Why did the UAE feel confident enough to sentence Matthew Hedges to life in prison? Because of the chaos round Brexit

The UK now looks weak on the global stage. And Trump's support for Saudi Arabia after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi demonstrates that in the current climate, trade and economics are valued above justice and human rights

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt warns UAE of 'serious consequences' over Matthew Hedges jailing

The United Arab Emirates' sentencing of Durham university PHD student Matthew Hedges to life imprisonment for spying on behalf of the British government has sounded alarm bells and called into question the level of trust between the United Kingdom and one of its historically close allies. The fallout may result in a downgrade in diplomatic ties between the two nations.

Hedges and his academic supervisor at Durham say that he was researching civil-military relations in the UAE since the Arab Spring. His research is said to have touched on the thorny issue of the UAE's military presence in Yemen. The Saudi-led war in Yemen is a controversial topic because of the thousands of civilian casualties, hundreds of alleged war crimes and dire humanitarian situation – the United Nations recently stated that half the population is at risk of famine. The UAE is careful to uphold a positive international image and surely would not want to fuel the fire and incriminate itself further in such a devastating conflict.

Despite countless democratic allies, a modern facade and glossy veneer of openness – with western academic institutions and businesses franchising or expanding into the wealthy Gulf nation – the UAE is notorious for forced confessions, unfair trials and little tolerance for freedom of speech.

The UAE alleges that “espionage material” was found on Hedges' laptop and since May this year he had been detained in solitary confinement in an Abu Dhabi prison in degrading conditions, sleeping on the floor and unable to have a shower during his first month of imprisonment. His sentencing verdict was delivered during a five-minute court session without the presence of his lawyer. Hedges denies the allegations against him, although Emirati prosecutors claim that he confessed while under questioning.

The move by Emirati authorities to allege espionage and impose such a steep punishment on a British citizen might be viewed as a sign of the diminished value the nation places on its ongoing economic and diplomatic ties with the UK, preferring to reorient its alliances elsewhere. This summer the UAE ramped up political, security and economic relations with Russia, signing a new Declaration of Strategic Partnership.

However, Emirati state media has also been touting the opportunities for enhanced trade with the UK, post-Brexit. The UAE's ambassador to the UK Sulaiman Al Mazroui stated earlier this year that he firmly believes a “global Britain” is a key partner for the UAE. He has also said on Friday that he hopes the UAE can reach an "equitable conclusion" regarding Hedges' sentencing, but the outcome remains to be seen.

Hedges' wife Daniela Tejeda met with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Thursday who tweeted that evening, “I've just had a constructive conversation with UAE FM [Foreign Minister] Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed. I believe [and] trust he's working hard to resolve the situation asap. We've a close partnership with UAE which will help us take things forward.”

Despite the susceptibility to arbitrary detention, human rights abuses and skirmishes in the past involving the imprisonment of British citizens for not adhering to the country's strict laws which are based on its moral code, the UAE has hitherto been considered a safe and desirable country for Brits both to visit and to relocate to.

A souring or even severing of ties between the nations could have a devastatingly negative effect on more than 100,000 British nationals living and working in the Gulf state. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that an oppositional stance from the British government over Hedges' judgement might jeopardise the futures of British expats in the UAE – last summer's Saudi-led boycott of Qatar led to the expulsion of all Qataris residing in the country, painfully disrupting the transnational familial and tribal ties of the Gulf region.

The UK and UAE (formerly known as the Trucial States and under a British protectorate until 1971) have very deep and long-established political, security and economic ties with a historically strong trading relationship. Bilateral trade doubled between 2009 and 2016 and is now at nearly £15bn with a target of reaching £25bn by 2020. This ranks the UAE as the UK's 12th largest trading partner – and sixth largest outside of Europe.

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Tejeda told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Thursday morning that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office had been “stepping on eggshells instead of taking a firm stance” and said she thought “they were putting their interests with the UAE above a British citizen's rightful freedom and welfare”.

American president Donald Trump's support for Saudi Arabia after the murder of its journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which evidence suggests was perpetrated by the Saudi state, demonstrates that in the current climate trade and economics are valued above justice and human rights.

Amid mounting public pressure, Jeremy Hunt recently visited Iran to plea for the release of jailed Brit Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is also accused of spying. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional hegemons frequently operating from their own playbooks. Is the UAE exhibiting the paranoid tendencies of entrenched sclerotic regimes? Or is this harsh sentencing signalling that it too can flex its muscles as one of the powerful Gulf States that doesn't kowtow to Western human rights demands?

For whatever aim, the UAE is perhaps taking advantage of the instability of Britain's political and economic climate and the intense pressure on the government to negotiate a deal out of the European Union. The UAE knows that at such uncertain times, the loss of an important and strategic economic partner is a great risk.

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