The United Arab Emirates, An Ally France Should Be Ashamed Of

The fact that France has contracted many arms sales with the United Arab Emirates has gone largely uncontested. Yet a joint report from the International Federation for Human Rights, its member and partner organisations and the Observatoire des Armements sets forth a truly damning list of human rights violations perpetrated by that “ally”. And its authors point to the possible complicity of French authorities.

President Emmanuel Macron is greeted by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed during his visit to the Emirates pavilion at Dubai Expo on the first day of his Gulf tour on December 3, 2021
Thomas Samson/AFP

On 3 and 4 December 2021, Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, made a tour of the Persian Gulf. His first stop was the UAE, followed by Qatar, and finally Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), blacklisted by the international community in 2018 after the frightful murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and to whom the French President was thus the first chief of a major Western power to restore a touch of legitimacy. The ostensible goal of that tour was to beef up the struggle against terrorism and Islamist radicalism, to contribute to the stabilisation of the Middle East and to further strengthen France’s economic partnerships with the countries visited. This latter objective was fully achieved, since the President could announce among other things the sale to the Emirates of twelve military Caracal helicopters (manufactured by Airbus Industries) as well as eighty Rafale fighter planes, made by Dassault and mostly paid for by French taxpayers.

“A strategic partnership”

The acquisition of these aircraft by the Emirates was proudly presented by the French chief of State as “the biggest contract ever in the history of the French armaments industry.” He saw it as the “fruition of a long relationship“ between Paris and Abu Dhabi. His Armed Forces Minister, Florence Parly, also sang the praises in a twit, “of the conclusion of an historic contract” that has “sealed a strategic partnership more solid than ever,” and wrote how proud she was “to see French industrial excellence come out on top.”

Yet this patriotic crowing and other triumphal press releases conceal the sordid reality of a shameful compromise with a truly repulsive regime. The International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) publishes on 14 December a dense report, “the product of two years’ research”—from April 2019 to April 2021—in collaboration with the Observatoire des Armements, which shows that indeed, when it comes to sturdy, durable alliances, France and the UAE may well be partners in particularly odious crimes.

For that country, with which France prides itself upon entertaining excellent relations in the areas of trade and security, “is in fact an especially repressive dictatorship where any and every dissident voice runs the risk of being gaoled and tortured,” the IFHR explains. Its report also sheds light on the “direct and indirect responsibilities of the Emirate rulers in some of the worst violations perpetrated” in Yemen, where a particularly vicious war which the Emirates joined alongside Saudi Arabia in 2015 and in which they have played an especially active role, has already taken 350,000 lives, mostly civilians.

Torture as an everyday affair

The authors of the report begin by observing that the Emirate regime indulges at home, and notably under cover “of a legal framework involving laws against terrorism and cyber-criminality to repress domestic dissidence”, “in serious violations of human rights”. In 2012, the UAE signed the UN Convention against torture, which requires them “to take active measures to prevent and sanction this practice,” to "offer its victims reparations, “and “to respect in short the principle of the absolute prohibition of torture”.

However, the UAE did not sign the optional protocol authorising the UN to investigate complaints that they have not respected their commitments. And for good reason, since according to the IFHR, “the Emirate authorities continue to use torture” on, “those they consider a threat”: human rights activists, political opponents, religious personalities and journalists.

Sinister detail provided by the reports: “Among other methods used are sleep deprivation, withholding of medical treatment, verbal threats, sexual aggressions, finger-nail pulling, torture to death, violent beatings with fists and canes, especially on the face, the head and eyes, hanging by the hands, hair-pulling on the head, face and body”… Furthermore, “the Emirate authorities regularly bring about the forced disappearance of political activists, human rights defenders and critics of the government.”

Thus, in December 2015, the Jordanian journalist and poet, Tayseer Al-Naijar, “was arrested without any charge and taken to an unknown location where he was prevented from consulting an attorney or contacting his family.” He was detained for over a year before finally being charged with having committed cyber-crimes: in reality, “these were Facebook postings in which he criticised the UAE’s human rights record and their role in backing Israel’s war against Gaza.”

