February 28, 2019

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), with its high quality of life, modern infrastructure, and exceptional services offered, has attracted thousands of expatriates who make the Emirates their home and is a world-class destination for travelers. Both Abu Dhabi, its capital, and Dubai, are cosmopolitan cities with major regional air hubs connecting Europe to the Middle East and Asia. Substantial oil wealth has allowed the country to modernize quickly, also allowing the UAE to create a sophisticated security apparatus with the ability to carry out widespread surveillance. Within the context of national security concerns, security forces have been known to crack down, sometimes brutally, on activists, opposition figures, and government critics. Some foreign nationals, acting without malicious intent, have been arrested and imprisoned for acts deemed hostile to the country. 


Arrests Made in the United Arab Emirates 

On May 5, 2018, authorities arrested UK academic Matthew Hedges in Dubai on espionage charges. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison on Nov. 21. Hedges, a doctoral student, was researching the UAE's security policies and the impact of the 2011 Arab Spring. Reports indicated that he had interviewed numerous people before his arrest. It remains unclear with whom Hedges may have met, but if any of the individuals had links to activists, opposition groups, or Islamists, those connections may have led to his detention. UAE officials pardoned Hedges on Nov. 26 amid international media scrutiny and pressure from the UK government, but not until after he spent nearly six months in detention. 

On Feb. 5, police detained UK national Ali Issa Ahmed in Abu Dhabi for wearing a Qatari football jersey at a Jan. 22 Asian Cup match between Qatar and Iraq. He was reportedly arrested, assaulted, and later released after the match. Ahmed later went to report the assault at a local police station and was accused of lying and rearrested. His arrest stemmed from the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Qatar and a coalition of Arab countries: the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. The quartet severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism and encouraging dissent against their respective governments. In July 2017, the UAE's cybercrime law was expanded to criminalize expressing sympathy toward Qatar, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine. In this instance, wearing a Qatari national team jersey was viewed as supporting Qatar and likely an act of dissent. Ahmed was held in detention and eventually allowed to travel back to the UK, Feb. 12.


Surveillance Technology

The UAE's security apparatus employs sophisticated surveillance technology to monitor social media for security threats, including discussions of politically sensitive topics such as criticism of the country, its government, foreign policy, and accusations of abuse by security forces. Furthermore, opportunities for anonymous communications within the country are difficult. In 2016, a Dubai police official said authorities monitor "users on 42 social media platforms."


Dangers Facing Foreign Nationals

These examples underscore the potential dangers facing foreign nationals in the UAE. Political topics that may seem harmless in one's home country may be deemed sensitive in the UAE. While most expatriates and travelers in the UAE do not experience any problems, authorities may perceive individuals as a security threat if they are found discussing controversial topics, even on social media platforms. With such a vast surveillance network, visitors should carefully consider any comments they make in public or on social media to avoid being caught in the country’s security dragnet.


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