In the shadow of the Burj Khalifa: the case of Ahmed Mansoor and the whitewashing of the United Arab Emirates



The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is known for its opulence and modernity, but behind this shiny facade lies a dark reality of human rights violations and government-backed whitewashing. From hosting international events like the 2021 EXPO or the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, to investing and lobbying in the West to secure economic and political leverages – the UAE has used different strategies to overshadow its repressive regime.

Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist and blogger, has been at the forefront of exposing the UAE’s human rights abuses and advocating for greater freedoms and democratic reforms. However, his brave activism has come at a great cost, as he has been imprisoned and seriously abused for years due to his outspoken criticism.

This dispatch examines the case of Ahmed Mansoor – from his early years as activist to his arrest and mistreatment – and how the UAE has been successful in bypassing international pressure and maintaining the illusion of a progressive, modern state.

The story of the million-dollar dissident

 Ahmed Mansoor, perhaps best known as the “million-dollar dissident” and the “last human rights defender left standing in the UAE” (until his arrest), is an engineer, poet, and father of four. After completing his studies in 1999 and working until 2001 in the United States (US), he returned to the UAE. He began his human rights activism in the UAE in 2006, and soon became known in the country after he successfully campaigned for the release of two Emirati men who had been jailed for comments they made online.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Mansoor launched in March 2011 a petition calling for modest democratic reforms together with economist Nasser bin Ghaith and three other activists, Fahad Salim Dalk, Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq and Hassan Ali al-Khamis. The five men were arrested three months later, and after six months of detention Mansoor was sentenced to three years imprisonment and the others to two years for “publicly insulting” UAE authorities. On the day after, following international outcry, the UAE’s president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan commuted the men’s sentences. However, UAE’s authorities never returned Mansoor’s passport, subjecting him to a de facto travel ban.

Over the next few years, Emirati authorities began an all-out assault on independent activists, judges, lawyers, academics, journalists, and students for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. Government critics were harassed, arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, ill-treated, and convicted following unfair trials. As dissidents were being imprisoned one by one, often through unfair mass trials, Ahmed Mansoor referred to himself as the last human rights defender left standing in the UAE.

In 2015, a jury of 10 global human rights organizations selected him to receive the esteemed Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, which “honors individuals and organizations who have shown exceptional commitment defending and promoting human rights, despite the risks involved”.

In August 2016, Mansoor received a message on his phone containing a link that the sender promised would divulge information on torture in UAE prisons. Instead of opening the link, he forwarded the message to Citizens Lab researchers who found that the text was a sophisticated hacking tool designed by an Israeli company, the NSO Group. Security experts estimated that the device used to hack Mansoor could be worth as much as 1 million US dollars, thereby leading some to refer to him as the “million-dollar dissident”.

On 20 March 2017, Ahmed Mansoor was arrested and sentenced in 2018 to 10 years’ imprisonment following an unfair trial. He was convicted for “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leaders” in reprisal for his peaceful human rights activism, including his posts on social media. Since then, he has been held in solitary confinement in al-Sadr prison in Abu Dhabi, where he is being kept in dire prison conditions. Indeed, he is being denied a bed, mattress or pillow, as well as adequate medical care, exercise and sunshine, all of which puts his life at risk.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), in July 2021, Emirati authorities retaliated against Mansoor when regional media published a letter he wrote in prison denouncing his mistreatment in detention and flagrantly unfair trial. UAE prison authorities moved him to a smaller and more isolated cell, denied him access to medical care, and confiscated his reading glasses.

International Responses

Since Ahmed Mansoor’s imprisonment, human rights organizations and international mechanisms have repeatedly called for his immediate release and for UAE authorities to allow international experts or independent monitors to visit Mansoor in prison.

On 21 March 2017, the day after Mansoor’s arrest, Front Line Defenders issued an urgent appeal condemning UAE’s persecution of Ahmed Mansoor for his peaceful work on the protection and promotion of human rights. The NGO urged the UAE authorities to ensure his immediate and unconditional release, guarantee his well-being and comply with international human rights standards. On 28 March 2017, UN human rights experts urged for his immediate release, declaring that his arrest and detention were an explicit attack on the legitimate work of human rights defenders in the UAE.

In October 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the UAE to stop all forms of harassment against human rights defenders, which was complemented by a 2021 resolution specifically focused on Ahmed Mansoor. The latter called for his immediate and unconditional release along with other human rights defenders, political activists and peaceful dissidents. The resolution also highlighted the various human rights violations Mansoor has been subjected to, including arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, physical assault, government surveillance by Pegasus software, a widespread threat to human rights defenders in the Gulf region, and inhumane treatment in custody. Furthermore, it stressed that the actions, carried out by the Emirati authorities, violate both Emirati and international human rights law, including the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules.

In May 2019, UN human rights experts reiterated their serious concerns over his well-being and poor prison conditions, which may constitute torture. They declared that Mansoor had “been kept in solitary confinement, and in conditions of detention that violate basic international human rights standards and which risk taking an irrevocable toll on Mr Mansoor’s health”. Moreover, they urged UAE authorities to provide him with appropriate medical assistance and to bring his prison conditions in line with the Nelson Mandela Rules. In October of the same year, more than 130 organizations worldwide signed a letter requesting his immediate and unconditional release, as his life was believed to be at risk due to beatings and hunger strikes.

Two months later, in December 2019, a group of US Democratic legislators urged the UAE to promptly release Ahmed Mansoor and drop all charges against him, in a letter to Emirati President Khalifa bin Zayed. The letter was signed by key members of Congress, including senators Patrick Leahy, Richard Durbin and Sherrod Brown, as well as Congressman Jim McGovern, and highlighted that, in addition to other shared regional interests, human rights had to remain central in the alliance between the US and the UAE.

Following that, in February 2020, more than 50 civil society organizations and individuals, writers, and Nobel laureates appealed to the UAE authorities to free detained human rights defenders, including Ahmed Mansoor. It emphasized that the UAE should use the Hay Festival and other international events as an opportunity to comply with its promise of tolerance by promoting freedom of expression, and freeing imprisoned human rights defenders.

In October 2021, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and over two dozen partners such as the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) organized the online Alternative Human Rights Expo to challenge the narrative of tolerance promoted by Emirati authorities. In the event, which counted over 900 people participating and watching, more than 25 human rights groups paid tribute to human rights defenders from the UAE and the Gulf region, including Ahmed Mansoor, and called for their release. In this context, GCHR and 80 international civil society organizations delivered, on Mansoor’s 52nd birthday, a letter to the UAE embassies in Geneva and London.

In September 2022, Amnesty International and the GCHR issued a public statement calling for Mansoor’s release and demanding UAE’s authorities to grant access to independent international experts such as the UN Special Rapporteurs, NGOs, EU Delegations and missions to visit him in prison.

While well intentioned, efforts to free Mansoor are fruitless. He remains in solitary confinement, and is subjected to inhumane conditions amounting to torture and degrading treatment. In parallel, the UAE’s human rights abuses are constantly dismissed by Western powers like the US and France, for the persecution of human rights defenders like Mr Mansoor. —countries responsible for selling arms and fostering relations with the UAE. Similarly, several EU officials are allegedly involved in UAE’s successful whitewashing strategy, allowing human rights violations to persist.

These countries are going in the opposite direction by selling arms and concluding partnerships with the UAE regardless of its serious human rights violations.

Whitewashing strategies

 During the Government’s Annual Meetings in September 2017, the UAE Soft Power Council launched a strategy aimed at cleansing the country’s reputation across the world and becoming a global hub, focusing on developing and using its economy, tourism, culture, media and science fields to attract and persuade other international actors and asserting itself as a modern and tolerant country on the international scene. Since it has already established an international image and its specific economic as well as socio-cultural associations portray the country as an actively globalist and diversity-friendly state, the UAE concluded that further integration in the global macroeconomics and international political arena would be best achieved through the soft power approach, which helps them build the perfect disguise for the egregious human rights violations perpetrated in the country.

Cash Flows towards the ‘Brussels bubble’

Manipulating the narratives to construct the UAE’s image under the slogan of ‘authoritarian stability’ is achieved through extensive transnational disinformation networks and heavy investments in lobbying within the EU. The Emirates have created and funded pro-government think tanks, policy centers, and media outlets, and are in close collaboration with other pro-UAE institutions, to establish influence networks within important circles in Brussels. In this way, the UAE is able to disguise its political agenda behind discourse concerning the promotion and adoption of European values.

Behind the fence of the Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2023

Despite being a dictatorship with one of the poorest human rights records in the world, when bringing up the UAE, most people will refer to the country as a stage for Formula 1 races or as  the owner of the Manchester City football team. This is not due to the effectiveness of the country’s much purported reforms, but rather results from a very efficient sportswashing strategy that has managed to overshadow its negative human rights record. Despite continuous efforts from human rights organizations to pressure the governing bodies that organize such sporting events to at least condition their relationships with the UAE and other Gulf countries under human rights commitments, the respectability and popularity the UAE enjoys has deterred international sporting bodies from reconsidering holding events there.

‘Expo’-sing the truth behind the discourses of modernity and tolerance

Between October 2021 and the end of March 2022, Dubai organized Expo 2022, an event that hosted 192 national pavilions showcasing the latest ideas in technology and sustainability. The infrastructure of this mega-event could not have been possible without a network of thousands of workers across a broad range of sectors, the overwhelming majority of which were migrant workers. These individuals were subjected to an array of human rights violations, including forced labor, physical and psychological violence, illegal recruitment fees, racial discrimination, non-payment of wages or other benefits, retention of passports, as well as the lack of complaint mechanisms to report these violations and receive rightful compensation. These abusive practices, although against Emirati laws and Worker Welfare Standards, were left unaddressed. The UAE also faced accusations concerning their lack of transparency after the World Expo presented conflicting figures for work-related deaths during the construction.

