Like many others, I heaved a sigh of relief when I learned that Matthew Hedges, the Durham University PhD student who was disgracefully imprisoned for six months in Abu Dhabi and then sentenced to life imprisonment on a trumped up charge of spying for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), had been pardoned and allowed to return home. But I had already begun to wonder how on earth he could have been arrested and thrown into prison on such a charge in the first place. All right, his research topic was in a politically sensitive area; however, many scholars conduct investigations of this sort in authoritarian regimes and are left undisturbed; some are even assisted in the hope that they might return home with a more favourable view of their hosts. I speak from personal experience of research in apartheid South Africa, also, as it happens, as a Durham University PhD student in the same department as Matthew Hedges. What is even more surprising about his treatment in the Emirates, however, is that he was accused of working for SIS.
This accusation is surprising for two reasons. First, because as pointed out by Martin Chuvlov, Middle East Correspondent of The Guardian and winner of the Orwell prize for journalism in 2015, the UK has been one of the closest allies of the UAE for a long time, not least in ‘security and intelligence matters.’ (According to the London Diplomatic List, as at 7 November 2018, more than half of the UAE’s 33-strong embassy to the UK consists of military and ‘police’ attachés.) Will Tricks, since 2014 one of the closest aides of the Emirati ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayhed (‘MbZ’), is a former SIS station chief in Abu Dhabi. So why was the case ever allowed to become such a major diplomatic incident? Second, in his outstanding book, Intelligence Power in Peace and War, published in 1996, Michael Herman, a former senior production manager at GCHQ, revealed that there was ‘a tacit professional recognition that [intelligence] cooperation is not necessarily a bar to continued targeting of each other’s government, defence forces and the like’ (p. 211). Therefore, even were Hedges to have been an agent run by an SIS officer in the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the professional sin was hardly a great one and, from a friend, should have incurred no more than a rap on the knuckles.
The explanation for the brutal treatment of Matthew Hedges – apart from the natural reflexes of an authoritarian regime that pays no more than lip service to academic freedom – probably has two parts. First, a desire on the part of the UAE to show that it won’t be pushed around; the shock announcement of the life sentence came shortly after pressure was being mounted on the UAE-Saudi axis to halt air strikes in Yemen. Second, a weakening of the UK-UAE relationship on Theresa May’s watch, partly because personal ties count for the Emirati, reports Chuvlov, and MbZ doesn’t get on with May in the way that he did with David Cameron, and – more worryingly – partly because Britain, paralysed by Brexit and probably doomed to leave the EU next March, is already seen by the UAE, as well as others, as an increasingly irrelevant player in international affairs. (Compare the risible conclusion of James Rogers, calculated via a quantitative analysis of 35 ‘indicators’, that the UK is ‘the world’s second most capable country’ after the United States.) Britain will soon cease to be ‘a leading member of the EU’ and also be economically weaker, developments that will also call into question its continuing entitlement to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. As the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon MacDonald, said on ‘Inside the Foreign Office’, the very good recently broadcast BBC2 television series, Brexit means that Britain will have ‘to work harder’ to get its way in the future, which also means working harder – and with fewer resources – to bring home citizens in distress abroad. (Ponder that, Brexit supporters.) The UAE is also the sort of regime to which Britain will have to bend the knee even further in order to secure post-Brexit transition period trade deals. In this connection, it’s interesting that on the same TV programme just mentioned, Britain’s ambassador to Brazil reported that Brazilians were quite pleased with Brexit because Britain would be so desperate for trade deals that they would be bound to get good terms from London. So much for Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit ‘sunlit uplands’ for ‘Global Britain’.