The IFHR points out that "as a consequence of the country’s patriarchal system, women who defend human rights encounter additional obstacles when they campaign for their own rights—they are often singled out and covered in shame by state officials and others (including their family, communities and society at large). When they are gaoled, women are also tortured and subjected to violence—but they are also removed from the public eye.”

Migrant workers who have settled in the Emirates also undergo “terrible conditions”, the report goes on, and are regarded as second-class citizens. Faced with “various kinds of exploitation and ill treatments (especially over-long working hours, unfit housing, physical abuse)”, they “have no access to independent and impartial judicial authorities” and when they bring formal complaints about the way they are treated, most of the time they run into “verdicts favourable to their Emirate employers.”

At war in Yemen

In March 2015 the UAE went to war in Yemen along with Saudi Arabia, officially to defend the territorial integrity of that country against the onslaughts of Ansar Allah, an armed group that had seized the capital, Sanaa, a few months earlier. Unofficially, the IFHR report explains, both these countries have less disinterested motivations: Riyadh “wishes to assert its regional power against Iran” while Abu Dhabi “had a territorial objective to control the Southern part of Yemen and its West Coast” in order to “extend Emirate influence to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.”

In February 2020, “after five years’ participation in the Yemeni civil war in the Saudi-Emirate coalition, the Emirate rulers celebrated the end of their gradual withdrawal from the country”. But in no way does this withdrawal “suspend their role in the coalition or diminish Emirate influence on the ground. Rather is it a matter of switching from a direct to an indirect participation”—via the many “mandatory forces”, Sudanese and other mercenaries, trained and deployed in Yemen “with the help of the UAE which continues to finance these organisations.

The authors of the IFHR report conducted a detailed examination of eight instances of “serious human rights violations” perpetrated between 2016 and 2019 by men identified as “either full-fledged Emirate officers” or members of the Emirates’ mandatory forces.

In every instance “arbitrary arrests were made,” involving “individuals considered to be political opponents” or accused without proof of “being affiliated with terrorist organisations”. Most were “made by the mandatory forces in terrifying night-time raids” on the victims’ homes or workplaces. In six cases out of eight, these victims were tortured by Emirate officers.

One chilling example:

Muhammad was arrested at the checkpoint between Dofas and Abyan where the officer in charge began by beating him. Next, he was transferred in a brown pick-up with no licence plates carrying six armed men (…) to an unknown destination. For several days Muhammad was the victim of a forced disappearance until his body was found, deposited in front of a hospital. Mwatana received a snapshot of the victim’s, body besmirched with blood, both eyes missing and teeth smashed, in addition to six bullet wounds in every part of his body, one in his genitals. The traces of electric torture were visible, and his feet were still bound with iron chains. The victim’s father received the body and buried it, after the hospital had refused to file an autopsy report on the pretext that the victim had been found in the courtyard and had not entered the emergency room.

These violations are amply documented. Yet France continues to deal with those responsible for them. It is even deeply “involved with the Emirate defence industry”, especially “by directly exporting weapons to the UAE and “by the transfer of skills and competencies, the joint development of weapons with the Emirates” in the framework of a project which also involves German and British suppliers.

So for the IFHR, France’s responsibilities are overwhelming. In 2008, it first committed itself, along with the rest of the European Union, “not to sell or transfer arms if there is an obvious risk that these will be used to perpetrate serious violations of international human rights.” Later, in 2013, it also committed itself, in line with the UN Treaty on the arms trade, “to ban any sale or export of arms” which it knows “might be used” to perpetrate violations of International humanitarian law or International Human Rights Laws. Nonetheless, it continues selling weapons to the UAE and servicing the equipment it as already sold to them.

The IFHR and the Observatoire des Armements conclude that the pursuance of this trade can only “raise questions as to the possible complicity of the French companies supplying this equipment and the French authorities approving their export”, and they call upon France “to make international legality the keystone of its relations with its ‘strategic allies’”; and ask the French firms exporting these arms to the Emirates to put an end to these sales “in accordance with their international obligation to respect human rights in all the countries where they are active”. This too would be historical.