. Beyond the Glittery Façade: Examining the UAE’s role in the global War on Terror | Ceasefire Magazine

Beyond the Glittery Façade: Examining the UAE’s role in the global War on Terror Analysis

It might present a modern, progressive face to the world, but the UAE, more than any other country in the Arab world, has played a crucial and disreputable role in supporting the US-led global War on Terror, argues Asim Qureshi.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, September 5, 2019 21:05 - 2 Comments


Dubai (credit: Michaela Loheit/Creative Commons)

In a 2015 widely circulated video, the African-American rap and movie star Tyrese Gibson is seen explaining how much love he received during his time in the UAE while promoting the movie Furious 7. He shouts out the Al Maktoum and Zayed families as ‘visionaries’ of the two emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, seemingly endorsing the idea that the UAE is a paragon of progressivism.

It is certainly understandable that the super-wealthy would hold such a view. After all, the UAE has been very much built as a Mecca for capitalist play-boying. I’m not sure Tyrese would have held the same view had he entered the country as one of the thousands of migrant workers who are routinely abused in the country. Furthermore, behind the glittery façade, the UAE’s role in the ‘War on Terror’, as a country that has been inextricably involved in its myriad abuses, has largely been under-documented.

My contention in this piece is that the UAE, more than any other country in the Arab world, has played, and continues to play, a crucial role in supporting the US-led global War on Terror, reinforcing the structural Islamophobia against Muslim individuals and communities. This might seem, prima facie, a contradiction. After all, the UAE is built up of Muslim-majority principalities. However, my argument is that as a matter of policy, the country has been heavily involved in the perpetuation of the War on Terror’s violence.

Having seen the effects of Western discriminatory policies – most notably CVE and PREVENT – the UAE must be reminded that the policies they support have a deep and lasting effect on ordinary Muslims. They are, at their core, violent, and are fundamentally designed to support the current global geopolitical paradigm and bring even more profit to the profiteers.

Even before 9/11, the UAE had already become a site of detention at the behest of western governments concerned with national security. This was the case when they detained Farid Hilali in 1999. No charges were ever brought against Hilali by the Emirati authorities, yet British intelligence were invited to the country to interrogate him, which they did despite credible evidence of the severe torture he was being subjected to. Hilali’s detention would have consequences for others, as his coerced testimony was used to drag innocent men, such as Moazzam Begg, into a matrix of security risks after 9/11 (Mi5 used Hilali’s coerced statements as the basis for suspecting Begg). Hilali’s detention in the UAE very much launched a cascade of events within the context of the War on Terror that would single the Emirati states out as being complicit in gross human rights violations.

The most significant pre-9/11 detention in the UAE, however, was that of Djamel Beghal. The Algerian-French Beghal was detained by the Emirati authorities in Abu Dhabi on 29 July 2001, and on the same day both the CIA and their French counterparts, the DGSE, were informed of this. Beghal was detained and tortured by the Emirati authorities and coerced into providing false testimony after weeks of falaqa (beating the soles of the feet), rape, sensory disruption, sleep deprivation, water torture, nail-ripping and a panoply of other forms of torture. Most significantly, on 21 September 2001, after the 9/11 attack, the French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière arrived in the country to interrogate Beghal. Although he never did get to meet Beghal, the following day Bruguière was provided with a full signed confession. To this very day, the very credible allegations of torture and coerced testimony have never been questioned. Instead Beghal has been continually judged based on this one coerced statement.

Much in the same way that the case for the Iraq war was predicated on false testimony coerced under torture from ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the case for the war on Afghanistan relied in part on the testimony coerced from Beghal. On 4 October 2001, the BBC published the British government’s full dossier against Osama bin Laden, making the case for intervention. Crucially, the dossier begins with the following disclaimer:

This document does not purport to provide a prosecutable case against Osama Bin Laden in a court of law.

Intelligence often cannot be used evidentially, due both to the strict rules of admissibility and to the need to protect the safety of sources.

It is unsurprising that the British were reticent to claim they had legally actionable evidence against bin Laden. By this stage, they were fully aware, having also been involved in Beghal’s interrogation, that the evidence obtained from him was almost certainly coerced through torture. The claim spun in the British media, that Beghal had admitted to being involved in offences, had all originated from that UAE confession. Once he had been ‘renditioned’ to France to stand trial, Beghal would deny all the allegations, despite prosecutors relying on the coerced evidence.

The UAE has since become a convenient outlet for the USA to detain and outsource the latter’s detentions and torture. The brother-in-law of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad (the alleged mastermind of 9/11) was detained and tortured there, although released eventually without charges. Similarly, a new report released by Sam Raphael, Ruth Blakely and Crofton Black, highlights how Abdul-Rahim al-Nashiri and Sanad al-Kazemi (both still detained at Guantanamo Bay) were first detained and tortured by the Emiratis, who liaised with the CIA as part of its highly illegal ‘Rendition, Detention and Interrogation’ programme.

Holiday-makers in the UAE have not been spared the horror of arbitrary detention and torture within the context of the War on Terror. After the 7 July 2005 London bombings, two businessmen on holiday in Dubai were arrested and placed in incommunicado detention by the Dubai police. Alam Ghafoor and Mohammed Rafiq Siddique were unsure why they were being held, until it became clear that instructions had been sent by the British authorities to the Emiratis to detain them and to have them interrogated:

One thing that does stick out, is when I told them that I was a British citizen, they said, “Who do you think you are? You are not Tony Blair. They know you are here, and no one cares.” All through the questioning I would ask, “Why am I here?” They said, “Because British intelligence told us to pick you up”.

