A new foreign policy which lessens the UK's dependence on the Gulf's rich menu of autocrats, ideologues and hegemons is sorely needed
The case of Matthew Hedges, the PhD student who was sentenced to life in jail by the United Arab Emirates on charges of spying for British intelligence but was released after a presidential pardon on Monday, makes no sense.
To take the UAE at its word - always a risky thing to do - Hedges was a "100 per cent secret service operative" sent out to spy on Emirati military procurement plans. The video in which Hedges allegedly confessed to this charge was at times inaudible and only shown with subtitles.
A spy thriller
There are several problems with this spy thriller. First, there are an estimated 240,000 Britons working out in the Emirates. They form the largest Western expat community.
Britons are to be found at every level of government in Abu Dhabi. A Briton called Simon Pearce is in charge of Abu Dhabi's global image. His boss, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, is chairman of Manchester City, of which Pearce is a director. The UAE's senior counsel in Britain was Lord Hill, co-founder of political lobbying firm Quiller Consultants, which at one point got a £60,000 ($76,500) a month contract "to promote and achieve the foreign policy objectives of the UAE". Hill was a close associate of the then prime minister David Cameron.
Britain and UAE's elites have their hands so deep in each other's pockets that it would be curious indeed for MI6 to resort to a humble PhD student to gain intelligence it could easily glean from existing sources
Quiller's key man was the former foreign office official Gerard Russell, chosen by then prime minister Tony Blair to head the media unit in the Foreign Office after the 9/11 attacks. Al-Mubarak is also managing director of Mubadala, the investment fund that reportedly paid a tidy sum to Blair's consultancy firm before he shut it down in 2016.
Britain and UAE's elites have their hands so deep in each other’s pockets that it would be curious indeed for MI6 to resort to a humble PhD student to gain intelligence it could easily glean from existing sources. Using Hedges makes no sense.
Secondly, this is not the first time that Britons have been arrested in the UAE at times when the relationship with the UK was going through choppy waters. Three Britons were tortured in custody in Dubai, in April 2013, after synthetic cannabis was allegedly found in their car, another case which required official British intervention.
Then UK prime minister David Cameron (L) meeting with Emirati prime minister, Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum (C), and Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, in Dubai on 5 November 2012 (AFP)
But I get ahead of myself. I first blundered into the underworld of Emirati attempts to fashion the domestic debate in Britain when I wrote an editorial for The Guardian in which I described the UAE, with considerable understatement as it turned out, as an authoritarian regime. I say blundered, because I had no idea at the time the trouble this modest 420-word second leader (what we called the editorial which followed the main one) would cause.
Crackdown on Islamists
The story starts on the day Mohamed Morsi was inaugurated as president of Egypt in June 2012. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, was in London to meet Cameron. Bin Zayed's briefing notes were written by Pearce and leaked to The Guardian two years later, by which time I had left. Pearce claimed that the BBC's global news channel was infiltrated by Islamist sympathisers.
The UAE, he argued, should push for a "measured" approach from Britain in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood group. The UAE was just about to launch a crackdown on 380 Islamists at home, and they wanted Britain to do the same with Islamists in London.
With Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gone, the Arab Spring was seemingly destined for a long winter
Pearce argued for a carrot and stick approach. In return for challenging the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain, Cameron was told that he could expect BP to be "back in the game" for the oil-rich sands off Abu Dhabi. Progress could also be made on a proposed £6bn ($7.6bn) Typhoon fighter deal. At the time the UAE held £1.5bn ($1.9bn) investment in the UK, supporting 32,000 jobs.
But Britain did not appear to be listening - or at least that was how it was seen by Abu Dhabi. The Guardian published an article by the head of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party in the Emirates, Said Nasser al Teniji. Worse still, Teniji was interviewed on BBC Arabic to discuss Islah arrests and torture allegations.
This prompted a major social media campaign in the UAE against the UK. A Twitter hashtag #UK_supports_traitors spread virally. My editorial, published soon after, only poured oil on the fire. The Financial Times published a report quoting a UAE official saying that BP's exclusion from oil concessions was not a "final decision". However if "things are allowed to deteriorate" the UAE could disengage from the UK.
The Foreign Office could explain all they liked that they did not control the media. That cut no ice with the Emiratis.
From spring to winter
Michael Hudson, a US academic, described the mood on a visit at that time: "Perhaps naively, I asked a group of specialists from Gulf countries why they would have any problem with Islamist parties emerging to play a decisive role in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries affected by the uprisings. After all, wouldn't they be happier with more culturally like-minded regimes coming to power? I felt like a dentist who had just touched a nerve."
My editorial was rubbished by no less than Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash. He accused The Guardian of knowing "very little with their condescending view".
Cameron had to fly out to smooth ruffled feathers. Only two reporters were allowed to accompany him. It appeared to work. On 6 November 2012, the two countries announced a formal defence and industrial partnership, with the Typhoon deal still on the table. On the 28th of that month, Abu Dhabi announced it was buying more than $1.3bn of BP assets, and in mid-December BP was invited back to bid for the Abu Dhabi oil concession.
