Upon first glance, it would not be wrong to categorise the prosecution and subsequent pardoning of Matthew Hedges, a British national and Durham PhD student, by the UAE, as bizarre - only in 1971 did the UAE cease to be a British protectorate, and even now the country enjoys close ties with the UK: their military is British trained, bilateral trade is thriving, and the nation homes 100,000 British expats. This relationship is reciprocal; Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the nation’s president and ruler of Abu Dhabi (the UAE’s largest and most powerful emirate) controls property in London worth approximately £1.2 billion.
In response to this, one might ask: why did the Emirati government arrest Hedges in the first place? And what then, after taking such a dramatic stance, motivated the government change tack? Considering that there is no evidence in the public domain that Hedges committed espionage, you could attribute his prosecution to authoritarian excess. Since the Arab Spring of 2011, in which several states in the region experienced revolutionary uprisings, the Emirati government has become increasingly intolerant towards supposedly subversive behaviour. Nicholas McGeehan, a former UAE researcher at the Human Rights Watch, in an interview with the Middle East Eye, dismissed the notion that the country retains a independent judiciary. and has described it as a “police state”.
On the basis that Hedges was an academic carrying out research that the government may have mistakenly deemed as a threat, the hypothesis makes sense – however, an outstanding peculiarity remains; on October 29, after several months of solitary confinement, Hedges was released on bail, suggesting that the Supreme Court were close to accepting the case for his innocence. How can you explain the life sentence handed down three weeks later?
Consider the political context: while London’s seeming dismissal of the emergence of political Islam in the region and vocal apprehension towards the nation’s embargo of Qatar had already soured the mood, the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, publicly presented to the Saudi Arabian crown prince a draft UN resolution. This resolution demanded that the Gulf coalition lift the blockade of Yemen during a tour of the region. A step too far? Crucial to this context is that, under the de-facto power of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE has been a keen participant in Yemen’s civil war, and as a result, he likely also took offence at Hunt’s unwelcome tonal shift - after all, both nations are used to the British government turning a blind eye to their malign activities. Conveniently for the Emirati crown prince, he happened to be under possession of a potent bargaining chip which could be used to put London on notice, in the form of Matthew Hedges – hence his sentencing.
Where Abu Dhabi miscalculated was in their assumption that London would respond with indifference, and privately seek a mutually beneficial solution to the scenario. In an age where the extrajudicial killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives looms large on the conscience of Western liberal democracies, and various governments have subsequently been forced to re-evaluate their unconditional support for the authoritarian Gulf axis, conventional political logic no longer applies.
The Trump administration could afford to expend the political capital to publicly exonerate the Saudi crown prince, because their foreign policy strategy (being the isolation of Iran) hinges on his support. In British politics, however, where the leadership of the opposition flaunts a flagrantly anti-Saudi line on foreign policy that commands considerable popular support, dismissing the imprisonment of a British national by a state that comprehensively resembles Saudi Arabia, would appear too sycophantic for any government with a shred of dignity to bear.
Taking this context into account, Jeremy Hunt’s assertion in a statement that the case would “have repercussions for the relationship between the two countries” was necessary – and has proved effective, considering that Hedges’ pardon came days later. Now for the million dollar question: is this episode indicative of Britain, in the long-term, revoking its unconditional backing for the actions of the Sunni Gulf axis? I wouldn’t bet against it.