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The Dark Side of Dubai: Why the UK Must Stop Arming and Supporting the Emirate Regime

10/06/2016 15:19 | Updated 10 June 2016

As the UAE authorities tighten their grip on dissent, they are building an even closer political and military relationship with the UK.

For many around the world, the UAE conjures up images of tall futuristic buildings, seven star hotels and oversized shopping complexes.

However, behind the glamorous façade and expensive PR campaign, there lies an increasingly authoritarian police state that contrasts greatly the flamboyant image it likes to project. It is one that spends huge sums of money on weapons, while using its political and military relationships to legitimise its abuses.

Last week, Emirate security forces were accused of operating a surveillance programme targeted at journalists, human rights activists and other critics of the regime. The programme has seen campaigners like Rori Donaghy, a journalist and founder of the Emirates Centre for Human Rights, being monitored and targeted by malicious spyware.

This attack on democracy is only the latest in a long campaign by Emirate authorities to silence critics and quash dissent.

In 2011 the 'Arab Spring' uprising fuelled an outbreak of protest. The street movements we associate with Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia did not take place in UAE, but a number of important voices called for change.

The Emirate authorities refused to listen. A petition calling for reform was met with the dismantling of organisations that had supported it, the detainment of high profile signatories and a number of campaigners being stripped of their citizenship.

2014 saw the introduction of new 'anti-terror' laws, further criminalising protest under the guise of fighting terrorism. Every act prohibited by the new laws is treated as a terrorist offence, which a number of advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, believe could lead to terror charges and extended prison sentences for peaceful protest.

The crackdown has gone hand in hand with new and far-reaching cybercrime laws, which have seen threats of deportation for those that have spoken out. One law in particular, which bans websites and communications that 'damage national unity', could give authorities carte blanche to suppress dissent.

The conditions in prison are terrible, with human rights group Reprieve finding that 75% of detainees report police torture. One high profile victim, UK national David Haigh, recently returned to the UK. Recounting his abuse, Haigh said "I was punched around, I was hit, I was tasered. People attempted to sexually abuse me. I now have a problem with my eyes. You are constantly kept in the dark...it damages your eyes."

Regardless of its abuses, the UAE government has focused on building its global brand and military partnerships. It has played a key role in the destructive Saudi-led bombardement of Yemen, which has killed over 6,400 people. It has also reinforced its ties to a number of Western countries, enjoying high-profile meetings with world leaders like David Cameron.

In the UK, it has spent millions of pounds on lobbying companies, as well as organising junkets for impressionable MPs. The political back-scratching has had lucrative results, with UK ministers establishing a secretive unit in Whitehall to link Emirate officials to UK decision-makers.

The political relationship is underpinned by an equally cosy military one, fuelled by arms fairs and bloated military spending.

The UAE may be a small state, but it is one of the five largest arms importers in the world. In 2014 alone it spent over £9 billion on the military, and has maintained this level of inflated spending despite financial problems and fluctuating oil prices.

Throughout 2013, the UK government played a central role in lobbying for the Emirate military to buy Eurofighter jets. The campaign was unsuccessful, but it enjoyed the full support of Whitehall and included representations from David Cameron, Philip Hammond, and high-level civil servants.

Despite the short-term setback, relations have improved, with £172 million of arms sales in 2015 alone, and the UK supporting an arms fair targeted at the Dubai Police last October and the Dubai Airshow one month later.

There will always be a social and cultural relationship between the people of the UK and the UAE, not least because 100,000 UK nationals live in the Emirates. But that can not be used to justify the arms sales and uncritical political support that is given to the dictatorship.

The constitution on which the UAE was founded commits it to becoming a "comprehensive, representative, democratic regime." Since then, Dubai may have become a global business hub and a playground for the rich and powerful, but the march to modernity has seen backwards steps in human rights.

Now more than ever, if the UK government really has any influence or leverage over the Emirate rulers, then it must use it to call for real and meaningful change, not to sell weapons and legitimise the further concentration of powers and erosion of human rights.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

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