The glitzy Expo 2020, hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is coming to an end. It’s the latest high-profile event through which the UAE has sought to present itself in a positive light. But the reality is one of brute repression. Anyone who voices any form of dissent towards the government is liable to be jailed and mistreated in detention. Women, LGBTQI+ people and migrant workers are systematically denied rights. But international bodies keep holding events in the UAE – which is now also hosting a United Nations climate change meeting – and global businesses keep partnering with them. Civil society is calling for the whitewashing to stop.

March marks the end of Expo 2020, a prestigious event hosted in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), under the seemingly inclusive theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’. Pretty much the whole world was represented: 192 countries exhibited on one of the three sub-themes of mobility, opportunity and sustainability. They were joined by a range of big brands, including Mastercard, Nissan and Pepsi. CNN was the event’s official broadcaster and there was even an official beauty partner, L’Oréal. Its glitzy opening ceremony last September featured performances from Chinese pianist Lang Lang, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and US singer Andra Day.

Notice anyone missing? In countries with relatively open civic space, civil society is at the forefront of making connections and working for a better future. It’s impossible to see the words ‘mobility, ‘opportunity’ and ‘sustainability’ without thinking about civil society’s leading role in bringing about change and holding the powerful to account. But in the UAE’s closed civic space, this is a role they are consistently denied.

The problem isn’t just that the Expo didn’t acknowledge civil society’s vital contribution. What matters most is the reality concealed behind the curtain: that of an autocratic state where the ruling elite stamps down on any form of dissent, and anyone who questions its rule is likely to end up in jail. It’s a reality light years away from the reformist, progressive image the UAE projects by hosting events such as the Expo.

The unvarnished truth

It must take a lot of willed denial – or material incentives – to believe the fiction displayed at events like the Expo, because it isn’t hard to see behind the curtain. It’s only around an hour’s drive from the Expo to Al Sadr prison, home since 2017 of Ahmed Mansoor, serving a 10-year sentence in solitary confinement for the crime of blogging about human rights issues. In 2021, when Ahmed managed to sneak out a letter detailing his mistreatment in jail, he was further punished by being moved to a smaller cell and denied medical care.

Ahmed’s is sadly not an exceptional case. A group known as the UAE 94 also remain in jail, 10 years after signing an online petition calling for democratic reform. Several of them are being held despite having completed their sentences. It’s common practice for the authorities to hold onto prisoners, transferring them to so-called ‘counselling centres’ within jails when their terms are supposed to end.

Despite its many political prisoners, the UAE seems to still have vacant jail space it’s eager to fill. In January, midway through hosting the Expo, the government passed a new cybercrime law, awash with vague and broad terminology that gives it further power to jail those deemed to harm the interests of the state or damage public trust in it, essentially making it a crime to criticise those in power. Advocating for political change, a normal activity in a democratic country, can now lead to a life sentence. Journalists risk being jailed for spreading ‘rumours’ or ‘false news’. The government has also used Pegasus spyware to spy on activists, including those in exile.

Even after some recent changes, laws subjecting women to the authority of male guardians remain, migrant workers are systematically denied basic rights and sex between men is criminalised, punishable by the death penalty. None of this is in the Expo brochure.

Voices from the frontline

Kristina Stockwood of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, an organisation that provides support and protection to human rights defenders, highlights the repression behind the Expo – and civil society’s response to it.

Every single human rights defender active in the UAE has been imprisoned or driven into exile in violation of their right to the freedom of expression. The UAE cracks downs systematically on critical and independent voices who advocate for human rights, both online and offline.

As we show in a recent report, the UAE authorities rely on torture to consolidate this oppressive climate. Key emerging patterns are the use of enforced disappearances following arbitrary arrest, detention to perpetrate torture with impunity, the punishment and further torture of those who dare to speak out about their conditions of detention, and the complicity of companies and the international community in the systematic perpetration of torture in the UAE.

Throughout the Expo, the UAE has made an effort to whitewash its image, projecting a country of tolerance that even promotes women’s rights. To that effect, a women’s pavilion was included at the Expo and Forbes held a big event for women.

The Women’s Pavilion at the Expo is designed to ‘reaffirm Expo’s commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment’. But women in the UAE have no rights and no power, and have been imprisoned for their online activities. The head of the Expo himself is a prominent perpetrator of violence against women. In 2020, a British woman who was organising the Hay Festival in the UAE, Caitlin May McNamara, was assaulted by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, commissioner-general of the Expo and Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, after being lured to this residence on the false pretence that they would talk about the situation of Ahmed Mansoor.

Needless to say, not a single UAE human rights defender was invited to the Expo, an event whose organisers claim has the purpose of creating ‘a better tomorrow’ because that is what happens ‘when the world comes together’, as its slogan goes.

In October 2021, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and over two dozen partners, including two Emirati CSOs that operate in exile – the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE and the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre – organised the online Alternative Human Rights Expo to counter the narrative of tolerance promoted by Emirati authorities. We argued that ‘coming together to hear diverse voices’ and ‘create a better world’ is not something attainable in a place where people are locked up for speaking their minds.

At the Alternative Human Rights Expo’s main event, held online on 14 October 2021, over 25 human rights groups paid tribute to human rights defenders from the UAE and called for their release during the Dubai Expo. The event featured human rights defenders, poets, artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers from a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond. The aim of the event was to highlight the work of creative talents from the region, as well as that of imprisoned activists, whose work was read during the event.

