Nesrine Malik writes: On a Cambridge University panel on the future of the Arab spring late last year, I nodded and agreed wholeheartedly as a fellow panellist criticised the west’s complicity with fallen Arab dictators, citing the sale of arms to Middle Eastern despots as an indicator of the west’s apathy towards poor human rights records in the region. After rapturous applause, a retired British diplomat in the audience raised his hand, and politely proceeded to dampen the speaker’s moral indignation by stating that the UK was in a difficult situation. Diplomacy, he said, was a far less black and white affair. He pointed out that lucrative military and oil contracts sold to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf provided, especially in a time of recession, both much-needed revenue for the state and employment opportunities in the UK.
He acknowledged that human rights abuses in an ideal world should be a primary concern for the west, but said that there were more immediate needs that subordinate such crimes. He even went on to suggest that selling arms, and generally putting trade first in this context, was patriotic – fulfilling a country’s duty to look out for the interest of its citizens. Put starkly, would you take food off British tables to uphold a moral cause abroad?
The extremes of this diplomatic tension occurred in stark uncomfortable proximity this week. The human rights charity Reprieve yesterday claimed that three British tourists arrested for the possession of a synthetic form of cannabis, who have been in custody in the UAE for seven months, had been tortured. Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, the father of one of the three detainees detailed the extent of the mistreatment they endured. A spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) confirmed it had been providing “consular assistance” and added the usual “The FCO takes all allegations of mistreatment and torture extremely seriously”. If this is how seriously the British foreign office takes the alleged torture of its own citizens, spare a thought for those non-western prisoners and expats without such representation.
Meanwhile, it was announced two days ago that the UAE had purchased $1.4bn worth of military defence contracts, including drones, from the US. Last year, David Cameron visited the country peddling Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets in a deal apparently worth over £3bn. [Continue reading…]