Middle East Monthly Roundup: November

It’s time for our monthly summary of the biggest stories in the Middle East over the last month, where we explain why they matter and what they mean for the region. Here’s the biggest story from November:

British academic Matthew Hedges was sentenced then pardoned by the UAE for spying

What happened

British academic Matthew Hedges was arrested in May when attempting to leave Dubai and charged with spying for the British government. He was detained for the subsequent six months, much of which was spent in solitary confinement, and he was reportedly interrogated repeatedly without a lawyer. According to Hedges and his family, he was performing field research for his PhD into Emirati foreign policy after the Arab Spring.

After six months of remaining silent, his wife and academics from Durham, where he was studying, spoke out to the media about his situation. The UAE charged Hedges with spying in November, claiming that he signed a confession and admitted in a video confession that he was working as a Captain for MI6. These claims were quickly snubbed, as Hedges does not speak Arabic (the language the confession document was written in) and no such rank exists within the British intelligence services.

Just one week later, after pleas from the British government for his release and intervention from the British Foreign Minister, Hedges was pardoned and returned to the UK. Despite the pardon, the UAE maintains that he is a spy.

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Why it matters

The UAE is a close regional ally of the UK, but that relationship is coming increasingly under scrutiny and criticism because of the UAE’s human rights record and their involvement in the bloody civil war in Yemen. The case of Matthew Hedges has put further strain on that relationship.

The UAE has traditionally relied on the UK to protect it from external security threats. But the fact that it took the British government seven months to secure Hedges’ release – and even then, with a pardon rather than an acquittal – suggests that the balance of power between the two countries has shifted.

In recent years, the UAE’s staggering wealth has allowed it to become a valuable trading power for Britain, making it increasingly difficult for the UK to put political pressure on Abu Dhabi in cases such as this. Some would also argue that this case demonstrates the current weakness of the British government as it scrambles to secure  international trade deals post-Brexit.

What it means for the region

Matthew Hedges’ case has received a lot of media attention over the past month, particularly in the wake of the shocking murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Academics across the UK signed a letter demanding his release, stating their fear for academic freedom in the region.

Meanwhile, just a few days after his release, a public prosecutor in Italy named five Egyptian security officials as suspects in an investigation into the brutal murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student of Camridge University who was killed in Egypt in 2016 while researching for his PhD. He was researching independent trade unions, a politically controversial subject in the country, and his death was widely suspected to have been carried out at the hands of the country’s security services.

That that these three cases are in the news at the same time presents a stark warning to academics, journalists and researchers in the region of what can happen when you ask controversial questions and dare to criticise authoritarian regimes.

Useful articles:

The shifting power at the heart of the UK’s ‘spy’ row (BBC/Chatham House)

 

Also in the news:

 

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