authorities to grant him a pardon. He was released but was not allowed to return to his job as a senior engineer in a telecommunications firm. Over the next six years, as he courageously persisted in speaking up about human rights violations in the UAE and the wider Gulf region, he and his family were subjected to a barrage of online threats along with legal and financial harassment.
One of those who was imprisoned and then freed with Mansoor seven years ago was the internationally respected economist and academic Dr Naser Bin Ghaith. He was seized in August 2015 and held in an unknown place for nine months. Serious allegations of torture against him were not investigated by the authorities. Bin Ghaith was subsequently convicted of “posting false information” on his twitter account. He too was sentenced to ten years in jail.
And that line about “Partners for a peaceful, prosperous Middle East”? The UAE, together with Saudi Arabia, has conducted a war in Yemen that is now into its fourth year. The devastation thus caused of the Middle East’s poorest country is appalling by any yardstick: critical infrastructure destroyed, innocent civilians slaughtered in indiscriminate bombing raids and, according to the UN, more than 2 million children already starving and another 3 million facing the same fate. The response of the Emiratis and the Saudis to this humanitarian disaster has been to step up attacks on the rebel-held port city of Hudeidah through which most of the urgently-needed food and medical aid flows. Let me be clear, the Houthi rebels are themselves guilty of many atrocities, but it is in the hands of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to halt this war and stop the starvation of millions of children by declaring a unilateral ceasefire. They have chosen not to do so.
In Libya, a country riven with militias fighting for control, the Emiratis have backed the Benghazi warlord General Khalifa Haftar against the UN-recognised government in the capital Tripoli. The UAE has supplied Haftar with aircraft and military vehicles in violation of UN sanctions aimed at bringing armed conflict in the country to a halt.
Moreover, just how is the UAE promoting regional security in the Gulf? Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed, has played a leading role in the land, air and sea blockade of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Qatar. That was launched in June of last year with his younger counterpart, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The rupture of the GCC – which ought to serve as a security bulwark against the threat of Iran – is now pretty much permanent.
Finally, the New York University Abu Dhabi complex was built on the backs of migrant workers who live in squalid compounds, are forced to labour in often dangerous circumstances and are paid a pittance. Shamefully, the university was happy to allow the same treatment that the UAE metes out, on a daily basis and as a rule of thumb, to its huge migrant workforce. It was only when the New York Times broke the story that the university responded to the workers’ plight.
So, yes, if I was Ishaan Tharoor I would be aggrieved. Four years after buying the Washington Post, the multi-billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos slapped a bold motto on its masthead: “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. Surely, that darkness includes taking money from the UAE, a country with an awful human rights record, dreadful treatment of migrants and a belligerent and militaristic foreign policy that has helped to create utter misery for the people of Yemen and Libya. Democracy, Mr Bezos, can also die of hypocrisy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.