From John Archer:
British academic’s trial raises questions about UK-UAE relations
18th October 2018, Issue 1,067.
Matthew Hedges, a post-graduate researcher studying for a PhD at Durham University in the the UK, has been accused by the UAE of spying for the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6. No evidence has yet been produced to back up the allegations, which his family strongly deny. Hedges has been held without previous charge for five months.
Advised by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth that they should adopt a media blackout, to allow for behind-the-scenes diplomacy to help obtain Matthew’s release, his family had previously asked that no mention be made of the case – a position that GSN and a number of other informed media have respected. This stance has changed with Hedges being brought to trial. British prime minister Theresa May was asked about the case in the House of Commons on 16 October, where she said the case had been raised with UAE officials “at the highest levels”.
GSN understands that British diplomatic activity may have increased of late – since Jeremy Hunt replaced Boris Johnson as foreign secretary – but Hedges seems not to have been a priority case. Sources also suggest that when British officials have raised the affair they have been told in no uncertain terms to drop the pressure.
The case is seen by many observers as a particularly worrying example of the growing intolerance of free speech and the constraints being placed on legitimate research in the Gulf region. This has become an issue of great concern to academics in the region and those looking on from outside. Hedges’ lengthy detention marks a new low in that process. Arrested on 5 May while trying to depart from Dubai International airport, Hedges had spent two weeks carrying out field research in the UAE for his doctorate. His work has focused on UAE foreign and security policy – sensitive topics, which the authorities would prefer were left unexamined. At Durham, Hedges’ supervisors include Dr Christopher Davidson, who has written several critical books and articles about the UAE.
Hedges had already conducted interviews outside the UAE – where his parents are resident – and had toured local think tanks and other sources conducting research. There is speculation that a local think tanker or academic reported his ‘suspicious’ activity to the authorities.
Hedges was not given any reason for his arrest; he has since been held in solitary confinement. His wife, Colombian-born Daniela Tejada, said 31 year-old Hedges had been kept in inhumane and degrading conditions and “his rights are violated on a daily basis.”
Hedges has been brought before court on a number of occasions in recent weeks, with the case most recently adjourned to 24 October. The outline of the charges against him has only emerged in the past few days; until then it had been assumed by many that he had become an unwitting pawn in the ongoing animosity between the UAE and Qatar.
The allegations around spying for MI6 throw a larger question mark over the state of relations between London and Abu Dhabi. Minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted cryptically on 12 October that “unusual and embarrassing revelations about friends and allies” had emerged since Hedges was arrested, without specifying what they were. He also claimed the UK government had proven reluctant to address matters through “common channels”, without describing what those matters were.
Among the high-profile Emiratis that have weighed in on the case is UAE University professor of political science Abdulkhaleq Abdulla – a very familiar figure in western academic circles – who tweeted that Hedges was “posing as an academic research [sic] to spy for a foreign government” and “does not deserve my sympathy”. Abdulla was himself arrested and detained early last year for making comments the authorities did not approve of; his insistence that Hedges is guilty even before going on trial has mystified observers (GSN 1,030/1).