British foreign policy is turning a blind eye to rights abuses

John Kampfner
February 19, 2021, The Times

It is the destination of choice for influencers wanting to top up their tans; it is a prized purchaser of British weaponry. It is at the centre of post-Brexit trade plans.

The United Arab Emirates is also a serial abuser of human rights.

The dilemma is not new. Nor are the double standards. When Robin Cook embarked on his “ethical dimension” to foreign policy in 1997, he was told not to tamper with the arms industry. Britain depends on the UAE (with its headquarters in Abu Dhabi but best known for the glitz of Dubai) as a customer, investor, winter sun destination and intelligence hub for the Middle East.

In a turbulent region, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are crucial to the UK, US and wider West. The mistreatment of foreign workers, absence of political rights and free expression, alongside abduction, imprisonment and murder of critics, are accompanied by an embarrassed shrug. The Trump administration smothered the two regimes with its warm embrace. Both have been fighting a proxy war against their arch-enemy Iran in Yemen, in which over 100,000 people have died, thanks in large part to Western weaponry. The UAE has signed a landmark deal with Israel. It is possible that the Saudis could follow suit.

Unlike the Emiratis, the Saudis make little attempt to burnish their image. Some of their more egregious actions, such as the assassination and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist, occasionally forces Western governments to do more than go through the motions.

In non-Covid-19 times, even in Covid-19 times, Dubai welcomes millions of tourists to its shopping malls, theme parks, five-star hotels and endless sun. It offers many pleasures — as long as the visitor doesn’t inquire too much. The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, known affectionately as “Sheikh Mo” to the huge expat community, has built an extraordinary playground and powerhouse. With oil reserves dwindling, he diversified his country’s economy with remarkable success. It nearly went bust in the crash in 2007-08, but that turned out to be a blip.

It is also a fascinating example of what good public relations and lobbying can achieve. The first of two abductions of his daughters, Princess Shamsa, took place back in 2000, during Tony Blair’s first term, on the streets of Cambridge. A recent High Court judgment noted that the Foreign Office had refused to co-operate with the investigation on grounds of protecting national interests.

This week’s BBC documentary, showing Princess Latifa pleading to be let out of her “jail villa”, will be seriously inconvenient not just for the UAE, but for Boris Johnson too. In a gushing piece only last week in the Gulf Times, Britain’s consul general extolled “the long history of close ties and friendships”.

Pointing to Dubai Expo, which is due to begin in October (postponed for a year by the pandemic), he declared it would provide a “golden opportunity to showcase the UK and Dubai provides the perfect stage. Particularly as this is the first major global event since the UK left the EU”.

And that’s the point. It may well be that the Queen is encouraged to keep her distance from her horse-breeding friend Sheikh Mo. What matters far more is money and strategic alliances. In his forthcoming budget, Rishi Sunak is expected to announce an investment programme in biotech and life sciences, backed by one of the UAE’s largest sovereign wealth funds. There will be more to come as “Global Britain” chooses its friends.