Imagine what Western reaction would have been if a British or American citizen was detained in Russia then subjected to months of solitary confinement followed by being put on trial for less than five minutes without legal representation or an interpreter, and finally sentenced to life imprisonment.
The media in Britain and the US would have gone berserk with self-righteous fury and demanded that drastic and economically draconian measures be taken against Russia. The government in London would have demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to condemn Moscow’s dastardly treatment of an innocent academic, and no doubt there would have been US Congress demands for even more sanctions, along with portentous declarations from politicians and commentators about free speech and violations of human dignity.
On the other hand, in the case of the conviction and sentencing on November 21 of British academic Matthew Hedges in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the UK’s response was mild to the point of being grovelingly placatory. Prime Minister May told Parliament that “We are deeply disappointed and concerned at today’s verdict. We are raising it with the Emirati authorities at the highest level.”
The US was totally uncritical, which is not surprising as the official State Department line is “The United States and the UAE enjoy strong bilateral cooperation on a full range of issues including defence, non-proliferation, trade, law enforcement, energy policy, and cultural exchange. The two countries work together to promote peace and security, support economic growth, and improve educational opportunities in the region and around the world. UAE ports host more US Navy ships than anywhere else outside the United States.”
Certainly, as reported by the BBC, orders were given five days later to release Mr Hedges, because the Emirates “issued a pardon as part of a series of orders on the country's National Day anniversary”. There was no apology of any sort to the man or his family, and the UAE declared he was “100 percent a secret service operative.”
Leaving aside for the moment the assertion that Mr Hedges may indeed have been spying (which was the charge against him), it is interesting to consider the background to his treatment, which should have come as no surprise to anyone in London and Washington.
Before the mockery of a trial, Britain’s foreign minister, the singularly inept Jeremy Hunt, went to the UAE and met the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, on November 12. According to his tweets he “raised the case of British national Matthew Hedges” and was “hoping for a good outcome.” Ten days later he had to say something following his conspicuously useless intercession and came up with the lame complaint that “today’s verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances.”
The man is a fool. What else could he expect from a country like the Emirates? In its latest Report Amnesty International states that “the authorities continued to arbitrarily restrict freedoms of expression and association, using criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws to detain, prosecute, convict and imprison government critics”. The US State Department describes the place as seven semiautonomous emirates whose unelected rulers “constitute the Federal Supreme Council, the country’s highest legislative and executive body.” The US, that stalwart promoter of democracy when not supporting dictatorships, is well aware that under the Emirates’ authoritarian regime “there are no political parties” and its citizens are “unable to choose their government in free and fair elections” but, as in its treatment of that neighbouring absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia, Washington’s policy is to reinforce the rule of dictators when it seems a good thing to do so.
The day after Hedges was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Emirates the place was visited by a staunch upholder of autocracy, Saudi Arabia's Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was told by the UAE’s equally undemocratically-appointed ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, that “UAE-Saudi relations are an exceptional role model for brotherly ties that go down to the annals of history. They are firmly based on mutual respect and joint determination to achieving the ambitions of their two peoples for sustainable development, social welfare and economic well-being,” which is a nauseating piece of double-speak, because in both countries “social welfare” is confined entirely to the small percentage of people who are actually citizens, and women are treated as chattels and worse.
In the UAE, “For a woman to marry, her male guardian must conclude her marriage contract; men have the right to unilaterally divorce their wives, whereas a woman must apply for a court order to obtain a divorce; a woman can lose her right to maintenance if, for example, she refuses to have sexual relations with her husband without a lawful excuse; and women are required to “obey” their husbands.” In Saudi Arabia it is almost exactly the same, as, for example, women must obtain permission from a “male guardian” — a twenty year-old son would do — to obtain a passport and travel abroad.
It couldn’t be clearer that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are despotic fiefdoms. And it is equally obvious that America and Britain are entirely selective about whom they criticise or penalise for actual or supposed violations of what they choose to interpret as violations of human rights. When there are international incidents involving favoured countries there are only polite expostulations, or — more usually — no comment whatever, and it is obvious why these double standards apply.
The answer lies in the money, as the Saudis and the UAE spend vast sums on Western-supplied military equipment. Britain’s official position indicates that it would suffer severely if commercial arrangements with the UAE were to be upset, as it is “the UK’s largest export market in the Middle East and the 13th biggest globally. The UK exported £9.8 billion of goods and services in 2016. This was a 37% increase since 2009. The UAE is the UK’s fourth largest export market outside the EU . . . The majority of the UAE population is made up of expatriates, with around 120,000 UK residents.”
So don’t let us have any more self-righteous posturing from the British government about democracy and morality and all these good things, because it is obvious that when the UK and the US are deeply involved commercially with other countries, there is no question of sacrificing profit for a glow of moral satisfaction by taking action if a particular country is considered to have offended against international ethical standards.
They are selectively ethical to the point of blatant hypocrisy.