Seeking out investment from the super-wealthy United Arab Emirates (UAE), Boris Johnson was in Dubai last week where he jokingly referred to himself as the 'mayor of the eighth emirate'. Another joke from Boris was his comment that he would 'rather concentrate on business opportunities' than speak about human rights abuses while on the trip. The Mayor of London is either ignorant of, or uninterested in, the case of two Londoners who have been tortured while in a Dubai prison.
Londoners Grant Cameron and Karl Williams, along with Suneet Jeerh from Essex, have been in a Dubai prison since July 2012 after police claimed to have found them in possession of synthetic cannabis known as 'spice'. The three men say they have been regularly beaten, threatened with guns and subjected to electric shocks, allegations that have been backed up by a medical report from torture expert Dr. Frank Arnold.
Boris Johnson is by no means the first British politician to put trade first when it comes to the UAE. In February, London School of Economics (LSE) professor Dr. Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen was due to speak at an LSE-American University of Sharjah co-hosted conference until he arrived at Dubai airport where he was detained and denied entry for his 'non-constructive' views on Bahrain. The LSE promptly cancelled the conference as a lack of academic freedom was brought sharply into focus. David Willetts, Minister for Universities, visited Dubai shortly after this incident where he described the UAE as 'one of the liveliest centres for international universities'.
Willetts was more concerned with raising funds for universities than confronting the reality that in the UAE academic freedom is severely restricted and it is perhaps not the best place for British universities to be 'setting up'. Sadly, this kind of money-grabbing approach is not surprising when we build a complete picture of British politicians' engagement with the Emirates. David Miliband was paid $229,518 to act as foreign affairs advisor to the UAE government, lagging only slightly behind the $263,678 Gordon Brown was paid for four speeches he gave in the Gulf.
On April 30th the UAE's President, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is due to meet with the Queen and Prince Phillip at Windsor Castle before going onto meet with David Cameron at No. 10. Presumably the issue of tortured British citizens and comprised academic freedoms will not be on the table for discussion.
Indeed, while British royalty and politicians charm the autocratic ruler of the repressive Gulf state numerous Emirati judges, human rights lawyers and student leaders will be languishing in an Abu Dhabi prison. The ongoing 'fundamentally unfair' trial of 94 political activists, where allegations of torture have gone uninvestigated, will no doubt be off the agenda as every penny of investment is sought after.
In the heady days of early Arab Spring optimism David Cameron spoke of a 'responsibility to stand up against regimes that persecute their people'. Not so when a lucrative arms deal is on the table, however, with Britain poised to sell 60 Typhoon Jets to the Emirates worth several billion pounds.
When it comes to the UAE, British values whither when the temptation of untold riches is on offer. Certain politicians have grabbed all they can, be it for personal gain or departmental funds, and ignored abuses against British and Emirati citizens alike.
With Johnson happy to ignore the torture of citizens he is supposed to represent, Willetts keen to turn a blind eye to the compromising of academic freedoms and Cameron avoiding responsibilities he set himself, Sheikh Khalifa can be sure of a pretty easy ride when he comes to the UK. Instead, he should be questioned on why British citizens have been tortured, told that academic freedoms cannot be compromised for funding and criticized for imprisoning citizens calling for democratic reforms. Sadly, it seems almost certain that this won't be the case.