Reports about torture and abuse in the United Arab Emirates of British nationals, including a former bodyguard of the mother of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi whose half-brother was caught on video several years ago brutally torturing a business associate, raises the spectre of high profile Gulf acquisitions and sponsorships of European soccer clubs serving as a form of reputation laundering.
Noting that the Al Nahayan family, which rules the United Arab Emirates as well as Abu Dhabi, one of its seven emirates, owns Manchester City, the first of a number of high profile Gulf soccer acquisitions, Britain's The Guardian newspaper reported that the British Foreign Office had documentary evidence of alleged torture of its nationals in Dubai Central Prison. The evidence was acquired during a visit by Foreign Office staff to British detainees held ion drugs charges.
The Brits include Hasnain Ali, a former bodyguard of Shaikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, and. Ahmad Zeidan, a student from Berkshire. Shaikha Fatima is the mother of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and supreme commander of the UAE armed forces.
The Foreign Office documents assert that in the case of Mr. Ali police officers "hit his head from the left side and pointed a gun to his head". Mr. Ali was quoted as saying that he had been "repeatedly kicked by the officers". The British diplomats said they had "found bruises on his back that were a result of his kicking". They described how Mr. Ali took off his T-shirt to show his visitors "four even scars, two on the right side and two on the left, parallel to each other".
Mr. Zeidan was also allegedly beaten, hooded, stripped naked and threatened with rape by police officers.
Both men, who said they do not speak Arabic, told the diplomats that they had been forced to sign confessions in Arabic that had not been translated for them. Their plight, which has been raised by British Prime Minister David Cameron with UAE authorities, follows the arrest last year of three Britons on drug charges who were pardoned after they complained about torture in a UAE prison.
The UAE has consistently denied reports of abuse and torture.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in statements last year to The Guardian warned that the UAE was using soccer to launder its image. Former English Football Association chairman Lord Triesman called at the time for making a country's human rights record one of the criteria for establishing whether a state entity or member of a ruling family passes the "fit and proper person test" for ownership of a Premier League club.
The calls and statements by Amnesty International, the Emirates Centre for Human Rights and prominent human rights lawyers and activists like Sir Geoffrey Robertson followed a mass trial of 94 people, 69 of whom were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, that the activists denounced as unfair and a violation of due process. The defendants were denied legal assistance while being held incommunicado pre-trial, allegedly tortured, and refused the right of appeal. In its response at the time, the UAE justice ministry implicitly did not rule out torture and argued that alleged victims should have reported abuse to the police.
HRW researcher Nicholas McGeehan, describing the UAE as "a black hole" for basic human rights, told The Guardian that "In this situation, a Premier League club (Manchester City) is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses. That should be of concern to football supporters as well as human rights organizations." The paper quoted Human Rights Watch as further saying that Abu Dhabi's purchase of Manchester City enabled it to "construct a public relations image of a progressive, dynamic Gulf state, which deflects attention from what is really going on in the country".
The portrayal of acquisitions and sponsorships of prominent soccer clubs as an effort to launder a country's reputation casts a shadow over the use of soccer as part of the soft power strategy of the UAE as well as Qatar that is designed to embed themselves in the international community in a way that would ensure public support in times of need. Both countries recall the success of Kuwait, another small Gulf state incapable of defending itself, in rallying the international community in 1990 to force the withdrawal of invading Iraqi forces.
The issue of human rights violations in the UAE compared to criticism of the conditions for foreign workers in Qatar, which owns Paris Saint Germain and will host the 2022 World Cup, highlights different approaches in the Gulf when states are attacked for their human rights record.
Qatar despite persistent criticism by trade unions and human rights groups has engaged with its critics and taken initial steps to address their concerns and repair reputational damage suffered. Repairing reputational damage will depend on quick and efficient implementation of those steps.
"In my meetings with the people in charge of Qatar 2022, they made some big promises of change.
After this investigation, it's urgent that they deliver," British Labour Member of Parliament and shadow international development secretary Jim Murphy told the Daily Mail during a fact finding mission organized by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), one of Qatar's harshest critics.
In its latest response to its critics, Qatar this week issued a handbook of standards for accommodation of foreign workers at construction sites. With foreign workers already the majority of its population, Qatar expects to import a million more to complete World Cup-related projects in coming years.
In contrast to Qatar, the UAE so far has limited its response to official denials of allegations of torture and abuse.
Manchester City was bought in 2008 by Deputy UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a brother of Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed and a half-brother of UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Sheikh Mansour is the senior official responsible for the Abu Dhabi judiciary. UAE officials have insisted that the acquisition as well as last year's agreement to invest in the creation of a 20th Major League Soccer team in the United States was a personal rather than a government investment.
The allegations of abuse of British nationals are not the first time that the UAE has faced allegations of human rights violations. A court acquitted Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, a brother of Sheikh Mansour, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Khalifa in 2010 on charges of torture and rape of an Afghan merchant even though the allegations were documented on a widely distributed graphic video.
The court did not dispute the fact that Sheikh Issa was among those depicted in the tape alongside a man in a police uniform torturing the Afghan with cattle prods and at one point running him over repeatedly with a sport-utility vehicle. It argued that Sheikh Issa could not be held accountable because he had been drugged by two former business associates.
Sheikh Mansour became deputy prime minister after Sheikh Khalifa removed two of Sheikh Issa's brothers from his cabinet in the wake of the incident.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.