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Iona Craig: Don’t ignore the UAE

Tuesday 19 January 2021

The Emirates avoid much of the criticism that Saudi Arabia attracts. But their influence in the region is just as significant – and perhaps even more pernicious


In the seven months British PhD student Matthew Hedges spent in solitary confinement in a United Arab Emirates prison in 2018, the threat that loomed largest over him was the pledge by his interrogators to send him to a UAE black site in Yemen. The armed security guards dressed from head to toe in black – who always arrived when he was about to be moved – stood in anticipation outside the door. Hedges never doubted the threat was real.

He had heard the screams of fellow prisoners as they were tortured, met an Emirati inmate who said he’d been tied to a chair with a hood over his head for a year, and witnessed a detainee being carried out, mouth gagged and bloody faced. Hedges could envisage only too clearly what the consequences would be of ending up in an undisclosed military facility in Yemen, the likes of which, thanks to the CIA and their tactics in America’s War on Terror, are synonymous with unending illegal detention and horrific brutalisation.

The UAE disappearing and torturing thousands of Yemenis was already well documented – for those that cared to notice. By the time Emirati officials lifted Hedges from Dubai airport in May 2018, I’d seen for myself the bullet-riddled family homes in Yemen, raided in the middle of the night as children slept, male members of households whisked away to no-one-knew-where but held under the authority of the Emirati forces, the de facto authority in Yemen’s second-largest city, Aden, by 2017. Detainees described to the Associated Press being smeared with faeces, crammed in shipping containers in the searing heat and blindfolded for weeks on end. They told reporters they were beaten, trussed up on a “grill,” and sexually assaulted. I also spoke to family members and former detainees who described similar treatment.

In non-Covid times, 1.5 million Britons visit the UAE every year, more than there are UAE citizens. Brits are at the top of the list of nationalities who visit Dubai – the primary holiday destination of the Emirates’ seven federations, with only Saudis and Indians ahead of them.

The UAE serves as a tax-free business destination, a popular winter holiday location and a main stop-off point and transit hub for travellers heading further east. Successfully setting itself apart from many of its neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman, the UAE has cultivated a perception as a liberal beacon, attracting celebrities and online influencers who perpetuate this image. 

In fact, since the foundation of the UAE in the early 1970s, Britons have played a key role. In 1971, there were around 150 foreign – mostly British – officers in the UAE military. This was a relationship that, from the British perspective, provided access and influence in the fledgling nation. The UAE limited this access by not giving senior or influential roles to seconded officers, instead passing those positions to contractors not under British government control.

The evolution of the UAE military has been marked by two crucial years and two notable individuals. The effects of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the armed siege of Mecca in the same year still ripple through the region’s state leaders today. Fear of communism and socialism was replaced by the fear of political Islam as the greater existential threat.

Twenty years later, in 1990, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led to a sharp re-focus on defence issues and military capabilities.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the de-facto ruler of the UAE, commonly known as MbZ, set about an armed forces upgrade. His father, Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, an iconic figure in the UAE and one of the country’s founding fathers, who died in 2004, was more pragmatic. 

Most Middle Eastern nations sought to “coup-proof” their militaries, involving the deliberate politicisation of and division within armed forces in order to maintain their weakness so as to avoid them being a threat to those in power. It was the avoidance of this that set the UAE’s military apart. Instead, MbZ attempted to establish a meritocratic officer selection system.

Foreign private contractors, rather than serving officers, were part of this plan. After more than a decade of falling numbers of foreign nationals in the military, British officers were dispersed through the UAE military and air force. Former Royal Marine Andrew Pillar became a major general in the UAE military, spending almost a decade from 2002 to 2011 overseeing their recruitment. 

(Although the traffic was not all one way. The UAE sends more soldiers to officer training college at Sandhurst than any other nation.)

The cloud-piercing rise of Dubai’s record-breaking skyscrapers over recent decades has been matched by the ascent of the UAE’s military. Abu Dhabi’s defence force went from 300 strong in the mid-1960s to an army of 64,000 today to protect a nation of less than two million Emirati citizens (an additional eight million foreign nationals live in the UAE) – three times the population-to-army ratio in the UK, or the equivalent of Leeds being protected by the entire British army.

British relations with the UAE have gone from contributing to the awkward make-up of the seven-state federation that looks on a map like a jigsaw put together with some pieces from a different puzzle – Omani territory dotted inside and outside of its borders – to, more recently, trade.

The UAE is Britain’s fourth-largest export market outside the EU. The single most lucrative export is arms sales, putting the UAE in the top ten importers of UK arms. In the first year of the Saudi Arabian and UAE-led coalition military intervention in Yemen that began in March 2015, UK arms sales trebled. During the six years of the ongoing war, UK sales of military goods to the Emirates more than doubled from the six years prior.

Despite these increases, UK exports for dual-use – equipment that can be used by either military or civilians – to the UAE are worth seven times more than pure military export licences, peaking in 2013 at £2.6 billion. Only the US and Saudi Arabia buy more. The most prevalent items on dual-use export licences to the UAE are surveillance – or, more specifically, cyber surveillance – paraphernalia such as “technology for equipment employing cryptography” and “information security equipment”.

This matters because of the UAE’s human rights record and its curtailment of freedom of speech, particularly critical speech, and of freedom of expression. Another British national, Ali Isa Ahmad was a victim of a crackdown on the latter. Ahmad, 26, was detained and beaten for wearing a Qatari football shirt to a Qatar vs Iraq match in the UAE in January 2019 when the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation nations were in dispute with Qatar. 

Yet it is Emirati nationals who face the worst of what UAE security forces have to offer. Hedges noted that in his seven months being held by UAE security forces – mostly in solitary confinement – Emirati or Arab nationals were treated far worse than he was. 

In May 2018, award-winning human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison after being arrested on the orders of the Public Prosecution for Cybercrimes, according to state media. Charges included using social media to “publish false information that harms national unity”. Other activists and dissidents have also disappeared into the Emirates’ prisons, some having served their sentences. Many were arrested under the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime law, which allows for long prison sentences and harsh financial penalties. Cybercrimes that were likely detected with the help of British-sold dual-use equipment. 

Prior to his arrest in 2017, Mansoor had spoken out against the detention of Osama al-Najjar, the son of one of the so-called UAE94: 94 individuals – including human rights defenders, a lawyer, and bloggers critical of UAE state security and the nation’s human rights record – who were all sentenced in 2013 for between 7 and 15 years. Osama al-Najjar was still being held having served a three-year sentence for his Twitter use. His detention was extended indefinitely under the Counter Terrorism Law. 

Mansoor had also criticised the prosecution of Dr Nasser bin Ghaith, an economist and academic who was held incommunicado for eight months before being sentenced to ten years in prison in 2017 for charges related to criticism of the UAE and Egypt. Osama al-Najjar was finally released in 2019. The others remain in prison.

With such a track record it would seem implausible that the Hay Festival Foundation, a UK-based and registered charity with a public pledge of being “committed to access and inclusion and to the pursuit of excellence and happiness” would consider holding a literary festival in the UAE. But they did. And many other private sector companies are doing likewise. At the inaugural Hay Festival in Abu Dhabi in February last year, curator Caitlin McNamara accused the Minister of Tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan of sexually assaulting her, 11 days before the festival went ahead. The Sheikh denied Ms McNamara’s account and the Crown Prosecution Service declined to prosecute the case.

Many of the aims set out by the UAE Soft Power Strategy, launched in 2019 have already been fulfilled, including one of the UAE’s four main objectives “to establish its reputation as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes all people from across the world”.

One of the listed six pillars that form the framework of the Soft Power Strategy is “scientific and academic diplomacy”. A number of Western universities have established campuses in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Bin Ghaith, currently serving the third year of his ten-year sentence, previously lectured at the Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi. British universities in the UAE include Exeter and Strathclyde, and a new University of Birmingham campus is due to open in Dubai this year.

While domestic policy might be kept out of sight and out of mind, the UAE’s recent foreign policy is harder to ignore.

