Belfast Telegraph

Why the case of Matthew Hedges shows that international trade deals trump justice every time

By Lily Fletcher

The United Arab Emirates' (UAE) sentencing of Durham university PhD student Matthew Hedges to life imprisonment for spying on behalf of the British Government has sounded alarm bells and called into question the level of trust between the United Kingdom and one of its historically close allies.

The fallout may result in a downgrade in diplomatic ties between the two nations.

Hedges and his academic supervisor at Durham say that he was researching civil-military relations in the UAE since the Arab Spring.

His research is said to have touched on the thorny issue of the UAE's military presence in Yemen.

The Saudi-led war in Yemen is a controversial topic, because of the thousands of civilian casualties, hundreds of alleged war crimes and dire humanitarian situation.

The UAE is careful to uphold a positive international image and likely would not want to fuel the fire and incriminate itself further in such a devastating conflict.

Despite countless democratic allies, a modern facade and glossy veneer of openness, the UAE is notorious for forced confessions, unfair trials and little tolerance for freedom of speech.

The UAE alleges "espionage material" was found on Hedges' laptop and, since May this year, he has been detained in solitary confinement in an Abu Dhabi prison in degrading conditions.

His sentencing verdict was delivered during a five-minute court session without the presence of his lawyer.

Hedges denies the allegations against him, although Emirati prosecutors claim that he confessed while under questioning. The move by Emirati authorities to allege espionage and impose such a steep punishment on a British citizen might be viewed as a sign of the diminished value the nation places on its ongoing economic and diplomatic ties with the UK, preferring to reorient its alliances elsewhere.

This summer the UAE ramped up political, security and economic relations with Russia, signing a new declaration of strategic partnership.

However, Emirati state media has also been touting the opportunities for enhanced trade with the UK, post-Brexit. The UAE's ambassador to the UK, Sulaiman Al Mazroui, stated earlier this year that he firmly believes a "global Britain" is a key partner for the UAE.

Hedges' wife, Daniela Tejeda, on Thursday met Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who tweeted that evening: "I've just had a constructive conversation with UAE FM (foreign minister) Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed. I believe (and) trust he's working hard to resolve the situation asap. We've a close partnership with UAE, which will help us take things forward."

Despite the susceptibility to arbitrary detention, human rights abuses and skirmishes in the past involving the imprisonment of British citizens for not adhering to the country's strict laws, which are based on its moral code, the UAE has hitherto been considered a safe and desirable country for Brits to both visit and to relocate to.

A souring - or even severing - of ties between the nations could have a devastatingly negative effect on more than 100,000 British nationals living and working in the Gulf state.

The UK and UAE (formerly known as the Trucial States and under a British protectorate until 1971) have very deep and long-established political, security and economic ties, with a historically strong trading relationship.

Bilateral trade doubled between 2009 and 2016 and is now nearly £15bn.

US President Donald Trump's support for Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which evidence suggests was perpetrated by the Saudi state, demonstrates that in the current climate, trade and economics are valued above justice and human rights.

For whatever aim, the UAE is perhaps taking advantage of the instability of Britain's political and economic climate and the intense pressure on the Government to negotiate a deal getting it out of the European Union.

The UAE knows that at such uncertain times, the loss of an important and strategic economic partner is a great risk for any nation.

Belfast Telegraph

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