Why is Britain rolling out the red carpet for the UAE's Sheikh Khalifa?

Three British citizens continue to be held under appalling conditions in the United Arab Emirates, while the Government prepares to host the country's unelected leader for a state visit.

On Tuesday next week, Britain will roll out the red carpet for the leader of a country which not only has a terrible record on human rights, but has even tortured our own citizens.

Sheikh Khalifa – the unelected President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – will be given the honour of a State Visit to the UK, while back in his country, three British citizens continue to be held over eight months after they were arrested and brutally tortured by police in Dubai.

The ordeal of the three young men – Grant Cameron (25), Karl Williams (26) and Suneet Jeerh (25) – included savage beatings resulting in broken bones, and electric shocks administered to the testicles from stun batons; after which they were forced to sign documents in Arabic, a language none of them understand. They were then charged with drugs offences, to which they have pleaded not guilty.

This took place against a wider context of rampant police torture and extensive fair trial violations in the UAE – notably in the ongoing mass trial of 94 political activists which has been condemned as “shamelessly unfair” by Human Rights Watch.

The three Brits – from London and Essex – are expecting the verdict in their case on Monday, the day before Sheikh Khalifa is set to arrive in Britain.  Their trial has proceeded despite the UAE’s failure to properly investigate their torture; in fact, the authorities in Dubai have even gone so far as to put the police officers who abused the men on the witness stand to testify against them.

Meanwhile, the UAE’s unrepentant attitude towards serious human rights violations is being allowed to pass without comment by our own political leaders.  William Hague enjoyed an “excellent meeting” earlier this week with the Prime Minister (again, unelected) of Dubai, but made no mention of torture or fair trial violations.  London Mayor Boris Johnson, on a visit earlier this month, praised a “historic relationship” but didn’t see fit to mention the torture of Londoners by Dubai authorities.

The FCO’s man in Dubai went so far as to hail the “special relationship” between the UK and the UAE  - indicating that the key characteristics of the UK’s ‘special relationships’ these days, whether with the US or the UAE, are a high tolerance for torture and an indifference to the rule of law.

In response to the impending state visit, a coalition of human rights organisations including Reprieve, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights have written to the British Prime Minister urging him to raise the issue of human rights abuses with the UAE President during his time in the UK.

A lot of the British public may already find it hard to stomach seeing the royal treatment given to the undemocratic leader of a country where the police torture prisoners and trials are a “mockery of justice”.  That we are doing so even when it is our fellow Brits on the receiving end of the electric baton will be seen as an act which abandons not only our principles, but also our responsibilities to our own citizens.

If anything positive is to come out of what is shaping up to be one of the more sordid state visits of recent years, torture and fair trial issues – and in particular the cases of the three British tourists – must be at the centre of every discussion at every level between Britain and the UAE.

Sheikh Khalifa in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.