Today, the UAE continues to be a partner in the CIA’s War on Terror. Most recently, it even gave up part of its own sovereignty by permitting US Department of Homeland Security agents to screen passengers flying to the US from inside Emirati airports before departure. This has become part of the culture of securitisation which has made the UAE not only complicit in, but an active partner of, the prosecution of Muslims as potential threats.

The pace of the UAE’s role in the securitisation narratives and policies, particularly through the lens of the global War on Terror, increased rapidly after the start of the Arab Spring in 2011. The Emirati states, instead of taking concerns surrounding constitutional reform seriously, instead chose to respond to a petition by 132 pro-reform activists by detaining 94 of the signatories under the pretext of alleged links to Da’wat al-Islah — a reform movement based in the country. The narrative presented by Dubai’s chief of police, Dhahi Khalfan, over these arrests mimicked the narrative of the War on Terror: that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and its off-shoot groups (including Da’wat al-Islah), presented themselves as an existential threat to Emirati society, and thus their repression was in the best interests of national security. These decisions by the UAE sat within the context of the Muslim Brotherhood winning elections in Egypt, and the subsequent efforts by the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to undermine Egypt’s fledgling democracy.

In 2011, Algeria, Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Morocco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the USA and the UK came together to form the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), an international body for the coordination of efforts to “fight terrorism around the world” outside of the mandate of the United Nations. Soon after its launch, Abu Dhabi hosted the first meeting on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in 2012 as the joint chair (with the UK) of the CVE Working Group for the GCTF.

The CVE Working Group provided the UAE with the perfect platform to continue its programme of political repression and resisting any attempts to call for constitutional reform in the country, often deploying the narrative of securitisation to that end. According to Arun Kundnani and Ben Hayes:

…the UK’s ‘Prevent’ strategy has been dogged by a crisis of legitimacy since its inception, while the UAE’s CVE efforts have included a strict ban on the regime’s political opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the mass deportation of Shi’a residents.

The UAE’s commitment to pre-crime securitisation initiatives, notably its 2012 launch of Hedayah, a multi-million-dollar centre for ‘CVE-excellence’, resulted in increased repression against political opponents of the Emirati states. On 26 February 2013, a Qatari doctor, Mahmoud al-Jaidah, was kidnapped and placed in incommunicado detention over alleged links to Da’wat al-Islah. He was  forced under torture into falsely confessing to attempting to destabilise the UAE and, a year later, was ultimately convicted of ‘national security offences’.

Domestic and foreign policy concerns have completely replicated the narrative of the War on Terror, with national security and terrorism being invoked consistently as a way of justifying Emirati positions that run contrary to international human rights and due process standards. On 5 March 2014, the UAE took the step, in line with Saudi Arabia, of formally declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a ‘terrorist organisation’, including the outlawing of public declarations of support (such as using the iconography that emerged from the Rabaa massacre in Egypt during the 2013 coup by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi).

The foreign policy decisions of the UAE have also resulted in increased militarisation, with Emirati states providing support to western allies in the bombing of Libya and Mali, as well as the establishment of formal military bases in the Horn of Africa. Alongside its soft power ambitions, as seen in efforts to normalise relations with Israel through the Emirati ambassador to the US, Yousaf al-Otaiba, there has been an increased move to exercise hard power through involvement in conflicts around the world, most significantly in the bombardment of Yemen.

The country’s commitment to securitisation within the War on Terror has led the nation to adopt a consistent approach to due process violations for the sake of maintaining a repressive ‘peace’. The Abu Dhabi crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, has praised the efforts of China in interning Chinese Muslims as part of counter-terrorism and extremism efforts, more recently choosing to honour the Indian Prime Minister, Nanendra Modi, with the Order of Zayed, despite the Indian state’s current militarised repression of Indian Occupied Kashmir.

When considering both the domestic and foreign policy concerns of the UAE, the picture that emerges is not of a state that is merely complicit in the ‘War on Terror’, but one that is actively involved in the increased militarisation and securitisation of Muslim communities. The UAE has called for strengthened counter-terrorism legislation against Muslim minorities in the West, but has also sought to support the repression of Muslim political ambitions in Muslim majority nations.

The degree to which the UAE receives different levels of support from various Muslim leaders and scholars throughout the world is perhaps reflective of various unresolved differences around the correct means of engaging and influencing governments such as those of the UAE — as well as ongoing disagreements over the ‘Muslimness’ of different forms of political activism, and the best approach through which we, as a global community, can change things for the better.

Unfortunately, in today’s toxic global paradigm, these differences are more vulnerable to being unduly influenced and entrenched by the ‘glitter’, especially when this glitter may come in apparently reasonable and well-meaning guises. Not only this, but fissures among Muslim thought leaders and scholars on notions of justice, governance and ‘correct’ activism, continue to enable the runaway abuses many of us witness in working with communities on the ground.

The UAE has very much separated itself from the Muslim world by actively pushing for the perpetuation of the ‘War on Terror’, faithfully aping the position of countries of the West, such as the United States. As such, its government should be more assertively challenged and assiduously resisted, especially by those leading Muslims who are in positions to do so.


Asim Qureshi

Asim Qureshi graduated in Law (LLB Hons) and LLM, specialising in and Islamic Law. He is the Research Director at CAGE, and since 2004 has specialised in investigations into the impact of counter-terrorism practices worldwide. In 2009, his book, Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance, was published by Hurst, Columbia University Press and, later, by Oxford University Press. In 2010, he began advising the legal teams involved in defending terrorism trials in the US and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


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Arshad Saqib
Oct 30, 2019 19:09


Bayu Ocktaviandy Hermansyah
Jun 22, 2022 13:35

best articel, good

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