Opinion: Why is PHD Student Matthew Hedges in Prison in the 'Authoritarian' United Arab Emirates?

Published November 22nd, 2018 - 11:50 GMT
Aaccused of “spying for a foreign country, jeopardising the military, political and economic security of the state,” Matthew Hedges faces life in prison. /AFP
Aaccused of “spying for a foreign country, jeopardising the military, political and economic security of the state,” Matthew Hedges faces life in prison. /AFP

Hayder al-Shakarchi

For nearly seven months, a 31-year-old PhD student from the UK has remained incarcerated in the UAE on suspicion of spying for his country. Matthew Hedges was caught completely off guard when he was apprehended for espionage by Emirati authorities on 5 May following a brief two-week research visit.

“The work that he was doing requires field work and so there was simply nothing odd about the fact that he was going to the UAE to conduct research,” said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a friend/colleague of Hedges’. “He travels frequently in his capacity as a PhD student and a respected expert on the MENA region.”

Hedges was arrested on 5 May at Dubai airport after he had finished conducting his research and was on his way back to the UK. Emirati authorities decided to capture him after they were tipped off that Hedges was “asking sensitive questions about some sensitive departments” and was “seeking to gather classified information on the UAE.” Once Hedges was detained, he was sent straight to solitary confinement.

Following several months of inhumane conditions, Hedges’ fate was decided. On 21 November, the UAE sentenced Hedges to life in prison proceeding a hearing that lasted no longer than five minutes.

“The Emiratis did not provide Matthew with a fair trial,” Cafiero emphasized and noted that several respected human rights organizations have documented major violations of fundamental human rights that occur constantly within the UAE legal system. “Matthew’s situation is highly illustrative of the UAE’s authoritarian form of government,” Cafiero added.

“Abu Dhabi is very secretive. Nothing about its strategy and foreign policy ambitions leaks to the outside. Matt's PhD research constituted a threat as it might have lifted the veil on some of the Emirati policies. The tolerance for civil liberties in the Emirates is extremely low. In the context of the Arab world, the UAE might be the most repressive and politically least liberal state,” said Dr. Andreas Krieg, political risk analyst at King’s College London.

Of the limited evidence that was used against Hedges, a forced statement in Arabic was by far the most questionable since Hedges is not literate in Arabic. “The circumstance in which he supposedly confessed to spying would likely be an outcome of coercion of some kind, perhaps torture,” Cafiero explained.

He went on to suggest that experts on the Gulf region, especially those who have been following this case closely, have ample reason to believe that Hedges has been subjected to torture by the Emiratis.



Following the Khashoggi affair, it seems as though the Arab Gulf region is aiming to establish a region of fear- meant to frighten everyone, not just its citizens- through its continued acts of hypervigilance.

“This trial is part of a wider war on civil society that the UAE is waging across the region. They display zero tolerance on dissidence and debate that might challenge the 'monopoly on truth' of the [Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi] Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan regime,” said Krieg.

Like the fear that Saudi Arabia has disseminated amongst journalists, the UAE has managed to do the same with academics.

Cafiero pointed out that “many leading academics throughout the West have reacted [to news of Matthew Hedges’ detention] by publicly stating that the UAE is a country which scholars, academics, and researchers should avoid.”

Similarly, Krieg said, “The tragedy is that Matt now has been made an example of to deter other researchers. While a long list of academics and analysts are already banned, this might actually make any journalist and researcher tread more lightly when engaging with the UAE.”

In the case of Khashoggi, the US decided that it had too much to lose financially and chose interests over values. Could the UK do the same by prioritizing arms deals over the life of one of their own citizens?

According to Cafiero, “Questions pertaining to the future of arms trade and investment deals could become relevant to this issue. The UK and the UAE have a very close relationship in many areas, including defense. There is some leverage that the UAE has over the UK, and at the same time, there is some leverage that the UK has over the UAE.”

Ultimately, the UAE’s handling of Hedges’ case goes to prove that the country isn’t willing to cave in to international pressure nor is it willing to bend to its ally’s will.

“The UAE takes its security extremely seriously and is certainly concerned about foreign spies operating on its own soil. Clearly, the Emiratis want to send a message that they take these issues extremely seriously and being a citizen of a country that’s allied with the UAE will not protect one from being charged with espionage,” Cafiero said.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, and a frequent contributor to the Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council and others. 


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