Foreign Relations & International Law

UAE Releases British Student Accused of Spying, Saudi Crown Prince Tries to Boost Image on Regional Tour, Yemen Moves Closer to Peace Talks

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, November 27, 2018, 4:20 PM

United Arab Emirates Releases British Graduate Student Accused of Spying

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United Arab Emirates Releases British Graduate Student Accused of Spying

Just days after sentencing him to life in prison, the Emirati government announced Monday that it would pardon Matthew Hedges, a British PhD candidate who has been jailed in the United Arab Emirates since May on espionage charges. Hedges, who is 31 years old and studying at Durham University, was arrested when he tried to leave the country after a research trip. Emirati officials accused him of trying to obtain secret information and recruit Emiratis to spy for Britain, charges which the British government and Hedges’ wife have denied.

An article full of unsubstantiated allegations published in the Emirati paper The National said that Hedges raised suspicions because he “asked too many questions,” in the words of an Emirati former coworker. At a press conference announcing that Hedges would be pardoned, Emirati officials defended his sentencing. Journalists who attended the briefing described an edited selection of clips of Hedges, apparently in a closed court hearing, testifying that he had been operating as a field agent for British intelligence. When asked his rank in MI6, though, Hedges said that he was a “captain”—which, CNN’s Sam Kiley notes, is not a title used by the organization. Though reportedly Hedges shows no signs of duress in the tape that was shown to reporters on Monday, Hedges’ wife has said that he was kept in solitary confinement and “was absolutely broken by such an intense period of isolation and what he described as a very tough interrogation.” (The United Arab Emirates is no stranger to accusations of torture; earlier this year, the allied government in Yemen that the Emirates intervened to support ordered the Emirati government to relinquish control of prisons it was operating in Yemen after released detainees described being subjected to electrical shocks and sexual abuse.)

Hedges “was part-time Ph.D. researcher, part-time businessman, but he was 100 percent a full-time secret service operative,” an Emirati government spokesperson, Jaber al-Lamki, told reporters on Monday. The government said the pardon was just one of 785 being granted in honor of the Emirates’ national day, and that it was a result of “the historical relationship and the close ties between the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.” The British government has made clear that it still denies the charges against Hedges, but is grateful for his release. “Fantastic news about Matthew Hedges,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted on Monday. “Although we didn’t agree with charges we are grateful to UAE govt for resolving issue speedily.”

Saudi Crown Prince Tries to Rally Support Ahead of G20 Meeting

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is traveling across the Middle East this week ahead of the G20 summit in Argentina. Stops have included close allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and Egypt, which has received more than $25 billion in aid from the Kingdom since a coup in 2013 supported by the Gulf states. Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh el-Sisi gave MBS a warm welcome in Cairo on Monday, and Saudi media went even further in portraying Egypt’s hospitality, publishing a doctored image of the Saudi flag projected on the pyramids at Giza that the Atlantic Council’s H.A. Hellyer noted on Twitter was fake.

But in Tunisia, MBS has been less welcome. Hundreds of Tunisians began protesting against his visit on Monday on a main boulevard in Tunis, and continued through his arrival on Tuesday. Protesters made clear that they were motivated by the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which was orchestrated by the Saudi government, and Riyadh’s ongoing military intervention in Yemen. They chanted that “the murderer is not welcome in Tunisia,” and the journalists’ union posted a banner of the crown prince holding a saw with the words, "No to the pollution of the Tunisian revolution." The Tunisian government has shielded the crown prince from the press by only allowing photographers to cover his visit and not scheduling a joint press conference.

After trying to shore up support at home with the help of his father, King Salman, MBS is now working to restore his position abroad. He has had some help from the Trump administration. Despite the CIA determining that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing—even involving his brother, the U.S. ambassador, in drawing him to the consulate in Istanbul—the Trump administration made clear last week that MBS’ involvement in the murder of a U.S. permanent resident would not change the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Last Tuesday, in a bizarre statement punctuated with six exclamation points, the president again stressed the importance of Saudi arms purchases and Riyadh’s shared opposition to Iran. “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” the statement read. “As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!” Even the administration’s rationale is rife with inaccuracies, though. The statement cites $110 billion in Saudi purchases of U.S. weapons systems; that number, though often cited by the administration, is false. ABC reported on Monday that the number was inflated in the statement at the suggestion of Jared Kushner, with the support of Defense Secretary James Mattis. (The actual figure is closer to $15 billion. Brookings’ Bruce Riedel debunked the $110 billion claim more than a year ago, when the administration first floated the number after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017.)

