Are UK-UAE relations on the rocks?

Jeremy Hunt. Source: NHS Confederation (via Flickr)

By Meg Graham

Matthew Hedges, 31-year-old Exeter born PhD student accused of being a “secret service operative” in the UAE, returned to the UK on the morning of November 27th subsequent to being issued a pardon from President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The decision to release Hedges follows intense campaigning from British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt after the shock sentencing of life in prison for “spying for or on behalf of” the UK government in Abu Dhabi, a UAE court declared.

Hedges spent approximately seven months in prison prior to his release and the case has captured an abundance of international attention. It is understood that the academic from Durham University had been situated in the UAE for six months, researching the effects of the Arab Spring on the Gulf States for his PhD work.

However, UAE sources claim Hedges ambitions were to “gather classified information on the UAE military and political role in Yemen” and to gain crucial national security secrets for “his paymasters.” The severity of Hedges’ sentencing is astounding with regards to the fact that the UAE have ultimately struggled to provide any appropriate evidence to justify the allegations of espionage.

The case holds some potential to result in ramifications for future UK-UAE relations and Middle Eastern Diplomacy in general that may take some time to heal. Current tensions pose a risk to losing a close trading partner and a leading political ally in the Gulf for the United Kingdom. An Emirati source has expressed, “this is a very peculiar case that has left scars on both sides.”

Growing concerns fester with regards to how this ally can be trusted and if other factors contributed to the prosecution; it is being questioned whether this is perhaps connected to the increasing disparity in opinion regarding the war in Yemen with the UAE-Saudi coalition? Or fuelled by bitterness at Jeremy Hunt’s treatment of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by refusing to consider the involvement of Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman? Or is this an isolated incident not influenced by other events at all?The treatment of Hedges however poses the question: is it time to re-evaluate foreign policy aims in the Middle East? Theresa May does not appear to think so and stands firmly by her statement, “Gulf security is our security and Gulf prosperity is our prosperity.”

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