The UAE has gained notable attention across the UK media recently due to the bizarre case of Jamie Harron from Stirling, Scotland, who found himself facing three years in prison on charges of public indecency for touching another man’s hip whilst trying not to spill his drink when moving through a crowded bar in downtown Dubai.
It could have happened to any of us and maybe this is why readers are hungry for more details of this story.
Whilst it is good that Jamie Harron’s terrible ordeal in Dubai has received so much attention, it is important that the this case is not viewed in isolation of a much broader narrative of oppression and human rights abuses in the UAE.
Since the Arab Spring of 2011, repression has been rapidly stepped up by the Emirati authorities. Both Emiratis and non-Emiratis have been arbitrarily detained, forcefully disappeared, and in many cases tortured on the most frivolous of charges. In 2016 alone, around 300 people were detained in the UAE for comments posted on social media sites which allegedly criticised the ruling regime. In today’s UAE, prominent Emirati academics, human rights defenders, and lawyers currently languish in jail, often in unknown locations, on charges which violate freedom of speech.
However, the media has framed Jamie’s story as a ‘banged up abroad’ holiday maker nightmare rather than as an example of systematic state repression. Because of this, the tendency is to blame cultural differences rather than focus on a government that has disdain for human rights and international humanitarian law.
Over the last twelve months, ICFUAE (International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates) have received evidence of an alarming increase in arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances. The most notable of these cases is that of Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent human rights activist who is currently being held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer. This was an arrest triggered by Mansoor’s tireless efforts to highlight human rights abuses in the UAE. Worryingly, this has coincided with an increase in British diplomatic and trading activity with the UAE and, in the context of Brexit as trade with the UAE takes on a greater importance, the British government become less willing to speak out about human rights abuses.
Jamie Harron’s terrible ordeal should encourage the media to dig deeper and explore the human rights behaviour of the UAE authorities. If it does this, then some good may come of this episode. However, if the media chooses to frame it in cultural and racial terms then the outcome will be somewhat different. One only has to note the Islamophobic comments underneath some of the articles to see how quickly this can degenerate into racist and, often orientalist, stereotyping.
Harron arrived home on Wednesday to his family and yet Emirati prisoners remain in solitary confinement without representation, such as prominent economist Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith who is serving 10 years in prison for Twitter comments. It is in this context that Harron’s ordeal must be understood. For a short period he was exposed to that which is the reality for so many within the UAE. The fact that the British media have become so interested in this case and have so far failed to relate it to other internal cases suggests that as a society we have still not rid ourselves an Orientalist approach to the Arab world.
It is imperative that the UK media presents Jamie’s case within this wider climate of repression inside the Emirates. By not doing so, we reduce ourselves to viewing human rights violations in the UAE through a Eurocentric lens, which places the value of a European life as higher than that of an Arab. The case of Jamie Harron should not be understood through the lens of a cultural war, but rather within a wider context of repression and human rights abuses in which Emirati bloggers, human rights defenders, and political activists constitute the front line.