The crown prince still faces pressure from the government of Turkey, which has at times revved up or wound down the controversy with strategically timed leaks to the government-friendly Turkish press. Erdogan has reportedly been using to crisis to pressure Riyadh to replace MBS with a new, less impulsive crown prince, or to secure favorable loans, and the Trump administration may have floated the idea of extraditing Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan has accused of orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt, as a concession to get Turkey to back off (the U.S. Justice Department has denied it was approached about the matter). Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday that Ankara is now considering calling for a U.N. investigation of Khashoggi’s death and that he has already discussed the possibility with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Cavusoglu said that cooperation with Saudi authorities so far “is not at the level we want.” “If there is an impasse here and this investigation only goes so far or there isn’t full cooperation, then we can make the necessary applications for an international investigation,” he said. MBS has reportedly requested to meet with Erdogan during the G20 summit in Buenos Aires later this week.

Yemen Peace Talks Could Convene As Soon As Next Week

Fighting has dissipated somewhat in the strategic port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, over the past week, as the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government prepare to meet for U.N.-mediated peace talks. U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths visited the frontline city last Friday and said that Houthi officials were receptive to the idea of conceding some of the responsibilities for the port’s operations to the United Nations. The goal would be to protect the port, which is a conduit for vital humanitarian aid entering the country, from fighting between Houthi and pro-government forces, but Houthi officials have previously resisted the idea. The World Food Programme, which operates in Hodeidah, said on Tuesday that shipping companies have been deterred from sending new supplies to the city during a recent surge in fighting that has come within a few miles of the port.

Peace talks could begin as soon as next week. Sweden has agreed to host the discussions, and Sky News reports that the only remaining logistical issues are ensuring safe transit for the Houthi delegation and an arrangement to evacuate 50 wounded Houthi fighters to Oman for medical treatment.

A group of influential humanitarian organizations—the International Rescue Committee, and the U.S. branches of Oxfam, CARE, Save the Children, and the Norwegian Refugee Council—has called for the United States to act quickly to end the war. "The stakes in Yemen are shocking and must be stated clearly: 14 million people are at risk of starving to death in Yemen if the parties to the conflict and their supporters do not change course immediately," they warned in a joint letter last week. The toll of the war has been difficult to assess—the United Nations stopped updating its assessment in August 2016, when it was estimated that 10,000 people had been killed in combat. Unofficial estimates now suggest that figure is closer to 50,000, not including deaths from a cholera outbreak and severe food insecurity. A new report from Save the Children released last week estimates that nearly 85,000 children under the age of five have died of malnutrition since the Saudi intervention in April 2015.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote this week on legislation that would invoke the War Powers Act to end U.S. support to the Saudi intervention. A similar measure was blocked by Republicans in the House last week, but the Senate bill has some support from Republicans and similar legislation in March came fairly close to passing, receiving 44 votes. “I’ve laid in the railroad tracks in the past to keep us from blocking arms to Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Bob Corker told the Washington Post on Monday. “I’m in a real different place right now as it relates to Saudi Arabia.” Corker has been an outspoken critic of MBS and Saudi policy in the weeks since Khashoggi’s disappearance.

But while the Senate is taking the lead in pressuring the Saudis to wind down the war, the Trump administration is backpedaling. CNN reports that the United States is stalling a U.N. Security Council resolution drafted by Britain that calls for a ceasefire in Hodeidah and increased humanitarian aid. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley previously supported the resolution and the language is more circumscribed than even some recent statements from the Pentagon and U.S. State Department. But the resolution is adamantly opposed by MBS, who reportedly “threw a fit” when he saw an early draft, and since reaffirming its support for the kingdom last week, the White House has indicated that it is no longer in favor of the resolution.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and an instructor at the Naval War College. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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