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Council in partnership with ‘most brutal police state in the Middle East’ says Amnesty International

Manchester City Council’s business partnership with the Royal Family of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, came under heavy criticism from activists and academics at a packed public meeting in the Central Hall on Oldham Street last Saturday. Describing the UAE as “the most brutal police state in the Middle East”, one speaker from Amnesty International recounted the appalling record of abuse in the country and the jailing of human rights defenders, such as Ahmed Mansoor, trying to stop those abuses.

The deals that the council has with Abu Dhabi are big ones, involving huge amounts of public resources and land, yet many aspects are shrouded in mystery due to refusals by the council to answer questions on them.

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s deputy prime minister and member of the ruling royal family, owns the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG). This group entered a £1 billion property development deal with Manchester City Council (MCC) in 2014, forming the Manchester Life Development Company (MLDC). The leader of the council, Sir Richard Leese, is a director of the company, and until April 2017 so was Sir Howard Bernstein, former chief executive of the council. Initially, the ADUG was involved with MLDC through a company called Loom Holdings in the tax haven of Jersey. The Channel Island is also known as a secrecy jurisdiction due to the extremely limited information on companies incorporated there.

The ADUG are also the owners of Manchester City Football Club, which they bought in 2008. The site of the Etihad Stadium, built using tax payers  money, is leased from the council on very favourable terms to the extremely wealthy owners of the club. Bernstein after resigning his directorship of Manchester Life, was signed up by Man City as their strategic development adviser in November 2017. An investigation into the management of MCFC by Spiegel Online , which reports on a period prior to Bernstein joining them, exposed the financial chicanery used to enhance the performance of the club: “Manchester City financial reports were a web of lies; the team walked all over the Financial Fair Play rules.”

The last dissident

Kate Feld, Lecturer in Journalism at Salford University, performed Etihad , which presents the current troubling relationship between Manchester and the UAE and contrasts it with the city’s radical past. Feld told the audience about Ahmed Mansoor, a pro-democracy campaigner, engineer, blogger and poet from the UAE and receiver of the 2015 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. In 2011 Mansour was among a small initial group of Emirati dissidents (the UAE 5) who petitioned the government for democratic reforms; they were jailed for their efforts. Since then Mansoor has suffered repeated arrests and incarcerations for his work and has been spied on by his government using expensive and sophisticated hacking techniques and leading to him being called “the million dollar dissident”.

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council (left), Ahmed Mansoor (centre), Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan (right)

Mansoor’s latest arrest occurred in March 2017 when Emirati security forces stormed his home in the early hours of the morning. He was detained for using social media to publish legitimate criticism of human rights abuses in the UAE. The authorities deemed this criticism as “false and misleading information” that could harm the country’s reputation, according to the UAE’s official news agency. Held in a secret location for over a year with no access to legal counsel and very limited visits by family, he was eventually sentenced to ten years in jail on 29 May 2018.

Mansoor’s arrest has led to a human rights debate desert in the UAE. Feld refers to him as “the last dissident… they came for him and now there is only silence”. Feld’s performance ended with her being handcuffed and a hood being placed on her head before she was led away.

“The most brutal police state in the Middle East”

A common public reaction to the UAE and the kingdoms within it such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is to link them to luxury airlines, skyscrapers, football clubs and international jet setting lifestyle, suggests Oscar Jenz the Amnesty International country co-ordinator for the UAE. But this is just a façade built to hide the unpleasant reality says Jenz:

“What is underneath is one of the most brutal police states in the Middle East. The UAE has the highest ratio of political prisoners to its own population, possibly in the entire world.

“Its skyscrapers have been built by modern day slaves from Nepal and India who are regularly beaten and coerced into work, often without pay or the ability to contact their families. Rich Emirati households employ slaves, or domestic workers, from East Asia, who are often subjected to physical and sexual violence.”

Jenz went on to describe the UAE’s involvement in the war in Yemen. The UAE is one of the major forces, alongside Saudi Arabia, in the coalition of countries attacking Yemen. The UAE has led the ongoing coalition assault on Hodeidah, an important port city in Yemen through which 80% of Yemen’s food, fuel and aid enters the country. Alongside conventional forces attacking Hodeidah, the UAE has been financing and training armed militas in the country, while Yemen’s 28 million population is on the brink of starvation and the country is experiencing the worst cholera crisis in modern history.

The persecution of human rights and pro-democracy supporters is an ongoing saga in the UAE. Jenz took the story back to 2011 and the flowering of hope that was the Arab Spring. Emiratis crowded the streets and online platforms demanding accountability and democracy. A group which came to be known as the UAE 94 signed a petition calling for the retreat of the security state, basic human rights and universal suffrage; a demand also made by the campaigners at Peterloo who were massacred nearly 200 years ago here in Manchester.

