Nabil Najjar is a political consultant working in the UK and the Middle East. He is an elected councillor in Wiltshire, Director of Conservative Progress.
Earlier this week Matthew Hedges, a British tourist and PhD student, was sentenced to life in prison in the United Arab Emirates. His alleged crime? Spying for the British Government.
Sadly, this is not the first time that a Western citizen has been locked up in a Middle Eastern prison on unproven, sometimes frankly spurious, intelligence-related charges, and if we do not act decisively it will not be the last.
In 2016 Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, was detained in Iran for ‘allegedly plotting to topple the Iranian regime’, and last year Xiyue Wang, an American student from Princeton University, was convicted of spying in Iran and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The US State Department described this as the latest in a succession of ‘fabricated charges’ against US nationals.
Whether through cases such as these, or for that matter the assassination of journalists or former spies on foreign soil, Middle Eastern powers such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran, as well as Russia, have begun flexing their muscles and projecting their own questionable human rights records on an international stage, in flagrant disregard for international precedents.
Opinions abound as to the reasons why. But the nature of our response to a complex international chain of events boils down to a simple one: how much do we as a country value the welfare of our citizens?
The oft-repeated argument about how these countries (and Saudi Arabia in particular) are valuable allies and strategic partners in a tumultuous region, and must not be upset, is one which is well understood, and I am in the camp that believes that, by and large, it is not the UK’s obligation to act as an international policeman. Once, however, this pattern of passive aggression begins to impact the lives of British people, the time has come to lay down a new set of rules of engagement, one which places the interests of our own citizens ahead of economic gain, and puts principle above politics.
Essentially, these governments are taking British nationals hostage; political bargaining chips to be exchanged when needed or returned when expedient. Diplomacy alone yielded pitiful results in the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, and if we are to avoid another protracted (and potentially unsuccessful) parley with Abu Dhabi, our Government needs to be tough and act decisively from the outset. Rhetoric alone is not enough.
Successive governments have boasted about the UK’s unrivalled arsenal of ‘soft power’ – its ability to use diplomacy, intelligence and negotiation to further its interests – but our Government must be bolder in backing up its soft power with the threat of action, a combination of soft and hard power today known as ‘smart power’.
Whether it comes in the form of issuing travel warnings against holidaying in Dubai, threatening economic sanctions, or expelling diplomats, it is time for ministers to make a bold statement that actions have consequences, and that, in the United Kingdom, we put the human rights of our citizens first, even whilst they are abroad. Imprisonment without due cause will not be tolerated.
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
This sentence is printed on the inside cover of each British passport – perhaps it is time that those whom it may concern are issued with a reminder. If we do not, then we have only ourselves to blame when another British citizen is taken captive.