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The UAE's Crude Tactics Call for a Response

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On August 30, Reuters confirmed earlier reports that the United Arab Emirates had blocked the British oil company BP from bidding for onshore oil contracts there. One reason, the article said, was "the West's support for revolutions that toppled Arab leaders in 2011."

An "industry source" -- in an industry controlled by the ruling Al Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi -- identified the British media as one other factor in the decision: "They take a small thing and blow it out of proportion and take it as an excuse to write all the bad things about the country," the source was quoted as saying. "Several sources" in London and the UAE confirmed that the UAE was angered by a BBC Arabic report on the recent intensification of the UAE's crackdown on domestic critics.

The United Kingdom and the UAE's other allies in the West need to defend the right of their free press to report "bad things." And if they don't want to be held over a barrel by this small, resource-rich Gulf state, they would be well-advised to speak out against the UAE's increasingly brutal tactics and authoritarian tendencies.

Since June 15, the UAE authorities have detained without charge 46 advocates of moderate political reform, in addition to 15 who were already in jail. The whereabouts of 59 of the 61 are unknown and at least 2 are reported to be on a hunger strike. There is grave concern for the well-being of all the detainees in light of allegations of torture at the UAE's State Security facilities.

Employees of the Emirati lawyer who is bravely offering the detainees legal assistance have been subjected to a systematic campaign of harassment and intimidation. The UAE has depicted its crackdown as a response to a foreign-inspired Islamist plot, but it provided no evidence and it appears to be a pretext to silence its critics.

On July 18, the UAE deported a political activist with no Islamist connections to Thailand, apparently on account of his calls for reform. Over the summer, UAE authorities cancelled the residence permit for Matt Duffy, an American journalism professor in a UAE university who advocated greater press freedom in the UAE and the region, as well as his wife's permit. On August 28, he wrote that, "It appears certain that these directives to fire my wife and I originated from the security forces."

The campaign goes back to March 2011, when 132 Emiratis signed a petition requesting that the Federal National Council, whose mandate is to provide for public debate of legislation, be elected by universal suffrage and given legislative powers.

In February 2011, in response to the first stirrings of the Arab spring, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. "will support citizens working to make their governments more open, transparent, and accountable." In January 2012, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote that freedom was "still flowering" and that protection against arbitrary punishment and freedom of expression were taking hold in the region. However, neither Clinton nor Hague has spoken up for the citizens of the UAE, whose attempts to make their government more accountable have been met with arbitrary detention.

The EU has also remained silent, with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton referring only to the Gulf Cooperative Council states' "different perspectives" on certain issues. The UAE's crackdown reveals not so much a different perspective, though, as a complete disregard for the EU's core values of liberty, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

In addition to a sprinkling of domestic dissidents, the UAE is home to 4 million migrant workers -- 80 percent of its population, many of whom are systematically exploited because the country's inadequate legal and regulatory framework facilitates their forced labor. The UAE has resisted calls to reform that system.

The UAE's vast resources and deep pockets afford it significant influence globally, complemented by its strategic importance -- it jointly controls with Iran the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow passage through which oil tankers must pass to access the gulf's oil and gas fields. It has been able to exploit these advantages to deflect criticism for persistent and serious human rights violations.

The failure of the international community to bring the UAE to task has been a key factor in the myth of the UAE as a progressive Gulf state, host of sophisticated educational and cultural institutions, and high-profile sporting events, with the regional headquarters for many huge multinational corporations in Dubai. This polished veneer hides the fact that the UAE is regressing where human rights are concerned.

The BP incident suggests the UAE is no longer content with the meek silence of its allies in the West. Emboldened, it feels it can demand the silence of their free press. It is high time the UK, the U.S. and the EU flexed a little muscle of their own and stood up for the universal values they purport to champion.

Nicholas McGeehan is a Middle East consultant at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on twitter @Ncgeehan.