The UAE is Saudi Arabia's—and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's—strongest backers. Why then, does the UAE not face any scrutiny for its whitewashing of MBS, and its own egregious human rights violations?

Saudi Arabia has earned condemnation for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, war crimes in Yemen and for its status as an unapologetically authoritarian state. 

Its close ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), carries out reprehensible violations on a daily basis while receiving far less criticism than its Gulf neighbour, as it projects a more progressive image to the world.

A young but increasingly powerful force in the region, the UAE is often portrayed as a glamorous, modernised haven for touristic luxury, and where expats seek to gain wealth.

Behind this positive smokescreen lurks a highly autocratic regime which disregards human rights, both domestically and abroad.

People underestimate the UAE’s capabilities to commit violations compared to Saudi Arabia – a state usually seen as nothing but oppressive, which caused a global stir after ties to murdering Washington Post columnist and Saudi national Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Western governments including Britain, France and the United States have demanded a Saudi response to Khashoggi’s death.

Not only is the UAE complicit in whitewashing Saudi Arabia’s ties to Khashoggi’s murder, but it has also committed less-mentioned abuses of its own. 

On May 5, Emirati security detained 31-year-old British PhD student Matthew Hedges who was leaving from Dubai airport and has since been held in solitary confinement in what is termed “inhumane” conditions.

UAE authorities charged Hedges with “spying for a foreign state,” claiming his research – focused on post-Arab Spring security policies, was a “cover” for surveillance work for the British government, and that he “came under the guise of an academic researcher.”  

Currently, only academics and human rights organisations have criticised Hedges’ detention. Exeter and Durham universities in the UK warned in a statement: “Matt is suffering from significant health issues after more than five months in detention,” while over 100 academics worldwide signed a letter condemning the decision.

While news of this erupted around the same time as the Khashoggi case, there has been a far weaker outcry, especially from Western governments who have given it no attention. Even Britain has so far ignored this harsh treatment of its own citizen.

Hedges is not the only one to have suffered under the Emirati regime. Numerous foreigners in the UAE have been detained and tortured in Emirati prisons, according to London-based Al Araby TV.

Among many other cases, activist Ahmed Mansour in May received a ten-year prison sentence and 1 million Emirati Dirham ($270,000) fine for ‘offensive’ social media posts. 

In another blow to academic freedom, prominent Emirati lecturer Nasser bin Ghaith was also given a ten-year sentence in March for peacefully criticising the regime, initially abducted by security in 2015.

Corruption is rife within the justice system, as UAE courts are often influenced by the demands of executive authorities and state security officials, leading to an authoritarian regime lacking the genuine rule of law.

A testament to this—and possibly the most shocking violation on record—was the case of the wealthy Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, a member of UAE's ruling family.

Nahyan was caught on tape torturing an Afghan man who he claimed owed him money. He was acquitted even after being caught on tape, "shooting at the man, beating him with a plank with protruding nails, electrocuting him, setting him on fire, pouring salt into his bleeding wounds and eventually having him driven over with a vehicle."

Ironically, the man who released the video footage was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison for a blackmail plot. 


While Riyadh attracts far more criticism for domestic abuses, coming under scrutiny for a seemingly failing ‘reform’ program, the UAE’s crushing of any minor dissent receives hardly any attention in comparison.

These abuses do not stop at home; they extend into other territories under the UAE’s expansionist vision - which has acquired it the nickname ‘little Sparta’.

Saudi Arabia also receives the most blame for Yemen’s war and vast humanitarian crisis, owing to its devastating bombing campaign, and is under increasing global pressure for its actions. The UAE’s almost equally harmful role is seldom condemned.  

To achieve its political ambitions in Yemen, which include dividing Yemen and creating a friendly southern state, the UAE has trained and supported a range of militias and mercenaries. For much of the war, these forces have run prisons in the south, torturing Yemeni detainees using horrific methods such as spit-roasting prisoners across fire (known as “the grill”) and sexual abuses.

Despite Amnesty International, HRW and the Associated Press (AP) confirming these abuses—and drawings and letters from detainees evidencing the grim reality within UAE-backed prisons—it has received almost no mention from Western governments. 

In fact, a US Pentagon spokesperson  outright claimed that the US has not seen any “credible evidence” of abuses.

To justify its presence in Yemen’s south, the UAE says it runs a counter-terrorism mission against Yemen’s Al Qaeda branch known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which boasts a strong presence in the country.

These claims are dubious however as the UAE has direct and indirect ties to AQAP. 

AP reported that the UAE has “cut deals” with AQAP, giving them cash and weapons to leave certain territories, and has even integrated Al Qaeda fighters into their forces. The UAE has also financed militant factions linked to Al Qaeda, such as a Salafi faction in Taiz – on America’s counterterrorism list for Al Qaeda ties.

The UAE, not Saudi Arabia, has also spearheaded the controversial attack on the Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah, risking a worse humanitarian crisis as most of Yemen's aid comes through there.

While Saudi Arabia has caused significant outrage for interfering in other countries' affairs, including reportedly abducting Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al Hariri last year, the UAE stands accused of repeatedly aiming to sabotage the politics of other numerous states, such as Somalia and Tunisia.

Awareness of Emirati abuses is growing among some media outlets and NGOs. Yet it must increase to influence Western political figures, who should stop turning a blind eye to the UAE’s actions if they are to be consistent in condemning human rights abuses and war crimes.

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