What is the potential fallout from the Matthew Hedges UAE case?

The United Arab Emirates pardoned British Ph.D. student Matthew Hedges on November 26th after holding him in prison on spy charges.  The UAE accused the British academic of being a member of the MI6 due to his network of connections within the country, however, they bowed to international pressure to justify their allegations and instead released Hedges.

While the case may be over for Hedges, who returned to his wife in England, the UAE still faces further ramifications and trade between the two countries may be more tenuous than before.

The UAE faced an international campaign from Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, and were feeling pressure from British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt. 

The Emirates attempted to save face by holding press conferences detailing their suspicions and alleged Hedges took advantage of their country’s openness to academics.  The UAE also provided short video clips of Hedges including one where he admits to having the nonexistent rank of captain in MI6.

The public nature of the Emirate’s actions indicates a potential shift in relations between the two countries.

The UAE is a strong British trade and regional partner and according to the UK Office for National Statistics is Britain’s 23rd leading imports partner (£4.8 billion) and 13th leading exports partner (£9.8 billion). They also buy £250 million worth of British-made weapons every year.

But, the UAE, guided by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, have strayed from their long-standing British partnership in favour of more hard power responses to regional politics.

While the UK and UAE have largely agreed on regional politics in recent years, under Prime Minister Theresa May, the UAE has started to become a more difficult partner.

The Yemeni Civil War and the Qatari blockade are two examples of the Emirates’ switch from international cooperation with the UK to a more active hard power force.  In both of these cases, the UAE is following Saudi Arabia’s lead.

In Yemen, the UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting with the Yemeni government against Houthi rebels.  The Saudi coalition has been accused of war crimes and targeting civilians in the drawn-out war.

The Saudi and Emirati are equipped with American and British weapons, so while the countries are not directly involved in the conflict, many have accused the Western leaders of being complicit in an increasingly bloody war.

Crown Prince Zayed has also teamed up with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to isolate Qatar through a blockade.

Saudi Arabia and its allies are upset with Qatar’s alignment with Iran, and the Saudi-led coalition issued Qatar with 13 demands before the blockade would be lifted.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ramped up their language against Qatar since the blockade.  Both have threatened to dump nuclear waste near Qatar, and Saudi Arabia has said they are planning to dig a ditch and build a canal in order to make Qatar a completely isolated island.

Here again, the UK government is in opposition to the actions of the UAE, and the government supports Kuwaiti-led mediation appeals.

Coupled with other recent international incidents, Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem empowered by American President Donald Trump’s aversion to condemning human rights abuses and other transgressions by the two countries. 

So, May’s government and the United Kingdom have to carefully balance themselves between the emboldened actions of their Middle Eastern trade and political partners and the resulting international condemnation due to the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s actions.

The case of Matthew Hedges may have been a test to see how far the Emirates can go without risking the trade partnership with the United Kingdom.  Eventually, the UAE caved and released the British national, but the saga highlights growing tensions, and it perhaps gives the United Kingdom further fuel to decrease ties with the Emirates.

However, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are keenly aware of the political situation in the UK.   An uncertain exit from the European Union and a potentially weakened trading position with their European partners does not leave May’s government much room to make demands out of the Emirates.

Furthermore, the current political situation in the United States seems to indicate that decreased Gulf Region trade with Britain could shift into American hands.

While Emirati-British relations may be momentarily strained, one would expect trade deals and political alliances to remain similarly organized in the near future.  But if domestic politics shift in the UK, US or other regions, then British business with the UAE might see significant change.

In the bigger picture, the academic’s case may end up being a mere blip in the strong relations between two trade partners.

However, regional analysts will be keeping a keen eye on the UAE’s international diplomacy as the case threw light on a diplomatic relationship that could see change in the coming years.