Comment writer Alex Boscott discusses the recent arrest of PhD student Matthew Hedges in the UAE for suspected spying, and criticises the way May’s government has responded
It is a sad state of affairs when one of Britain’s apparent trusted allies outside of Europe can soon become its political nemesis. With Theresa May desperate to remain cordial with the EU post-Brexit, whatever that may look like, sudden diplomatic tensions with the UAE over the conviction of PhD student, Matthew Hedges, was certainly a shock to her Government.
Studying at Durham University for his PhD, Hedges travelled to the UAE to research for his thesis – an innocent and just cause. However, the UAE authorities, renowned for their lack of tolerance for freedom of speech and international human rights laws, deemed Mr Hedges a possible security threat and commissioned his arrest at a Dubai Airport – accused of spying for the UK. To most other nations, this arrest is trivial at best. One cannot begin to comprehend the sheer anger that the family of Mr Hedges will be feeling at this current point but the political tension is most certainly palpable.
One would assume that such a legal standoff would be limited to the Westminster bubble and have no further repercussions on other areas of society. Unlike the detainment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian accused of training anti-regime journalists, the reach of this case has caused visible unrest at the University of Birmingham itself. Speaking to The Guardian, James Brackley, President of the UCU’s Birmingham branch, stated that this incident will have ‘shocking consequences for academic freedom’ and stated the union’s concern for ‘staff and students in Dubai.’ Speaking to Redbrick this week, Mr Brackley reaffirmed the BUCU’s ‘support and solidarity to Matthew Hedges and his family at this extremely difficult time’.
The BUCU president also expressed the union’s disappointment towards the University of Birmingham, stating ‘we were deeply disappointed that the University of Birmingham failed to join us in calling for Matthew Hedges this week’ – a sentiment I wholeheartedly sympathise with and wish to reiterate myself. Adding to his statement, Mr Brackley delivered a damning blow to the University’s administration by saying that ‘the Vice Chancellor is putting business interests above the safety and rights of staff and students.’
With the rights of staff and students also under immediate threat because of this conviction, BUCU members voted to initiate an academic boycott of the £100m Dubai Campus – sending a strong message to the university – aiming at ensuring that the ‘University provides clear answers’ in regards to the protection of its staff and students’ rights. Investing abroad is one thing, investing without assurances is unforgivable. With a vigil being held in support of Mr Hedges, it is most certainly time the University of Birmingham reviewed their current investment plans in the UAE until such provisions can be made to ensure that all students and staff are protected – without such arrangements, one cannot envisage a long-term future for the Dubai campus.
However, such protections cannot solely be achieved by the University and must cooperate with Mrs May’s Government to obtain them. Speaking to the commons on Wednesday, the Prime Minister acknowledged the ‘distressing’ nature of Mr Hedges’ situation for his family and stated that she is ‘concerned at today’s [Wednesday 21st November] verdict’. This line was also towed by the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who said in a statement on Wednesday that the ‘verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom’. He also highlighted that there would be ‘repercussions for the relationship between our two countries’ because of the handling of the case and that it must be ‘built on trust’. Trust, I’m afraid Mr Hunt, is a rarity in foreign diplomacy – epitomised by the murder of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey.
In a recent statement, the UAE Ambassador to the UK, Sulaiman Almazroui, admitted that ‘Mr Hedges’ family have made a request for clemency and the government is studying that request’ – meaning a pardon could soon be available for Mr Hedges. Daniela Tejeda, the wife of Mr Hedges, branded the Government’s handling of the case as ‘appalling’, she told The Times, ‘the British government must take a stand now for Matthew, one of their citizens’. This slight softening of stance from the UAE will be welcomed by Ms Tejeda but I cannot help but feel like Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case taught this government nothing – despite Boris Johnson being disposed of in favour of Jeremy Hunt. Whatever the outcome of this judicial review, it is clear that human rights abuses are still prevalent in the UAE – something I find abhorrent and unforgivable in any possible context.
Clarification: This article was written before Mr Hedges was released. Subsequent events do not affect the validity of this argument, nor does it mean that the UAE do not have questions to answer.