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The UAE 94 were slowly rounded up in late night raids by plain clothes police officers, often without search warrants. Sixty four of them were held at undisclosed locations without access to lawyers or family visits. They stood trial in 2013 accused of conspiring to overthrow the government. In what has been described as an “overtly political show trial” with a lack of proper legal defence counsel and a prosecution that relied on evidence obtained through torture, 69 of the defendants were found guilty and jailed, receiving sentences ranging from 7 to 15 years.

Amongst those defending the UAE 94 were Mansoor and human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Roken. A few years later Mansoor and al-Roken were also arrested; al-Roken was sentenced to prison. Mansoor was convicted but not imprisoned, to be eventually re-arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison in 2018. Jenz said:

“So Ahmed Mansoor was quite literally the last human rights activist left in the country. We knew what was going on, be it labour violations, police brutality or people being tortured…through Ahmed. But now he is gone and we really don’t know what is happening…”

The reputation of the UAE, and the public perception of it and its rulers is key to the battle for human rights in the UAE, Jenz said:

“This image is their shield and also their weakness. The only way they can get away with these things is because Manchester’s local government and the British government haven’t said ‘enough is enough’.

“Once we take their reputation away, once we expose the truth, once we show that behind these shiny airlines and luxury developments lies a brutal police state that will crush anybody who voices their right to be themselves, once we start peeling that back, they will be powerless, and we can make the change, both here in Manchester and in the UAE.”

From housing to human rights

A major focus for the meeting – organised by Greater Manchester Housing Action, Amnesty International Manchester and The Public Meeting – was to emphasise the link between the growing housing crisis in the city and the involvement of actors in the housing development market with links to human rights abuse such as the Abu Dhabi United Group.

Representing Greater Manchester Housing Action, Dr Jonathan Silver spoke of his concerns over the financialisaton of housing development in Manchester, which he describes as homes being turned into assets for international property investors. These are concerns he shares with the political economist Anne Pettifor, who has described this process as a ‘bubble’ that is detrimental to the British economy.

This financialisation process Silver says is leading to the preponderance of high rise, high end apartments to rent that are dominating developments in the city centre; at the expense of social and affordable housing. He believes the property development firm Manchester Life, the partnership between ADUG and the council, is playing a part in this housing financialisaton process. The secrecy behind the deals underpinning this partnership Silver finds particularly disturbing:

“We got into a situation where public land, our land, was parcelled up into different development companies and put through Loom holdings based in Jersey and developed by Manchester Life. Now is their corruption going on?  We don’t know… because there is a level of secrecy and lack of transparency around Manchester Life that means we can’t find out what’s going on.”

Manchester Life have now built over a thousand apartments in Ancoats, and there are plans for six to ten thousand more.

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Silver spoke of his research, published in February and reported on here, which looked at the primarily high rise, private rent housing building developments in Manchester (and parts of Salford) city centre. He investigated the provision of Section 106 agreements, paid by developer’s to the council to mitigate the impact of development by paying for extra local services, facilities and infrastructure. The research also quantified the number of social/affordable housing provided in these specific city centre developments, the council has a guideline for developers to provide 20% of housing units as affordable. Out of a possible 2,956 units which could have been built in Manchester City Centre under affordable housing requirements, no affordable units at all were built. Only 8% of the 14,781 Manchester housing units included in the study had a Section 106 agreement included.

Of the 1,436 housing units being developed by Manchester Life included in Silver’s research, none had affordable housing included with them, and none had a Section 106 agreement attached.

Manchester City Councils reply to these research findings, published here, was that the council does enforce Section 106 contributions, and it is promoting affordable housing outside the city centre by setting up affordable homes funds, and affordable homes zones. Councils have an obligation to consider viability assessments produced by the property developers. They estimate the amount of profit in a development and can reduce the amount of Section 106 money and affordable housing provided, if the council accepts the assessment.

The citizens gathered last Saturday, heard Silver say he believes the council have purposely designed the city’s development policy and planning regimes around trying to attract speculative capital into the development and housing market:

“They want to build a city where social and affordable housing is pushed out of this gleaming new city centre, and all we are left with are shiny bars and people who can afford the shiny bars.” He went on to describe Ancoats, the area under development by Manchester Life as “being gentrified, the old working class neighbourhood is being turned into something else entirely.”

The council’s role

The council’s building development plans in the city centre and the lack of social and affordable housing in them have previously been criticised by Ben Clay, the Labour councillor for Burnage. Answering questions at the meeting, Clay said he had personally asked Richard Leese whether he had been in touch with his contacts at Manchester Life and Manchester City to ask about the fate of prisoners of conscience in the UAE, and had asked Leese to do everything he can to encourage a better human rights record from the Emirati government. Clay did not divulge Leese’s response to these questions, but did go on to say:

“What we need to do as a council is first of all we need to adhere to the law, and also our policies. We have an Ethical Procurement and Social Value Policy, and I think we need to look very carefully of how that fits with the Abu Dhabi group.”

