The ‘spy’ sentenced to life in prison in the UAE could have been me

Me, Jessica Hill, at the Facebook Middle East HQ. This is their Arabic majlis-style room, which in a

Me, Jessica Hill, at the Facebook Middle East HQ. This is their Arabic majlis-style room, which in a sense, sums up my feelings about how the UAE is trying to evolve as a country - topsy turvy, trying hard to stand out and attract attention yet also remain true to their heritage. - Credit: Archant

These days, I make my living as the business writer for the East Anglian Daily Times. But for seven years until the summer of 2017, I was a freelance journalist living in Abu Dhabi, regularly reporting on news in the UAE for the main English newspaper out there - The National - and also on occasion under pen names for national newspapers in the UK.

Abu Dhabi from the top of a skyscraper

Abu Dhabi from the top of a skyscraper - Credit: Archant

When I returned to the UK with my family to set up a home in Essex, I was then asked to the latest edition of a book ‘UAE - Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture’, which was a no-holds-barred guide to culture in the UAE.

The Briton Matthew Hedges has just sentenced to life in prison in Abu Dhabi for probing too deeply into how the country operates.

I realise now that if I had written the book under my own name while still living in the UAE, it is very likely that like Mr Hedges, I too would have ended up in jail.

The UAE doesn’t take kindly to criticism, however well-intended.

Me, Jessica Hill, in our Archant office

Me, Jessica Hill, in our Archant office - Credit: Archant

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I have been watching the case of Mr Hedges very closely this week, as I suspect have the vast majority of the 120,000 Britons who currently reside in the UAE.

My phone has been pinging all morning with messages from friends in Abu Dhabi who are scared that a political spat between the UK and the UAE could lead to them being expelled from the country, as was the case for Qataris when the UAE fell out with Qatar last year.

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Although this morning on Radio Four’s Today programme, Mr Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, accused the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office of “stepping on eggshells instead of taking a firm stance”, in fact, the strong tone of the words voiced by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt since the sentencing - saying that he was “deeply shocked and disappointed” and that the verdict was “not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom” - is quite unprecedented.

British people living in the UAE get themselves into trouble with the law all the time, mostly for road-rage skirmishes or getting too drunk in public. But most of the time, the British government prefers to look the other way, at least publicly, even in cases where the Briton in question appears to be innocent and when a confession was extracted in Arabic, and under duress.

Although it might be tempting for people to draw parallels between Mr Hedges’ plight and that of the charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was also accused of spying for the British government, but in Iran, it would be a mistake to do so because the UAE and Iran are very different.

Unlike Iran, which remains a secretive and hostile country, Britain has established significant business interests in the UAE which are very much at stake if the political divisions between the UK and the UAE widen.

British retail chains such as Marks and Spencer, Debenhams and Next have a footprint in almost all of the country’s infamous shopping malls, British private schools operate several sister schools there and hundreds of British companies are involved in infrastructure and oil and gas projects across the UAE.

Many homegrown Suffolk businesses have expanded out into the UAE in recent years, lured by low taxes and chance to trade with a population with one of the highest expendable incomes in the world.

Earlier this year, the Bury St Edmunds-based tea and coffee merchant Paddy & Scott’s opened a distribution hub in Dubai, and the Ipswich-based company Superyachts, Tenders & Toys have royal clientele in the Gulf. And of course, Newmarket has established links with Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.

While I’m no espionage expert, it seems unlikely to me that Mr Hedges really was spying. While the country’s business landscape has opened up to foreign interests, the government is still very closely guarded and secretive, and any Westerner who starts asking uncomfortable questions related to its military, as Mr Hedges did for his PhD research, is bound to set alarm bells ringing.

One article I wrote during my time in Abu Dhabi was about a group of Emirati military officers who managed to scale Mount Everest. One of the men I interviewed was a young, bright and well-spoken high-level member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family. In the UK, if Prince Harry was to climb Everest, the media would have a field day with it. But I was forbidden from reporting on this brave young man’s royal status.

In order to set up a base in the UAE, unless they’re based in one of the country’s ‘free trade zones’, British companies must have an Emirati business partner on board, and that puts British businessmen and women in a precarious position should political relations between the UK and the UAE go sour because the local business partner could potentially then be allowed to keep the business.

The British government’s bargaining position is weak because the Abu Dhabi rulers know full well the chaos being caused by Brexit uncertainty, and that the British need their global trading partners now more than ever.

The UAE government also has vested interests in the UK - in London, not only do wealthy Emiratis own sizeable chunks of real estate, but they have invested in Emirates Stadium, the Emirates Air Line cable car, DP World London Gateway, various renewable energy and of course Manchester City football club, Questions could be asked about the future of these investments if UAE-UK relations freeze over.

A trusted friend of mine who has close links with the Abu Dhabi royal family once gave me advice, which I have never forgotten. When you interview Emirati people and an uncomfortable truth is revealed, you can only report on it if there is a way to do so that does not shame that person in any way. I wonder whether Mr Hedges might have come across some uncomfortable truths about the UAE in his academic research.

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