Paul Vallely: No spy, but not just a Ph.D. student

30 November 2018

Matthew Hedges sailed close to the wind in the UAE, says Paul Vallely

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“APPARENTLY, in the poorer quarters of Naples they keep pigs on their balconies. This one was on the fifth floor. It had grown too fat. The balcony broke. The pig fell on your father.” I’ve always had a secret empathy with the boy in Graham Greene’s short story A Shocking Accident, who responds to the tragi-comic news about the death of his father with the question “What happened to the pig?”

When the news came that the British academic Matthew Hedges was to be one of 785 prisoners pardoned by the United Arab Emirates, my first thought was “What happened to the other 784?”

The UAE, despite its glitzy Grand Prix expat lifestyle — and being a longstanding British ally and trading partner — has a pretty poor human-rights record. The Western media often run stories about tourists jailed for unlicensed alcohol or kissing in public. But look in the regular reports of Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, and you will see catalogues of concern about legal corruption, nepotism, arbitrary detention, unfair trials, forced confessions, and even torture.

It has all got worse since 2011, when the UAE began ruthlessly suppressing free speech, targeting judges, lawyers, academics, and journalists to stamp out even peaceful criticism of the government. It is a place where you can be imprisoned for a tweet. Since it has become involved in the Saudi coalition to bomb Yemen, and ostracise Qatar for being too pro-Iran, things have got even more sensitive.

Given all this, the real surprise is that Mr Hedges — whom the UAE still insists was a British spy — sailed so close to the wind. Although he was at boarding school in Britain, he spent his school and university holidays in the UAE, where his family worked. He knows the country very well, according to his Ph.D. supervisor in Durham, and was “very much a known face” among the “Emirati political elite”. Many of the interviewees for his research were people whom he knew personally, or for whom he had worked.

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Mr Hedges is more than a Ph.D. student. He has worked across the Middle East for several years as a consultant on the defence, security, and military capabilities of the region. His MA thesis was “What has driven the UAE’s military spending since 2001?”. His research has covered not just defence expenditure but actual battlefield technology. He has worked for the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, and, the BBC reports, has described himself as “an intelligence analyst at a cyber-intelligence firm in the UK”.

This is not to suggest that he is a spy. Indeed, one former MI6 officer said: “You could not imagine a British intelligence officer behaving the way he has. Hedges was absolutely overt in his questioning. A real MI6 officer would have been far more subtle.”

But someone as well-informed as Mr Hedges ought to have known how close to the line he was venturing. Perhaps that suggests that the line has been moved.

What happened to the pig? It turned out that most of the other 784 who were pardoned were in prison for debt or financial crimes nowhere near as grave as espionage. Future academics must beware.

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