My nightmare started at the Dubai airport.
I checked in and, after a quick coffee, my mother, who was living in Dubai at the time, walked me to border control to say goodbye. It was May 2018, and I had spent the past two weeks staying with her as I carried out research for my doctoral thesis. We exchanged a hug, and I waited in a queue before handing over my passport for immigration checks. Then, suddenly, as my travel documents were being examined, about a dozen security officers swarmed around me and said I was being detained.
What ensued was a seven-month ordeal, one in which I—a British academic—was kept in solitary confinement by the intelligence service of a friendly government. One in which basic demands, such as access to a lawyer, were denied. And one in which my wife and, eventually, my government had to publicly push for my release before I was finally freed.
For years, I had been researching the United Arab Emirates’ national-security strategy, a subject I was well versed in—I had previously worked in the country’s defense and security sector, often on the same topic as my thesis. Before leaving for the Gulf, I submitted my research plans to Durham University, where I was getting my doctoral degree. The school’s third-party risk-assessment firm found nothing sensitive with my plans and cleared me for travel to the UAE from both an ethical and a safety standpoint.
All of that mattered little to the Emirati intelligence-service interrogators—in their view, I had been collecting information on the country’s security installations and procedures, and there was nothing I could say to change their mind.
At the airport, the circumstances of my detention were intimidating and confusing. I asked what was happening, but no clear explanation was given. I asked for a lawyer, and was rebuffed. I quickly told my mother to contact the British embassy and inform a lawyer. Before I knew it, I was blindfolded and put in the back of a car, which took me to Abu Dhabi.
For the next six weeks, I suffered intense and grueling daily interrogations, sometimes for 15 hours at a time. I was repeatedly threatened with physical torture, life imprisonment, and removal to an overseas military base unless I confessed to what my captors were accusing me of. I was kept practically incommunicado, able to make only two brief calls to my mother to report (falsely, under duress) that I was well. On one occasion, the interrogators even asked me to steal documents from Britain’s foreign ministry. Throughout that time, I did not speak to my wife, a lawyer, or a British diplomat, considerably worsening my mental health (I already suffered from depression and anxiety).
At first, I tried refuting the intelligence service’s claims, and insisted that I was innocent. This was met only with increasing hostility. The psychological pressure, compounded by the isolation I was subjected to, finally pushed me to give in. I confessed, signing a statement in Arabic (a language I do not speak or read) that said I was a member of MI6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service. I had hoped, as my captors had suggested on several occasions, that matters would be resolved swiftly, without serious repercussions for me or my loved ones, if I “came clean.”
I truly believed my detention was a mistake, and, indeed, once I signed the confession I was allowed a meeting with a British consular official. Our conversation lasted six minutes, was supervised by guards and the state prosecutor overseeing my case himself, and was cut short when I was asked by the consular officer if I had been tortured. With that, it became clear that my initial hopes had been misplaced. My next visit from the consulate was nearly three months later. I continued to be held in solitary confinement and interrogated without a lawyer. I finally saw my wife in late July 2018—she had traveled to the United Arab Emirates, desperate for answers and pushing for a diplomatic solution. I had no idea she was coming, and our 45-minute meeting was also supervised in its entirety. We were not allowed to discuss anything pertaining to my case, but the fact that she was allowed to see me at all gave us hope that the situation would improve. Instead, I was taken back to solitary confinement, where my grim routine resumed.
I was arbitrarily given high doses of medication, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills, antihistamines, and sleeping pills, and as my requests for any further visitations were denied, my depression worsened. I was vomiting on a daily basis, I attempted self-harm, and my suicidal thoughts intensified. When I was sentenced to life imprisonment in November, little changed—I was immediately returned to isolation without being able to say goodbye to my wife, who was present in court, and the interrogations continued.
Still, I am the first to recognize that I was among the lucky ones. The UAE is a serial human-rights abuser, and while I was detained, I regularly heard people being physically tortured in adjacent rooms. At one point during my questioning, I was told the security services had intended to take me only after I had been processed through immigration. Effectively, if that plan had been followed and my mother had not witnessed my arrest, there would be no record of my detention.
It would be easy to dismiss my case as one of overreach by zealous security officers, but it is far from an outlier.
Nasser bin Ghaith, Ahmed Mansour, and Mohammed al-Roken are just a few of the more prominent names currently being held in worse conditions than I experienced. Their crime? Being independent thinkers. Domestic targets of the Emirati intelligence services have no real legal protection and their families are also often intimidated and harassed. The UAE overtly disregards international legal standards in both its foreign and domestic policy, a point made clear at a conference I participated in last week in Washington, D.C., where other people came forward with their own testimonies of abuse and intimidation at the hands of the Emirati security forces. Unbelievably, the Emirati minister of foreign affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, said at a conference with Emirati students in July 2018—while I and others were being held—that failing to learn was equivalent to “failing oneself and failing one’s country.” The truth is that Emirati researchers are among the first to be targeted in the UAE.
This repression of intellectual practices is a common symptom of authoritarian regimes. And you don’t need to look far for chilling examples elsewhere in the Middle East, from the murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian researcher examining labor unions in Egypt, to that of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Free debate and knowledge creation are the antithesis of any authoritarian society.
These kind of actions do not happen in a vacuum. Western governments’ complicity, primarily by way of silence, gives authoritarian rulers confidence in their actions. National leaders, Britain’s included, are reticent to condemn countries they regard as security allies over human-rights violations (President Donald Trump has gone further, explicitly dismissing such concerns in favor of arms sales). But it is not simply governments that are to blame. My own university has been criticized for its close ties to Gulf states, and the discussion is even fiercer at institutions such as New York University and the Sorbonne, both of which have defended their choices to have satellite campuses in the UAE. After hundreds of faculty and students petitioned NYU to condemn the UAE government for detaining me, the university president released a statement about the broad importance of academic freedom, but said his knowledge of my experience was limited to what he’d seen in news reports. The Sorbonne has been similarly circumspect in its response to criticism.
My seven months in detention finally ended on November 26, after an intense lobbying campaign—led by my wife—that culminated in pressure from Britain’s foreign secretary and resulted in a presidential pardon from the UAE. In effect, the Emirati authorities condoned the actions of their intelligence services but found a way to end a diplomatic crisis.
I am now back home, recovering from the traumas and stresses of last year. I will soon finish my thesis. But today is my wedding anniversary, and all we have planned is a quiet celebration. Tomorrow our public fight for justice resumes.