THE BLOG
23/01/2019 11:16 GMT | Updated 23/01/2019 11:16 GMT

Why The UK Must Not Sacrifice Free Speech In The Pursuit Of Free Trade

As the United Kingdom stumbles toward an unruly and chaotic Brexit the country becomes increasingly desperate to do business with regimes with poor human rights records and little regard for fair business practices

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The United Arab Emirates may have released Matthew Hedges but there has been no such luck for other victims of human rights abuses in the Gulf State.

As the United Kingdom stumbles toward an unruly and chaotic Brexit the country becomes increasingly desperate to do business with regimes with poor human rights records and little regard for fair business practices.

Peter Estlin, the Lord Mayor of London, has been to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates this month to sniff out the UK’s chances of trading in the Gulf as we turn our backs on the likes of ridiculously unsuitable trading partners like France and Germany – after all they only have advantages like geographical proximity, cultural alignment, similar values, rule of law, etc.

He said: “My message to our partners in the UAE and the wider Gulf is one of optimism and ambition for 2019. While Brexit and economic diversification provide food for thought, they also offer significant opportunities, especially with emerging areas of financial services now ripe for closer collaboration.

“The UK and the UAE already have a deep and vibrant relationship. The time is right for our two countries to be bold and realise the full potential of what we can offer each other.”

It’s all about free trade with scant regard for free speech. Let us remind ourselves the sort of regimes we are cosying up to.

Former Leeds United FC managing director David Haigh was arrested in Dubai after being accused of fraud in March 2014. A charge he denied. He was in prison for 22 months during which time he claims he was repeatedly tortured and abused. He said he “faced the darkest ever moments a human never should face”. His allegations are being investigated by the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit. He told the Guardian: “The UK still encourages firms to invest in Emirati companies with the implicit assumption that they face fair business conditions. Again, the judicial situation makes it a highly risky country to do business with.”

Academic and economist Dr Nasser Bin Gaith is currently on hunger strike in a UAE jail. In March 2017 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for critical comments he made online about human rights violations in the UAE and Egypt. His current condition is unknown but Amnesty International and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights are extremely concerned about his well-being.

Ahmed Mansoor is another human rights campaigner serving a 10-year prison sentence for dissent. He was convicted of publishing “false information, rumours and lies about the UAE” which would damage the country’s “social harmony and unity”. His appeal against the sentence was denied last month.

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said: “Ahmed Mansoor’s only ‘crime’ was to express his peaceful opinions on social media, and it is outrageous that he is being punished with such a heavy prison sentence. This is a final verdict and cannot be appealed.

Let’s not forget that the Lord Mayor also went to Kuwait.

Marsha Lazareva’s is a salutary tale about the difficulty of doing business in the Gulf when the odds are stacked against you. She ran a company in Kuwait, the Port Fund, and fell foul of the authorities. She now resides in the Soulabaiya prison where she has been since April of last year sentenced to 10 years hard labour convicted of corruption.

Her dispute has caught the attention of the House of Lords in the UK with Lords Cashman, Collins and Carlile on her side.

In The Times, Lord Carlile said: “Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.

“When Ms Lazareva was arrested, she and her lawyers were not shown any documents relied upon for the allegations of crime made against her - what in the UK is known as ‘pre-interview disclosure’. This would not be so bad if she or her lawyers later had been given full disclosure of evidence for trial purposes, but that has not happened. There is a strong suspicion that some documents relied upon by the prosecution have been forged, by alteration to her disadvantage.

“Kuwait is an ally of the UK, generally not seen as a rogue State with a fragile and unfair legal system. Attempts from around the world to remedy the defects in the Lazareva case have, so far, fallen on deaf ears. It is to be hoped that the Kuwait legal system will now take notice.”

We have even witnessed the intervention of Neil Bush, son of recently deceased George Bush and brother of George W Bush, writing letters concerning $496m of Port Fund money that lies in a frozen bank account in the UAE - despite Kuwait calling for the money to be paid back to investors. The release of the money should in normal circumstances lead to the release of Ms Lazareva as the cash is material to her conviction, suggests Lord Carlile. Bush says the dispute is big enough to threaten the future international relations of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

So even the Gulf states that we are trying to do business with cannot effectively do business with one another. Only the farce that is Brexit could have led us to this undignified position of obsequious supplicant. Could this be further from Brexiteer aims of taking back control?