Raising the 200th anniversary of Peterloo next year, Clay drew parallels between the fight for justice in Manchester, to the request for reforms made by Emiratis such as Mansoor and al-Roken:

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Panel members at the meeting, from the left: Rivca Rubin (Moderator), Nicholas McGeehan, Dr Morag Rose, Oscar Jenz and Jaqueline Marston. Photo: The Meteor

“They were fairly moderate and reform minded, they are not asking for a revolution in the UAE. I think it behoves us as a group of people who have certain values, to uphold them – and ask people we do business with to uphold them.”

Clay urged people to engage more with our hard won democratic rights, those still being fought for in the UAE. He asked the audience to raise the issue of human rights with their councillors, attend political meetings and even to stand for election as a councillor for whichever party they choose.

During the meeting, the audience broke up into work groups to think of questions to ask the council that could encourage them to action regarding human rights in the UAE. The following question was thought up by one of these groups:

“What can Manchester City Council do to actively promote and protect human rights in countries, where it has business dealings or partnerships with the government of that country, or organisations within that country?”

The Meteor put that question to Manchester City Council, alongside questions regarding the Ethical Procurements Policy (EPP) and its relevance to business partnerships such as Manchester Life. Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, replied:

“Our primary responsibility is to the citizens of Manchester and as part of that responsibility we aim to work constructively with international investors to help create jobs and other opportunities and support regeneration for the benefit of the city’s communities. All international investors comply fully with UK law in every aspect, including employment.  Whilst we are very much an international city, our position is that ultimately, alleged internal issues within the country of origin of a private investor are beyond the remit of Manchester City Council.”

Regarding the relevance of the EPP to business deals such as Manchester Life, Leese said:

“The EPP does not cover these arrangements unless the arrangement involves procurement activity involving the purchase of goods or services by the Council.  The ethical procurement policy covers all procurement activity by the council purchasing goods and or services, it will therefore cover any such activity with overseas governments’ organisations and individuals, but cannot cover any other activity with those businesses.”

The Meteor also asked if the EPP does not apply to business dealings with overseas governments, what ethical guidelines are used to oversee these arrangements? The broader business dealing of the council outside of procurement activity are guided by focusing on ensuring legal compliance, and following  guidance set out in the Constitution and Code of Governance, Leese replied without mention to any specific ethical guidelines for these deals.

“You collectively are a big problem for them”

Former human rights researcher for Human Rights Watch who specialised in the Middle East, Nicholas McGeehan, has carried out extensive research (which is ongoing) into the connection between the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Manchester City FC. His knowledge and activism has made him a topic for meetings around the boardroom table at Man City, as confirmed by the Spiegel Online investigation, which revealed that a Freedom of Information request he submitted to the city council asking for details of a contract between the council and the football club had been forwarded on to the management of Man City to see if they approved of the details being released. At the Central Hall meeting, McGeehan was asked what were the risks to the council of carrying on this partnership with Abu Dhabi:

“You are the risks. The levels of depravity and criminality involved in Abu Dhabi mean that you are going to keep seeing cases like Matthew Hedges, like Ahmed Mansoor and abuses in Yemen… but it’s only a problem for them , if people here and elsewhere stand up and say we are not having that in our city or linked to our city…

“They are taking note of this, they know this is happening, they are following this closely, Manchester City Football Club, the PR people who are in charge of that, the Abu Dhabi government. There is no difference between Man City, the people who run it, and the Abu Dhabi government, they are the same people, and they are paying very close attention to what is happening here and you collectively are a big problem for them.”

In her opening performance of Etihad, which means union or alliance in Arabic, Feld recalled an event from Manchester in 1862 when an alliance of mill workers voted to support the United States war against the Confederacy and slavery by supporting an embargo against cotton imports from the Confederacy. Their vote meant increased hardship for them and their families, but their desire for the end to slavery trumped those fears: their letter of support to President Abraham Lincoln stated: “all men are created free and equal”.

Restrictive trade union laws in the UK, introduced by Margaret Thatcher, now mean that workers cannot legally take industrial action in support of overseas workers or causes. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has promised to restore the rights of workers in the UK to take industrial action to support those overseas. But until that time comes, those wishing to promote and protect human rights in countries such as the UAE will need to abide by current law and use the considerable knowledge, tactics, inspiration and connections this meeting provided to further that worthy cause.

 

Conrad Bower

To find out more about Amnesty International Manchester, and their campaign in support of Ahmed Mansoor and  Mohammed al-Roken  – click here

Greater Manchester Housing Action – click here

The Public Meeting – click here

For more information on the UAE’s human rights record – click here

Feature Image: composite from here, here and here

 

 

 

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  1. Stephen Pennells

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