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The UAE's notorious limits on free speech have serious implications for expats

February 18, 2021 at 10:35 am

Demonstrators hold banners and placards as they protest against Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum outside the High Court in London on 30 July 2019 [TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images]

Expatriate workers in the UAE be warned: overzealous securocrats in the Gulf oligarchies are watching you and all other foreigners, ready to pounce if you dare to criticise any of its allies. Fear has gripped foreign workers across various sectors from banking to teaching, following the imprisonment of a Jordanian resident by the UAE authorities.

His crime? Criticising the Jordanian government. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been monitoring the case of Ahmed Etoum, 46, and reported that he has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for his Facebook posts criticising the government of the Hashemite Kingdom.

The ludicrous charges for which the court convicted Etoum are not only a disgrace and a serious violation of his right to free speech, but also intimidation intended to silence expats. These charges include committing “acts against a foreign state” that could “damage political relations” with that state and “endanger national security” inside the UAE.

“The UAE authorities have long clamped down on public criticism of themselves and their policies and have apparently extended this repression to critics of other countries as well,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW. “Regional cooperation to root out and silence independent voices and criticism seems to be the only meaningful Arab unity that these governments are capable of.”

READ: UN rights expert urges UAE to free jailed activists 

The details of Etoum’s case reveal that he has lived in the UAE with his family for about five years. Both he and his wife are teachers in Abu Dhabi.

As is expected of conscientious people who have concerns about the suppression of social justice, Etoum frequently used his Facebook page, on which he has just over 4,000 followers, to “voice political opinions, often criticising Jordan’s royal family, its intelligence agency, its government and government policies.”

HRW reviewed Etoum’s Facebook posts referred to in the court ruling as evidence against him. “All of them [are] nonviolent political commentary,” it confirmed.

Aerial view of the Burj al-Arab hotel in the Gulf emirate of Dubai [KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images]

Aerial view of the Burj al-Arab hotel in the Gulf emirate of Dubai [KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images]

The unelected leader of the UAE, Mohammed Bin Zayed, is a close ally of Israel and the House of Saud. He shares the notoriety of his friends Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman.

Etoum’s family told HRW that the UAE security forces arrested him on 14 May last year as he walked back from the local supermarket with his two children, aged 9 and 4. A masked man forced him into a car, leaving the children to walk home alone.

Held without trial in solitary confinement in a secret location for at least four months, Etoum is currently held in Al-Wathba Prison in Abu Dhabi. Neither his family members nor his lawyer have been permitted to visit him.

This terrible ordeal is the result of charges based on both the UAE penal code and the 2012 Law to Combat Cybercrime.

The prison sentence is to be followed by deportation, confiscation of the devices used “in the crime”, the deletion of incriminating posts and the shutdown of Etoum’s social media accounts. All expats living in the UAE, including my fellow South Africans, need to view the punishment meted out to Ahmed Etoum as a warning that this could happen to them too.

Pursuing careers and taking up job opportunities in the Emirates may have all the trappings of a lucrative future, but it comes at a huge price. The attractive salaries and benefits effectively buy your silence about human rights abuses and injustice. In Israeli parlance, this is known as “normalisation of the abnormal”.

The UAE authorities have a reputation for limiting legitimate political comments in violation of international standards of free speech. It will be interesting to see how the government of Jordan reacts to the treatment of one of its citizens. Is the Hashemite Kingdom ready to defend Etoum and seek his immediate release?

READ: Dubai’s Sheikha Latifa issues video from ‘villa jail’, BBC Panorama 

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