The FCO is broken
The first thing most foreign nationals do when they experience problems abroad is to contact their embassies. It is fair to say that people expect their countries’ diplomats to swoop in and protect them with all the weight of their governments behind them, particularly citizens of Western democracies. The experience of British nationals in the UAE could not be further from this expectation.
“You are actually on your own,” says Jamie Harron, a British citizen who was detained in the UAE 3 years ago after brushing past a man in a Dubai nightclub who later accused him of assault. When Harron contacted the British Embassy, he was told that they could not get involved in the case. Harron’s experience is representative.
Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, who has helped free thousands of British nationals from wrongful detention in the UAE says that the FCO is letting British citizens down. “Typically, consular staff just provide people with a list of local lawyers, visit inmates with inconsistent frequency, and help relay communication with their families,” Stirling explains, “There is no question that the FCO has the power to intervene and resolve cases where injustice and abuse are obvious; as we saw in the Matthew Hedges case; but the fact is, the FCO seldom gets involved.”
Matthew Hedges was a British scholar arrested in Dubai on false charges of espionage while working on his PhD thesis in the Emirates. Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt castigated the UAE over the case and even threatened sanctions, leading to Hedges eventually being pardoned by the Ruler of Dubai.
“We have seen very positive engagement by other foreign governments in the past,” Stirling says, “The Australian government, the Americans, even the Malaysian foreign minister actively intervened when a Malaysian businessman was wrongfully detained in Ras Al Khaimah to secure his release. But the FCO is conspicuously passive and acquiescent to the UAE, and citizens deserve better.”
Laleh Shahravesh, a Briton arrested in Dubai in 2019 over a Facebook post and prosecuted under the country’s oppressive Cybercrime laws, says she regrets having ever reached out to the British embassy. “They did absolutely nothing,” she recalls, even saying that consular staff’s advice was partly to blame for her being detained for 12 hours of questioning in a Dubai police station, “I wish to this day that I had not taken their advice.”
Stirling’s organisation has long lobbied the FCO to increase their travel warnings about the UAE so that British tourists are better informed of the risks they face in the country, “Even after the death in custody of Lee Bradley Brown 10 years ago, and countless British citizens who have been falsely accused, detained, tortured, and abused after having committed no crime; the FCO is still telling people that the UAE is safe as long as you respect the laws and culture. They do not warn citizens that the legal system in the Emirates is systemically rigged against foreigners, that there is no evidentiary standard for prosecution, no due process, no respect for human rights, and that you can go to jail for literally no reason whatsoever if a local decides they dislike you,” Stirling explains.
Not only is the FCO failing to intervene on behalf of British citizens, Stirling reveals that numerous sources have reported being urged by consular staff specifically to not seek the help of Detained in Dubai. “This is particularly disgraceful,” she comments, “Our organisation has a proven track record of success, and had any of our clients relied solely on the FCO, there is little doubt that their cases would not have been resolved.”
Analysts point to what they see as the shift in the balance of power between the UK and UAE in recent years, with the UK increasingly concerned with trade deals and investment from the Gulf. The UAE is Britain’s leading trade partner in the MENA region, and pumps billions of pounds of investment into the UK every year. “Many of our cases involve media campaigns to highlight UAE injustice,” Stirling explains, “We bring attention to the uglier elements of the UAE government and legal system, and it appears the FCO is as uncomfortable with that as is the UAE, and perhaps that is why they discourage people from contacting us. Ultimately, the British government has to ask itself if the economic ties between the two countries are more important than the safety of British citizens.”
Tensions between the FCO and the families of British citizens unjustly detained in the UAE, as well as growing public outrage over the abuses Britons have suffered in the Emirates is reaching a boiling point. Protests erupted last month over the continued detention of British citizen Albert Douglas, arrested over bounced cheques written by his son. Douglas has reportedly been tortured, beaten, and denied medication for both his injuries and a chronic heart condition.
“Consular staff claim that Albert is being helped and has been given medicine,” Stirling says, “But Albert himself says otherwise. We are no longer living in a world where information can be kept secret; the government cannot say they are involved and assisting when they are not. This is not a matter of being better at PR or spin, the FCO has to actually take action because we will all know when they don’t.”
The case of Albert Douglas, and the unresponsiveness of the FCO, has been brought up by Members of Parliament Baroness Whitaker and Andrew Slaughter along with Radha Stirling, who have also written to the UK-UAE Business Council over their concerns. “We are pressing for intervention for Albert Douglas, but beyond that,” Stirling explains, “We need to see the Foreign Office take a stand for all British citizens in the UAE; to no longer abandon them when they get unjustly swept up in the UAE legal system, and to adequately warn them of the dangers before they travel to Dubai. We need to see accountability, and we need Britons to be genuinely protected. Gulf investment in the UK should not act as a pay off whereby those countries have a license to abuse our citizens who land on their shores.”
Further resources and related articles:
- Family of British businessman, 66, who has untreated tuberculosis in Dubai jail where 'body of prisoner who died of Covid lay in cell next door for eight hours' accuse UK of 'doing nothing' to ensure his welfare