The United Arab Emirates is the fantasy frontier of hi-tech dreams of smart cities and a frictionless economy. We are encouraged to believe that from nowhere it has risen out of the sand, almost fully formed, weightless, its glass skyscrapers a city of the future. It has become the favourite destination of western entrepreneurs and inward investment. 95% of the country’s population is now temporary foreign residents simply there to make as much money as they can before they leave. No questions are asked about how it really got this way and at what cost.
But there is a cost.
The UAE is a hereditary Sheikhdom. There is no democracy, no independent judiciary, no free speech, indeed almost none of the things that those inward investors would expect in their own countries and for themselves.
In March 2017, the UAE’s secret police arrested a man described as the last human rights activist in the sheikhdom. Since 2011, Ahmed Mansoor had been one of the few dissenting voices willing to challenge the myth of the UAE as a techno-paradise. Just like other Arab patriots in the region, he loves his country, and he wants it to be better. Not just rich, not just a smart, bright playground for foreign money, but a country where its wealth can make for a more just and equal society – just like the nations whose investment supports the UAE. He tried to draw attention to the plight of his fellow critical voices, almost all of whom have been ‘disappeared’ by the regime.
But even Mansoor’s mild and well-mannered calls for change cannot be tolerated. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, it is likely he will never be released.
It’s long past time that the countries which invest so much in the UAE begin to take some responsibility for the treatment of people like Mansoor. We can’t claim that this is nothing to do our investments, and our companies who makes so much money from the UAE.
This is why we are so pleased to see that at least Mansoor is recognised by a new exhibition at the Digital Catapult in London their first venture into digital art. The organisation, which relies so much on investment from industry, now has Ahmed Mansoor’s portrait enshrined in its floors. The installation is by London artist, Manu Luksch, who has been working on the glossy stories of hi-tech UAE and its smart city, Masdar, interviewed Mansoor last year just weeks before his arrest. The portrait is fragile, made from sand from the deserts of the UAE. Just like Mansoor himself, his picture could vanish, disappear as if it had never existed.
Like Mansoor himself, we need to be witnesses and recognise this courageous human being, one of the few people prepared to stand up not just to a repressive government but to the power of our corporations and governments who support them. Western governments need to speak with more than just money. Our brands of digital innovation need to have human rights at their core.
Together, Manu and I are calling for the release of Ahmed Mansoor, and other dissident voices, and for a vision of our shared future that does not see human beings as expendable in the face of ‘smart’ technological innovation.
Background on Ahmed Mansoor
The Arab Spring: as a telecommunication engineer and blogger, Ahmed Mansoor facilitates a discussion forum online together with five activists, later known as the UAE Five. After signing a petition in favour of an elected parliament, Mansoor is arrested and convicted for ‘insults to the nation’s leadership’. After his release, due to international pressure, he remained without passport or licence to take on work, etc.
2015 – “the Nobel Prize for human rights.”
Ahmed Mansoor is the recipient of the Laureate Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders 2015 by Amnesty International.
2016 – “The Million Dollar Dissident”
Mansoor’s iphone is targeted by expensive spyware. A Citizen Lab report raises questions about lack of accountability and regulation in the case of spyware developed in democraties and sold to countries with shocking human rights records.
2017 – March 20: “The last Emirati human rights activist”
Ahmed Mansoor is detained on charges of ‘spreading hatred and sectarianism on social media’.