The Duck of Minerva

What was behind the UAE’s detention of a UK graduate student

26 November 2018

Like everyone else, I’m still trying to catch up after the Thanksgiving holiday. So I have a quick, kind of speculative post this week.

It looks like the distressing saga of Matthew Hedges has finally been resolved. As I wrote about before, Hedges is a grad student in the UK who traveled to the UAE to conduct field work. After interviewing several subjects about UAE security policies, he was arrested and charged with espionage. He was recently been sentenced to life in prison, although the UAE just pardoned him.

There is a lot to figure out with this case–what it means for scholars working on the Persian Gulf, whether universities should still have relationships with the UAE, and (most crucially) how to secure Hedges’ release. But one angle I’ve been thinking about, and which I don’t think has been explained properly, is why did the UAE do this? Why did they detain a UK citizen, risking international criticism and condemnation?

I understand the immediate arrest (even if I think it is outrageous). The UAE is an authoritarian state that tries to keep strict control over its society. It is also increasingly worried about the threat posed by Qatar and Iran. So a foreigner asking question about its policies, and–as a result–encouraging open discussion about them would worry government officials. They’d respond to this concern by throwing him in jail.

But why was he in jail so long when the evidence against him was so flimsy? I have a few ideas:

  1. Incompetence: The initial arrest may have been the result of overzealous security officials, but the prolonged detention could have been due to confusion. It’s possible some in the UAE really did think he was a spy (although I’m skeptical). It’s more likely that they didn’t think this would be that big of a deal, misreading the situation. To be fair, they may not have been that far off base, since it looks like Saudi Arabia will face few consequences for its assassination of Jamal Khasoggi.
  2. Brinksmanship: The UAE has been on the defensive recently, due to its ongoing blockade of Qatar and its horrific war in Yemen (fighting alongside Saudi Arabia). The UK government has joined in international criticism of the latter. The UAE may have hoped to make it clear that they aren’t worried about angering the UK, pushing the situation as far as it would go without becoming a full-blown crisis. This may set a precedent for how they respond to international criticism over Yemen.
  3. Internal divisions: This is the explanation I’ve been leaning towards. While the UAE is an authoritarian state, there are different power centers. Moreover, the authorities are constantly afraid of running afoul of conservative Islamic sentiment, some of which is expressed in the courts. I’ve written about this in my book. The government may have realized this was a problem for them, but didn’t want to directly confront the courts. So they waited for the sentence to be passed then issued a pardon. This would suggest growing tensions within the country, even if they haven’t broken into the open yet.

Any thoughts? Anything I’ve missed?