Many civil society organisations have reported on the human rights violations happening in the UAE, yet many global leaders remain silent, at least in public, sometimes suggesting that they raise human rights violations behind the scenes. This includes government allies of the UAE and companies that hold events in the UAE.

This is an edited extract of our conversation with Kristina. Read the full interview here.

A meaningful silence over Russia

The UAE works hard to hide its true face from the world. It has built multiple state-of-the art convention centres and related venues. It’s always hosting some kind of event. It’s also active in sportswashing: alongside Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, it hosts one of a series of Formula 1 Grand Prix races granted to repressive Gulf states, while its deputy prime minister owns English Premier League football club Manchester City, which acts as an advertising billboard for Abu Dhabi’s airline Etihad. All these seek to present the state in a positive light and cultivate international credibility.

In a signal of its increasingly assertive international role, the UAE also worked hard and lavished cash to manoeuvre its police chief, General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, into the presidency of international police organisation Interpol last November. But, while this may lead to further opportunities to misuse the Interpol system to label exiled dissidents as criminals, as a prestige-building manoeuvre it rather backfired, since it led to extensive international coverage of the fact that Al-Raisi faces multiple credible torture allegations.

The UAE’s foreign policy is as bankrupt as its domestic policy. It gathered most of the world’s states under its roof for the Expo, but on one of today’s urgent issues, it has repeatedly showed that it is not a good international citizen. The UAE has consistently chosen not to condemn Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine. It abstained on the United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution on the invasion, and again when the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to demand that Russia withdraw from Ukraine.

When other countries were hurrying to welcome people fleeing Ukraine, the UAE’s response was to cancel visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens, without warning, on 2 March. Meanwhile, Russian oligarchs, hemmed in by western sanctions, are rushing to buy property and businesses in the UAE. Even as Russian bombs rained down on Ukraine, on 17 March the UAE’s foreign minister flew to Moscow to discuss energy cooperation. The UAE is among states resisting international pressure to increase oil supply, which would lower prices; high oil prices help cushion Putin from the impact of sanctions.

The gap between the stated intention of Expo 2020 and the reality of how the UAE behaves, domestically and abroad, is breath-taking. The international organisation behind the event, the International Bureau of Expositions, is complicit in this hypocrisy, and should be called to account over its choice of a highly repressive state to host its landmark event.

Greenwash on top of whitewash

As Expo 2020 nears its end, the UAE hurries to host yet another event. From 28 to 31 March, it is holding the first-ever Middle East and North Africa Climate Week. The hosting of this event has been conferred on it by the UN climate change secretariat. The conference promises to bring together representatives of government, businesses and civil society to discuss climate solutions. But in the closed conditions of the UAE, there will be little scope for civil society to make connections between human rights and climate change, or talk about the rights impacts of fossil fuel extraction and the elite wealth and repression it enables in countries like the UAE.

With COP27, the next global climate change summit, taking place in the equally closed civic space conditions of Egypt this November, the UAE-hosted climate week looks like a sign of what is to come: an event missing the crucial contribution of a mobilised, enabled and critical civil society.

Civic space is vital for climate action: in countries with more open civic space, a passionate and committed civil society has been able to push the climate crisis up the political and media agenda through mass protests, disruptive public stunts and non-violent civil disobedience. An enabled civil society is able to hold governments and businesses to account on their climate commitments and urge them to do more. Closed civic space is the climate denier’s friend.

Why does the UN continue to hold important discussions in countries with closed civic space? It doesn’t seem this pattern will be broken any time soon. After Egypt, the next global summit, COP28, will be hosted by the UAE. The UN has handed the UAE another precious opportunity to launder its international reputation, and made it less likely that civil society pressure will ensure strong commitments and meaningful climate action.

Exposing the hypocrisy

Whitewashing events such as the Expo always have the potential to backfire because they offer moments to expose the ugly reality behind the curtain, and civil society is adept at exploiting these. The Alternative Expo organised by civil society for the Expo’s start in October offered an example of this. It made the point that it was nonsense to talk of sustainability when the voices of women are not heard, of opportunity when online expression is restricted, and of mobility when activists are locked away.

‘Coming together to hear diverse voices’ and ‘create a better world’ is not something attainable in a place where people are locked up for speaking their minds.

KRISTINA STOCKWOOD

Pressure is also building on the UAE and other Gulf states over their hosting of Grand Prix races. Russia rightly had its Grand Prix taken away over its invasion of Ukraine. But now a precedent has been set, activists are calling for the same treatment for the UAE and its neighbours as the price of their human rights violations, not least as a result of their involvement in the bloody conflict in Yemen.

For the UAE, repression and the hosting of international events are intimately linked. Ahead of the Expo the government seemed determined to tidy away those who might spoil its carefully stage-managed event. Those who challenge the international image it seeks to project must be silenced.

International partners know the reality but choose to ignore it. They often claim that by engaging they can quietly influence the regime, but the reality is that their silence is the price of partnership. They must be challenged on their collaboration. The UAE’s partners must exert genuine pressure for change. The businesses involved must respond to campaigns to end their cooperation. International bodies, including UN organisations, must stop awarding prestige events to the UAE and other countries with closed civic space, and make clear why they do so. Failure to act is to be complicit in the jailing of Ahmed Mansoor and the many others behind bars merely for having the audacity of aspiring to exercise their most basic human rights.

Our calls for action

  • The UAE’s international partners must speak out to support human rights and UAE civil society.
  • International bodies should commit to not holding events in the UAE and other countries with closed civic space.
  • Civil society should mobilise consumer pressure on businesses that partner with the UAE’s international events.

The UAE is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.

Cover photo by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights