Manchester Pride is a wonderful life affirming event that highlights the progress made in accepting sexual and gender preference diversity in the UK, and the many changes we still need to make to provide LGBT+ people with equal rights and opportunities.
Manchester City Council (MCC) is broadcasting its support for the event, but these words clash uncomfortably against their deeds, when it comes to their business couplings with the state of Abu Dhabi. A state within the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which persecutes and criminalises the LGBT+ community at home and is committing human rights atrocities and undermining democratic reform abroad.
The Manchester Life Development Company is one of those business partnerships. It’s a joint venture property development company between MCC and Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Bin Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nayan, a member of the Emarati royal family, deputy prime minister of the UAE, and the ultimate owner of Manchester City FC, which he paid £150m for in 2008.
The £1 billion Manchester Life partnership aims to build more than 6,000 homes in rundown areas of Manchester, but with the councils previous record of property development approval, few are likely to be affordable housing, and I strongly suspect none will be social housing. The types of housing needed to alleviate our housing and homelessness crisis.
Sheik Mansour and MCC are also involved in the Eastland Development Company Ltd. The development company was set up in 2012, to regenerate the area surrounding the City of Manchester stadium, and was reported to hold 200-acres of land; some of this land was previously owned by the council. The Abu Dhabi United Group, owned by Sheik Mansour, has overall control of Eastlands. There are four current directors listed as being from MCC, with former Chief Executive Howard Bernstein listed as a resigned director.
Both Manchester Life and Eastland’s are both majority owned by private companies, so any public assets transferred to them are not under the full scrutiny of the council or subject to Freedom of Information requests
These business partnerships are with the state of Abu Dhabi because Sheik Mansour is the half-brother of the Emir of Abu Dhabi Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is also the president of the UAE. Abu Dhabi is an absolute monarchy, which means the monarch holds supreme authority and is not subject to any laws; he literally has the power of life and death over all his subjects.
LGBT+ repression in Abu Dhabi
The maxim “absolute power corrupts absolutely” holds when it comes to the Abu Dhabi royal families abuse of power at home and abroad. The Abu Dhabi penal code makes sodomy punishable by up to 14 years in prison, cross-dressing is also illegal, and all sexual relations outside a heterosexual marriage is a crime.
Overseas visitors are also subjected to the UAE’s penal code. In 2017 a cis gender male and a trans woman were arrested by police for “looking feminine” and sentenced to one year in jail in Abu Dhabi for cross dressing and public indecency. They were wearing jeans, sneakers, and long-sleeved button-down shirts at the time of their arrest, it was long hair, jewellery and piercings they were singled out for.
A 21-year-old gay man from Lebanon found himself arrested in Abu Dhabi after a police sting-operation. He was charged with practicing and promoting homosexuality. The prosecution brought up Instagram pictures showing him wearing short women’s clothes wigs and makeup as evidence.
In Dubai, another of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, Scottish man James Harron was sentenced to three months in jail for touching a man’s hip. There is a distinct lack of stories about UAE nationals being charged and prosecuted over their sexuality or gender expression available on the web. But that is not so surprising when you consider that the UAE does not have a free press and has form for locking up people who campaign against human rights abuses.
Ahmed Mansoor – human rights defender imprisoned
Abu Dhabi represses the human rights of LGBT+ people and targets activists who try to highlight human rights abuses.
The persecution of human rights and pro-democracy supporters is an ongoing saga in the UAE. During 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 200 years ago here in Manchester.
The UAE 94 were slowly rounded up in late night raids by plain clothes police officers, often without search warrants. They 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 Ahmed 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.
Oscar Jenz the Amnesty International country co-ordinator for the UAE has previously described what underlies the civilised façade of the UAE as:
“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… domestic workers, from East Asia, who are often subjected to physical and sexual violence.”
The UAE’s purge of dissidents has been thorough. Jenz went on to describe how great a loss Mansoor was to human rights in the UAE and to Amnesty’s work there:
“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…”
I am sure that every member of the Labour run council would say they were a staunch supporter of human rights if asked, after all support of human rights internationally is a core part of Labour values, as their website states:
“Britain’s international role must be …to… champion our core values of equality, social justice and opportunity for all… helping to alleviate poverty, protect human rights and promote democracy.”
But it seems for the Labour Party leaders in Manchester, Labour values don’t extend much past the city limits. When The Meteor previously asked the council what they could actively do to protect or promote human rights in countries they have business dealing with, this was the reply of the leader of Manchester City Council Sir Richard Leese:
“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.”
Yemen – 85,000 children dead of starvation
The royal family of Abu Dhabi not content with terrorising their own citizens into submission, are exporting that terror abroad on a massive scale. The UAE is one of the major forces, alongside Saudi Arabia, in the coalition of countries attacking Yemen. In November last year Save the Children reported that 85,000 children may have died of starvation due to the conflict; a conservative estimate based on UN data. The UN has described the war in Yemen as the “worlds worst humanitarian crisis”.
Many of the attacks on Yemen have been labelled as war crimes due to the high number of civilians killed. A coalition airstrike in 2018 killed 26 Yemeni children on the same day, while an airstrike two weeks earlier on a school bus in a crowded marketplace killed 29 children. Often the weapons used by the Arab coalition are made in the UK or US.
Despite the accusations of war crimes, the UK continued to supply arms to the coalition, with arms exports to Saudi Arabia rising by 66 per cent to £1.13 billion, and to the UAE sales rose by 94 per cent to £260 million.
Arms sales to the coalition were ruled unlawful by the UK court of appeal in June this year. The critical judgement accused ministers of ignoring whether humanitarian law was being broken during airstrikes that killed Yemeni civilians. This has led to new arms sales to the coalition to be suspended, pending a review, but this still leaves arms sales licences issued before the ruling in force – meaning the bombs and missiles are still flowing form the UK to the coalition forces.
The actions of our national government in supporting the UAE and Saudi Arabia provide a bad example for our local government, but its an example they should rail against and not use as a justification for saying nothing and looking the other way to the ongoing assaults on humanity dealt out by the UAE.
Manchester City Football Club
It is not only the council that turns a blind eye to the dark side of the UAE. Abu Dhabi’s involvement in Manchester City FC, helps to sports wash their global reputation, cleaning the blood of their hands and leaving their flowing Arabic robes dazzling white. The collusion of the club management is joined by a vocal minority of it’s supporters, whose idea of fair play doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of the pitch, and are willing to ignore the human rights abuses, or be sceptical that they exist, to keep the billions being poured into the club by Sheik Mansour.
The irony of Man City taking part in the Rainbow Laces campaign, which opposes homophobia in football, was not lost on many of the clubs critics who pointed out how this jarred with the laws against homosexuality of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, the ultimate owners of the club.
The abuse of power and wealth, which characterises the Abu Dhabi elite, appears to have trickled down to the management of Man City as well, who are currently under investigation for potential breaches of its financial fair play regulations.
UAE’s malign influence in Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan
Labour Council leaders in Manchester are no doubt all staunch democrats, yet they still cosy up to the UAE who are undermining nascent democracies and suppressing political reform in many Islamic countries.
In Libya the UAE is actively supporting the army of General Khalifa Haftar in the civil war against the UN recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the capital Tripoli. Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA )have been accused of committing war crimes in the civil war, including “shooting unarmed civilians, stringing up mutilated bodies and indiscriminately shelling residential areas.”
Libyan troops loyal to the GNA, found a cache of US made weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, at a captured LNA base south of Tripoli. Markings on the missile shipping containers were reported as stating that they belonged to the “Armed Forces of the United Arab Emirates”. A US senator has called for an investigation into the arms find saying, “such a transfer would also almost certainly be a violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya”.
On the 4 August a drone, believed to be operated by the UAE as part of Haftar’s forces, attacked a town hall meeting in Murzuq, killing 42 civilians and injuring 60. Another UAE drone was reported as being shot down by GNA forces in south Misrata, Libya. A 2017 UN report stated that the UAE has provided the LNA with military and logistical support.
Adopting a Putinesque PR strategy, the UAE has denied being militarily involved in Libya , but has openly stated it believes the capital Tripoli is controlled by “extremist militias” and that its priority in Libya was to counter “extremism/terrorism”.
Next door in Algeria, a new round of Arab Spring-like uprisings resulted in the resignation of Algeria’s long-time dictator president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in April 2019. This left the army chief Gaid Salah, Bouteflika’s right hand man, as the de-facto ruler. Salah visited Abu Dhabi after Bouteflika’s resignation, which saw Abu Dhabi’s media promoting the Algerian military as the guarantor of stability in the country and providing financial support to Salah. This was not the desired result for the Algerian people who are still rallying in their thousands demanding political reform and the removal of the ruling elite.
The UAE’s support of Salah follows a similar pattern to the aid they provided President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi following the military coup he was part of, that overthrew the elected President Mohammed Morsi. Since the coup the President and his security forces have, according to Human Rights Watch, “escalated a campaign of intimidation, violence, and arrests against political opponents, civil society activists, and many others who have simply voiced mild criticism of the government”.
In Sudan this year, the population rose up against the long, tyrannical and genocidal rule of Omar al-Bashir. Unfortunately the power vacuum that resulted in the removal of Bashir was filled by a repressive military government backed by the UAE, who appear to be trying to outdo Bashir’s record in their torture and killing of civilians. The UAE’s support included the supply of military vehicles and the promise of $3 billion dollars assistance to the new government.
Pride in the council
Manchester City Councils relationship with the UAE and its royal family is nothing to be proud of. It is a blood soaked stain on this city’s reputation, that the council needs to remove by speaking up about the humans rights abuses, humanitarian atrocities and suppression of political reform that the UAE is pursuing on a global scale. In the bicentenary of Peterloo, we should be supporting international calls for political reform, not turning a blind eye because we have already achieved significant advances in our democracy.
Council leaders appear happy to take an active part in the globalised financial system, yet when it comes to supporting human rights, the horizon for their “Labour values” appear to shrink to the boundaries of the city. Just because our national government regularly fails to champion human rights on the national stage, and is facilitating human rights abuses with its actions, does not mean that it is OK for our council to do likewise.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand”, Fredrick Douglas said, and our council leaders need to show leadership and call out the UAE on its abuse of power, whether it be against the LGBT+ community in the UAE or the human rights atrocities committed in Yemen. Its time our council jumped out of bed with this abusive partner and stood up to champion human rights in accordance with Labour’s internationalist values.
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Feature image: composite including MCC twitter account profile image