Six years ago, the UAE became Saudi Arabia’s leading partner in a rapidly formed coalition of nations established by the Kingdom to support their bombing campaign in neighbouring Yemen. Launched on 25 March 2015, the aim of the airstrikes – which, like many international leaders engaging in conflict before him, Saudi’s Minister of Defence, Mohammed bin Salman, thought would be over in a matter of weeks – was to push back Houthi rebels and reinstate Yemen’s president who had fled to Riyadh from the rebels’ advance. The UAE joined the air war which, it quickly became evident, was not going to end the Houthi takeover that had begun a year earlier.

The Houthis, or AnsarAllah (Defenders of God) as they prefer to be known, are a Zaydi Shia group originating from Yemen’s most northern governorate, Sa’ada, bordering Saudi Arabia. Named after their founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, they emerged out of the “Believing Youth” movement, formed in the 1990s primarily in reaction to the spread and proselytising of Saudi Wahabi Salafism. 

But when the Houthis took the capital Sana’a in September 2014, they were not alone. Yemen’s former president of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down after nine months of street protests in 2011, facilitated the Houthis’ slow-burning coup. Saleh’s loyalists in the army fought alongside the Houthis, despite his government having battled the group in six wars between 2004 and 2010.

By the time civil war in Yemen broke out in 2014, the UAE military had been engaged in more than a dozen military deployments, from Bosnia to Somalia, and had contributed to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan for more than a decade. More than any other Arab state.

While the Saudis focused on the air war in Yemen, the UAE turned its attention to the escalating ground conflict. By May 2015, Yemen’s second city, Aden, was under Houthi siege. The only people left to defend the strategic port were local residents, long since retired military personnel, and Al-Qaeda militants whose ideology automatically set them against the Houthis.

Saleh’s loyalists played a key role in the pro-Houthi forces’ grip on the city. Meanwhile, the ex-president’s son and expected successor, Ahmed Ali Saleh, was residing in Abu Dhabi having been appointed Yemeni ambassador. Ahmed Ali was never detained, arrested or asked to leave the Emirates. Although he was reportedly put under house arrest. 

Weeks later, when the UAE launched “Operation Golden Arrow”, the offensive that led to the “liberation” of Aden from Houthis forces, military analysts in Washington viewed the UAE’s ambitious defeat of the Houthis as a military feat unachievable by any other Gulf nation. However, those views from afar failed to include much of what was visible from the ground: the UAE’s deal-making with forces within the pro-Houthi side. Saleh’s loyalists in the Republican Guard, responsible for defending the sea access, withdrew from the city, abandoning the less well-equipped Houthis to fend for themselves in a southern city they were unfamiliar with.

When similar military tactics were put to the test on Yemen’s west coast without pre-arranged deals, UAE forces and their proxies repeatedly failed. When the Emiratis attempted to push into the mountains east of the Red Sea they were quickly pushed back by the Houthis, whose most familiar territory is the rugged, unforgiving mountains of central and northern Yemen.

The deal-making and the mass detentions of Yemenis in black sites in southern Yemen also demonstrated the priorities of MbZ. The thousands of arrests were declared a counter-terrorism measure, yet the pattern of those being detained suggested otherwise. The UAE was often detaining individuals who were part of or associated with Yemen’s political Islamist party, Al-Islah. A long-running part of the Yemeni political landscape and political opposition to Ali Abdullah Saleh, Islah includes elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. Political Islamists have been viewed by the UAE as an existential threat ever since the events of 1979. The UAE branch of Islah is listed as a terrorist organisation in the Emirates. 

The UAE’s presence in southern Yemen soon manifested this hatred for the Islah party and its members. The UAE set about empowering and arming those who opposed them, creating Salafi militias and emboldening Yemen’s southern separatists by creating the Southern Transitional Council. In what can be described at best as an attempt at political and military cleansing, by 2017 the UAE was responsible for creating and supporting some 90,000 Yemeni fighters in an array of militias and quasi-official security forces who shared their anti-Islah views – despite the fact that Islah, aligned with President Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition, were supposed to be on their side. It became apparent that the main battle for the UAE was not against the Houthis, their Iranian allies, or even Yemen’s Al-Qaeda branch, but the political Islamists. Even though this set the UAE on course for fighting between its proxy forces and Saudi-backed, Islah-linked forces of the Yemeni government. This culminated in the UAE carrying out airstrikes against its own side.

Political assassinations on the anti-Houthi side were also linked to the UAE and its supported forces. From popular Imams who refused the UAE’s advances, activists linked to Islah, or individuals who spoke out against the Emiratis presence in southern Yemen, dozens were mysteriously killed or gunned down. No direct link to the UAE could be made until a US mercenary detailed his role in a team of private contractors hired to carry out assassinations of Islahis in Yemen. 

Seemingly emboldened by their ground operations and establishment of a parallel army of UAE proxy forces in Yemen, MbZ pushed further into the conflict in Libya, supporting Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces fight against the UN-supported government and setting themselves against Turkey – another nation, along with Qatar, seen by the UAE to be bolstering political Islam. Again, reports of UAE-hired mercenaries, including British nationals, emerged.

The UAE’s foreign interventions did roll back in 2019. Emirati forces were withdrawn from Yemen. Thousands of Sudanese troops hired to fight on the anti-Houthi side were also withdrawn or redeployed to Libya. A plan to build a military base in Somaliland was cancelled. And, in Libya, the focus shifted from proxy forces to airstrikes. 

The UAE’s opposition to political Islam, combined with protection of the Gulf of Aden and maritime trade, is reflected in its competition with Qatar and Turkey in the coastal nations of the Horn of Africa. Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti have all seen either UAE multi-million-dollar port investments or the building of military bases. 

These foreign interventions can seem distant. The UAE, however, is not. It is widely recognised in Britain through its presence in the world of sport and the Emirates Airline branding. 

MbZ, who owns Manchester City, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum, one of the most powerful individuals in British horseracing, have both been embroiled in sporting scandals that would likely have resulted in them being kicked out of their respective sports if they were less powerful.

Abu Dhabi was found to be in serious breach of Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules by UEFA for disguising equity funding for Manchester City as sponsorship, and banned for two years from European football. The decision was later overturned and a fine of 30 million euros reduced by a third.

In 2013, billed as “the biggest doping scandal in racing history”, 15 horses owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum, both vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai since 2006, tested positive for banned steroids.  An investigation later ruled Sheikh Mohammed had no knowledge of the practice; his trainer Mahmood al-Zarooni took the rap. A household name in British flat racing circles, through his Godolphin racing operation with its famous royal blue racing silks, Sheikh Mohammed has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in flat racing since the 1980s, quickly becoming a financial cornerstone of the sport. As a regular at Royal Ascot, the Epsom Derby and Newmarket, Sheikh Mohammed rubbed shoulders with British aristocracy and the royal family more often than most foreign monarchs. His multi-million-pound horses have earned him the British Champion Owner title 12 times since 1995.

In a civil case brought last year by his estranged wife, Jordanian Princess Haya, Sheikh Mohammed was found to have probably ordered the abduction of two of his daughters, one from the streets of Cambridge by armed men. Under the British Horseracing Authority’s “fit and proper” rule, no one else would be able to continue owning racehorses. Others have been banned for far less. The BHA has yet to take any action against Sheikh Mohammed, neither is it expected to.

The UAE has become increasingly brazen in its attitude and actions in the last decade. Both at home and abroad, whether via airstrikes, assassinations, locking up and torturing political prisoners, MbZ remains unhindered by either Washington or London. The small Gulf nation, fawningly labelled “Little Sparta” by General James Mattis before his stint as US defence secretary, has skilfully avoided the bad publicity and criticism that Saudi Arabia has faced for its attacks on dissidents and role in the humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

At the peak of Yemen’s Covid-19 outbreak in May last year, I watched a Yemeni friend wander the aisles of a supermarket in central Aden. He pulled bags of pasta from the shelves, scanning the small print on the back before stuffing them back in their place. He pulled out another brand, and another. He did the same with the rice, the milk, the canned tomatoes, the biscuits. He wanted to be sure that none of the items he was buying came from the UAE. 

Five years earlier, I had seen him celebrate the arrival of UAE forces in Aden as they lifted the siege and pushed the Houthis out of the battered city. Since then, he’s witnessed the damage they have done with their militias, detentions and divisions. The only way he can push back against them is his one-family boycott of Emirati goods – no easy task in a country still at war, under a de facto blockade and with the nearest port controlled by UAE-backed forces.

It is a small gesture, but it says a lot – and it ought to humiliate us all.