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Cop28 in Dubai: A convenient cover for state repression

Will western media and politicians fail to stand up for human rights in the UAE, just as they did in Egypt?
The Dubai skyline is pictured on 20 June 2022 (AFP)
The Dubai skyline is pictured on 20 June 2022 (AFP)

One of the oddities of this month’s Cop27 climate conference was the paucity of western media coverage of Egypt’s brutal human rights record. By virtue of his being a UK citizen, the cause of jailed activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah secured a certain level of awareness, and that is a good thing. He is a hugely courageous fighter who deserves far more than the tepid support he and his family have received from the British government. 

The UAE surely knows that climate change is a great instrument to weaponise 

But Fattah is just one among an estimated 60,000 political prisoners detained in awful conditions in the complex of prisons that the Egyptian regime uses to crush dissent. And while his hunger strike and decision to stop drinking water - which could have led to his death - focused the media’s attention, there has been scarcely a mention of the thousands of other unnamed prisoners. Or the millions more who are denied basic freedoms in one of the world’s most repressive states.

Contrast the dearth of media coverage of human rights concerns in Egypt with the storm of criticism that has descended on Qatar amid the 2022 World Cup. It was, perhaps, inevitable that one of the world’s biggest sporting events, taking place in a Muslim Middle Eastern state for the first time, would attract rigorous attention - some of it fair, some of it most assuredly not.

And next year, Dubai will host Cop28. The UAE surely knows that climate change is a great instrument to weaponise, providing a comfortable cover for authoritarian regimes to hide human rights abuses while presenting a facade of concern and commitment to tackling global environmental crises.

Critical players

Ahead of Cop27 in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh, the UAE’s foreign minister asserted that next year, his own country would “lead an ambitious, inclusive and solutions-oriented approach in the 2023 global climate summit”, according to a report in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. And this isn’t empty posturing: state-owned Gulf energy companies, chief among them the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and Saudi Aramco, are critical players in the drive to achieve net zero. The world needs these companies to succeed.

So, will traditional western media outlets who have worked themselves into a lather about Qatar and the World Cup pay much attention to human rights abuses in the UAE? I am not a betting man, but if I were, I wouldn’t put any money on it.

A police robot stands at attention in downtown Dubai in May 2017 (AFP)
A police robot stands at attention in downtown Dubai in May 2017 (AFP)

The UAE is one of the most heavily surveilled states on earth. Dubai alone boasts tens of thousands of highly sophisticated cameras that constantly monitor its citizens in the public domain. Rigorously enforced cybercrime laws are used to police the internet to safeguard against anti-regime sentiments.

And then there are those who have been jailed: human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, economist Nasser bin Ghaith, dozens of dissidents in the “UAE 94” case, and many more, including Alia Abdulnoor, who was imprisoned over raising funds for women and children caught in the Syrian civil war.

She was reportedly denied cancer treatment and died chained to a hospital bed.

Hidden protests

What the UAE lacks in sheer numbers of political prisoners when compared with Egypt, it more than makes up for this with the cruel and barbarous manner in which it abducts, detains, tortures, and sentences human rights activists, ordinary citizens, and regime critics.

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As we emerge from Cop27, where international protesters were hidden away in Sharm el-Sheikh and elsewhere in the country, and climate activists were arrested, we can look ahead to the next incarnation of this event in the UAE - where we are told, tolerance flourishes. 

Will Dubai allow climate protests in city streets, or virtual protests online? Will the Emirati claim of tolerance be tested in any meaningful way? We know the answer, just as we know that all those held in prisons, serving long and politically-motivated sentences, will not receive anything approximating justice. 

The question that remains is: will western media and politicians go along with this game, buying the line that was so easily accepted at Sharm el-Sheikh? Will they allow the climate-change agenda to become, yet again, a convenient cover for viciously repressive authoritarian regimes? I fear I already know the answer.

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

Bill Law is the editor of Arab Digest. An award winning journalist, he reported extensively from the Middle East and North Africa for the BBC. In addition to numerous radio documentaries, his films have focused on the Arab Spring and its aftermath. He has also reported from West and Central Africa, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Before leaving the BBC in 2014, Mr Law was the corporation’s Gulf analyst. He now runs TheGulfMatters.com, providing analysis and journalism focusing on the Gulf states and the wider Middle East. He [email protected]
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