04/15/2013 04:31 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2013

Some Hard Truths About the UAE's Soft Power

When President Barack Obama sits down with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates this week, Bill Clinton's praise will no doubt will still be ringing in his ears. On a visit to American University in Dubai last week, Clinton described Dubai -- one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE -- as a "model of shared prosperity" in a gushing speech that gave no indication of the country's poor and deteriorating record on basic human rights.

In fact, the backdrop to this latest meeting between Obama and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan -- their third in two years -- is an escalating crackdown on free speech that has harmed not only Emiratis, but also U.S.-based organizations. In March 2012, the UAE authorities closed the Dubai office of the National Democratic Institute, a body linked to the Democratic Party that promotes the development of political and civic organizations and openness and accountability in government. In December, the Abu Dhabi office of the RAND Corporation, a research organization, suffered a similar fate.

Obama has repeatedly called for other Middle Eastern governments to respect free expression, and he should do the same with the UAE. The UAE is prosecuting 94 critics of the government in a fundamentally unfair trial, after apparently detaining many of them at state security facilities where Human Rights Watch has documented torture. In December, the International Bar Association said that the harassment and intimidation of lawyers attempting to provide legal assistance to Emirati dissidents was "creating a climate of fear among the legal profession."

The UAE's migrant workers -- an astonishing 85 percent of the total population -- have even fewer rights than Emirati citizens. The combination of a highly exploitative system of sponsorship-based employment, the illegal but customary confiscation of workers' passports by employers, and the failure of the UAE authorities and labor-sending states to tackle the issue of illegal recruitment fees facilitates the trafficking and forced labor of men and women from South Asia.

Yet in 2010 Bill Clinton described Dubai as "the only country with huge amounts of imported workers that's actually passed legislation to give these immigrant workers a better deal in the Middle East" -- a claim that the website described as "mostly false." Hillary Clinton singled out the UAE for special praise at the release of the State Department's 2011 Trafficking in Persons report, but the report didn't provide any evidence of reform. In fact that there has not been any.

The UAE ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba, has stated that his most important job "is to make sure that Americans have a correct picture of the UAE," which he called "an open, tolerant and progressive country." The UAE would probably face a public relations disaster if Americans did have a "correct picture." But instead of spending resources on desperately needed human rights reforms, the UAE has spent millions abroad to cultivate the image of a benevolent foreign philanthropist.

The UAE has donated significant amounts of money to issues that fall into one of three categories: children, hospitals and disasters (and preferably close to D.C.) In 2009, for instance, the government of Abu Dhabi donated $150 million to build the Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C. In partnership with England's Manchester City Football Club, which is owned by the UAE's deputy prime minister, the UAE Embassy has built soccer fields in L.A., Miami, Chicago and New York, and will open another in D.C. for the start of the 2013-14 season. The UAE also donated funds to assist with the post-Hurricane Katrina clear-up.

These donations are praiseworthy, but they shouldn't lead U.S. politicians to overlook the UAE's repression at home, where, among other things, it has subjected a prominent South African pediatric oncologist to an unfair trial for manslaughter. Professor Cyril Karabus remains on bail and is barred from leaving the UAE despite an Abu Dhabi court ruling absolving him. The World Medical Association found that the UAE's treatment of Karabus fails to meet international fair trial standards and warned doctors of the dangers of working there.

U.S. politicians may be reticent to criticize the UAE, considering that this small country in the strategically important Straits of Hormuz, sits on very significant reserves of oil and natural gas. Al Nahyan has used some of that oil wealth to buy missile defense systems from the U.S. -- $3 billion worth in the last year alone.

But President Obama should not utter praise for the UAE where no praise is due. He should express support for human rights in the UAE and use the U.S.'s strategic and economic leverage to press Al Nahyan to end its serious abuses.

Nicholas McGeehan is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who follows developments in the United Arab Emirates.

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