Members of the Egyptian police special forces stand guard on Cairo's landmark Tahrir Square on 25 January 2016 (AFP)
By April 2013, however, nothing had been resolved. After five years of negotiation to sell 60 Typhoon jets, the deal was still not in the bag. Cameron had to balance a state visit granted to the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan with a secret lunch with Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood officials, who were paving the way for an official visit by Morsi.
It never happened because on 3 July his army chief, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, seized power. On the same day, 69 Islah leaders were sent to prison for seven to 15 years on charges of sedition. With Morsi gone, the Arab Spring was seemingly destined for a long winter.
Cameron had to dash to Abu Dhabi all over again. His efforts were in vain. In December BAE announced it had failed to win the UAE contract for Typhoons. The Emiratis correctly calculated that the UK was in no position to reply. By 2013 bilateral trade had risen to $18bn, with two thirds of the benefit going to the UK and, besides, the BP oil deal was still in play.
In March 2014, Cameron at last did as he had been told to do by bin Zayed two years before. He announced a British government inquiry into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood to be headed by the Foreign Office's foremost Arab scholar and former Saudi ambassador, Sir John Jenkins. The inquiry was supposed to be quick, but it very soon ran into hot water.
Jenkins' first stop was of course Abu Dhabi. He met al-Mubarak in April. According to a UAE foreign office record of the meeting published by The Guardian, Mubarak told Jenkins that "the UK will need to consider the political implications when three of its most important allies in the region (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) have taken a clear decision regarding the MBs".
The Jenkins inquiry dragged on for a year and a half, dogged by the threat of legal action, undercut by MI6 who ruled out any connection between the Brotherhood in Britain and terrorist acts in Egypt
If Britain did not consider its allies, Mubarak told Jenkins,"the difficult conversations we've been having will become far more difficult. We are raising a red flag." As if to emphasise the point Mubarak made to Jenkins, a month later BP began expressing its frustration with the Emirati demand for upfront payments for rights to operate some of the world biggest onshore oilfieds: Bu Hasa, Bab and Asab.
Sir John Jenkins during a speech at the Policy Exchange (Courtesy of Policy Exchange)
The Jenkins inquiry dragged on for a year and a half, dogged by the threat of legal action, undercut by MI6, who ruled out any connection between the Brotherhood in Britain and terrorist acts in Egypt. In the end the full report was unpublishable, and only a pale summary emerged in December 2015.
As the former director of public prosecution Ken Macdonald wrote: "Having foolishly agreed to humour Britain's friends in the Gulf by traducing participants in a democratic experiment that the oil kingdoms were certainly right to fear, Cameron may now be reluctant to announce substantial measures against the Muslim Brotherhood for fear of provoking their lawyers into bringing a judicial review to force the publication of a report whose unhelpful conclusions he would prefer to keep hidden."
Jenkins pleased no one. Cameron found that he could not proscribe the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation in the UK. The most his government could say was: "Aspects of Muslim Brotherhood ideology and tactics, in this country and overseas, are contrary to our values and have been contrary to our national interests and our national security."
That fell far short of pleasing the UAE, and yet without that what was the Jenkins inquiry all about?
A troubled relationship
Three years have passed. BP never did renew its partnership in oil concessions off the emirate's shores, which expired in March this year. Its competitors Total, Eni and others will take a share of the three licenses in Abu Dhabi.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (L), Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (C-L), Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (C-R), and UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (R) in Cairo on 5 July 2017 (AFP)
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt hauled Alistair Burt, the veteran foreign minister, over the coals. As Emirati mouthpiece, the National, reported: "The delegation warned Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, in a meeting this week that a failure to impose restraints on the activities of Qatar - and a range of front organisations - would have an impact on ties with the region."
The National claimed that Qatar had chosen a handful of locations for their intelligence operatives in Mayfair, London.
"There is puzzlement among Britain's allies over why this covert activity has not been checked by British counter-intelligence organisations. A source from one of the countries that took part in the meeting called into question the official assurances that Britain would not choose sides in the boycott of Qatar over its support for extremism and sheltering of terror suspects," The National wrote.
At roughly the same time, Hedges was arrested for spying. Hedges is now suing the UAE for his six-month detention.
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The Emirati relationship with Britain is very much a story of our times. A tiny, unpleasant police state throwing its weight around in a flabby, bloated Britain, which long ago privatised its foreign policy and is shrinking on the world stage.
And just remember one point. This happened under Blair, Cameron and present incumbent Theresa May - the prime ministers who, in contradistinction to the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, now vaunt their leadership qualities.
The UK-UAE alliances are now coming apart as a result of the killing last month of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. US military involvement in the Saudi and Emirati-led war in Yemen is coming under unprecedented pressure in the outgoing Congress, never mind what will happen in January when the incoming one arrives.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, is increasingly hard put to justify his continued backing of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who to all intents and purposes is bin Zayed's protege. In particular, Pompeo struggles to make the case that US President Donald Trump's Gulf allies are stable. Because as the Hedges case has shown, they indeed are not.
A new foreign policy which lessens the UK's dependence on the Gulf's rich menu of autocrats, ideologues and hegemons is sorely needed.
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan leaves after a working dinner with the French prime minister at the Hotel de Matignon in Paris on 21 November, 2018 (AFP)