In recent years, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf states have markedly expanded their influence within the UK media sector, raising concerns about potential impacts on press freedom, editorial independence, and diplomatic relations.
Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai and Due Process International, warns that the multifaceted dimensions of Gulf nations, particularly the UAE, exerting their presence in the UK media landscape, represents a form of soft power and strategic positioning by the Gulf, which threatens to deflect from pressing human rights concerns.
“Over the past 15 years, we have seen a significant shift, almost a reversal of the historical power dynamic between the UAE and the UK,” Stirling explains, “When we first began our advocacy work for foreign victims of injustice in the Emirates, the British government wielded considerable diplomatic clout and the UAE was highly sensitive to Western rebuke. Today, we see UK government officials treading very lightly when it comes to even mild criticism of human rights abuses in the Emirates and in the Gulf States; and sometimes the FCDO appears almost powerless to intervene when British citizens are wrongfully detained or falsely prosecuted in the UAE. This is largely due to the very deliberate campaign by the Gulf countries to cultivate influence and economic leverage in the UK and Europe.”
The United Kingdom has maintained longstanding historical ties with the ruling families of Gulf states, fostering a relationship that goes beyond geopolitical considerations. Shared interests, such as horse breeding, have served as conduits for cultural exchange and mutual understanding. These historical connections, coupled with significant financial investments, have created a strong rapport between the UK and Gulf nations.
Gulf states, notably the UAE, have made substantial investments in the UK, including prime real estate in London, stakes in British companies, and ownership of shares in media outlets. These financial entanglements have prompted questions about the potential influence such investments might wield over the UK media landscape. The spectre of undue influence and its implications for editorial independence and press freedom looms large in the wake of these substantial financial commitments.
The UAE has strategically positioned itself as a global player through extensive public relations efforts, showcasing its political, economic, and military achievements. These efforts have been instrumental in attracting investors and fostering strategic partnerships; even despite a slew of corruption scandals and countless instances of fraud, extortion, and outright theft suffered by foreign investors in the UAE. “The image that is allowed to be promoted of the Emirates in the West completely obscures the grave dangers actually posed to foreign investors and business people in that country,” Stirling says, “The majority of cases we deal with involve financial disputes between Western expats and local partners, with foreigners routinely taking the fall for crimes committed by their Emirati associates because locals know that the court system is endemically biased against foreigners. Capital invested in the UAE, more often than not, is treated as a donation by the Emiratis. We have had clients flagrantly robbed of hundreds of millions of dollars; their companies and assets seized, their bank accounts emptied, all by local partners or sponsors; who then register criminal cases against them and pursue them through Interpol to the ends of the earth. Yet, British and Western media continue to tout the UAE as a safe and prosperous destination for investment. It is really quite deceitful and dangerous.”
The carefully curated narrative disseminated through various media channels serves as a powerful tool in shaping how the UAE is perceived internationally. While strategic positioning is a legitimate aspect of statecraft, concerns arise when the line between informative communication and propaganda blurs, potentially influencing public opinion in the UK and beyond. “The UAE frequently receives positive and frankly dishonest coverage in the British media,” Stirling explains, “Sometimes on the same programmes that also feature stories about UK citizens being wrongfully detained in Dubai. It is almost as if PR agencies hired by the UAE plant glowing pieces about Dubai specifically to offset any factual negative coverage that might air. This is then compounded by paid advertisements promoting the UAE as a tourist destination as soon as the programme goes to break.”
The delicate dance between diplomatic relations, economic interests, and the desire to attract investments has added complexity to the relationship between the UK and Gulf states. Striking a balance that safeguards journalistic integrity while fostering economic partnerships is a challenge that policymakers must navigate in the evolving landscape of international media ownership.
The UAE's human rights record has been a subject of international criticism, including rebukes from the European Parliament. This scrutiny has implications for diplomatic relations and investments, as evidenced by the UK government's intervention to "soften" language in a letter to an Abu Dhabi-backed fund attempting to acquire The Telegraph. The concern is rooted in the potential impact of foreign ownership on press freedom and media integrity.
“There isn’t a genuine question as to whether or not the UAE’s potential acquisition of The Telegraph will influence both coverage of the Emirates and UK policy towards the UAE,” Stirling explains, “Because it already has influenced both even before the purchase has been made.”
The intersection of media ownership, human rights, and diplomatic relations raises profound questions about the ethical considerations that should guide international investments, Stirling argues. It prompts reflection on whether economic interests should take precedence over human rights concerns and the potential ramifications for press freedom within the UK media landscape. “We have to be realistic about this. When the UAE invests in the UK, when they invest in the West generally; they believe those investments should act as ‘hush money’. The UAE and the Gulf are not making these investments for the benefit of the UK, Europe, or the US. They are making these investments to buy leverage and influence; essentially, they are buying impunity. But the only reason they can believe that their investments will work in this manner is because they have worked in this manner in the past. They have seen the British government become increasingly docile in the wake of Gulf investment. They have seen officials accept the trade-off between financial benefit and silence over human rights violations.”
Given the UAE's significant financial influence in the UK media and sports sectors, Stirling stresses that increased caution is warranted to prevent manipulation. The UK government should carefully consider the implications of its relationships with Gulf states, particularly concerning human rights and the rule of law.
“The legal system of Dubai and the UAE came under international scrutiny this year, with a parliamentary inquiry examining how foreign business executives are treated when accused of breaking the law,” She explains, “This inquiry, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, underscored the need to critically evaluate the implications of growing Gulf influence on the UK's legal and media systems. That was a very positive step, but I fear it is too little, too late.
“The potential impact of foreign investment on the UK media landscape requires thorough scrutiny and consideration of the broader implications for freedom of the press and the integrity of the media industry as a whole. This is an issue of immediate concern with the proposed sale of The Telegraph. Freedom of the press does not exist in the UAE. The entirety of media in the Emirates operates strictly as a PR platform for the government. There is no reason to believe that the UAE will treat The Telegraph any differently. The strategy is quite clear: they are not satisfied with simply planting stories in British media outlets, they want to control the outlets themselves, and this will render once-independent sources of news and information little more than vehicles of Abu Dhabi state propaganda.”
CEO at Due Process International
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