In the resolution passed on September 15, 2021, the European Parliament incited EU member states to boycott the Expo 2020 in Dubai by withdrawing their sponsorship, as manifestation of their disapproval towards the country’s negative human rights record. As always, the EU lacked a uniform approach following the condemnation of UAE’s human rights record, with several individual European states having their own pavilions during the event. Even the United Nations did not withdraw its participation, in fact enjoying a prime place in one of the main thematic pavilions of the exhibition.

‘The fox in charge of the henhouse’

During the opening session of the Leaders’ Summit at the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) in Sharm Al Sheikh, Egypt, Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed delivered a speech emphasizing the importance of international cooperation to tackle climate change for the sake of future generations. He described the UAE as a responsible energy provider, reiterating the country’s support for efforts to accelerate the global energy transition and enable sustainable economic growth.

However, the designation of Sultan al-Jaber, the head of the state oil giant Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and who also serves as UAE minister for industry and technology and the country’s climate envoy, as COP28’s president has triggered a wave of international criticism. The international community raised serious concerns over the transformation of the UN Climate Summit, from a platform that should hold the world’s polluters accountable, into a space invaded by those with opposite interests and outlined the fossil fuel industry’s (one of the main causes of the climate emergency) influence over the proceedings. Regardless of this dissent, the UAE will be able to exploit the upcoming COP28, the first global stocktake since the landmark Paris Agreement, as a diplomatic cover and a channel for boosting its political agenda.

The point of convergence of these socio-cultural events is the UAE’s focus on using media sources as a way of disseminating its international brand in this dimension, by promoting the country as a trademark and by maintaining the positive connotation of its portrayal on the web. The dissemination of content that supports such an image is crucial for them. Since it attaches such a great importance to these international events so it can benefit from all the media attention and channel this attention according to its own political agenda, the UAE is willing to go to any length  and use all its repressive instruments against any potential threat to the carefully staged events.


Sovereign Wealth Fund

Since the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, GCC countries have increasingly become significant economic partners with Western countries, especially benefiting European defense industries. In the UAE, Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company established partnerships with the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations to invest €300m in French SMEs.

Some EU member states with relatively weak links to the GCC adopted a double-policy of open communications with all sides to strengthen bilateral relations, on the one hand, while advocating for voter’s humanitarian concerns on the other. Others, however, refrained from directly criticizing GCC countries’ human rights records to prioritize long-term strategic and economic relations with the region. For instance, GCC countries constitute the second-largest non-European export market for the UK, with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) acquiring stakes in Gatwick Airport, and Barclays successfully turning to the UAE and Qatar for more than €8 billion in 2008. These growing ties partly explain why the British government has remained silent with respect to the war in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in disrespect of the British public’s and international institutions’ concerns.

This disconnect in the European approaches to Arab Gulf states reflects a fierce intra-European competition for GCC trade and investment, and an attempt to align with GCC states to fill the perceived vacuum left by US retrenchment from the MENA region. This competition has been damaging a potential common European policy towards GCC countries creating the kind of isolation and vulnerability that GCC countries can exploit to secure investments in the EU that can later be used to leverage political support (or silence) from them.

For instance, in 2017, when then German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel condemned Saudi adventurism in the Middle East and called for an embargo on arms exports to the country, Riyadh responded by withdrawing its ambassador to Berlin and preventing major German companies – including giants with large-scale interests in the Saudi healthcare sector, such as Siemens Healthineers, Bayer, and Boehringer Ingelheim – from bidding for government contracts. German exports to Saudi Arabia subsequently fell by 5 percent. Industry representatives persistently lobbied Gabriel’s successor, Heiko Maas, to resolve the dispute – which he did in late 2018, when Berlin approved the sale of four artillery positioning systems to Saudi Arabia.

In their calls on GCC countries to adopt different approaches, Sweden and Germany received no support from their fellow EU member states, exposing them to the aforementioned political and economic retribution. No European country can significantly boost its geopolitical power relative to the GCC by acting alone, because the threat of sanctions and trade embargoes cuts both ways.

The complicity of MEPs

 Not only has the UAE been successful in its whitewashing strategies, but it has also been backed, directly and/or indirectly, by a number of EU officials. This endorsement strategy goes from the promotion of events hosted in the UAE to the use of the same political rhetoric as the Emirates on the international stage. This backing strategy is both helping a country that carries a catastrophic human rights record and damaging the EU political legitimacy in talking about the issue of human rights.

For instance, the Polish MEP Radosław Sikorski traveled to the United Arab Emirates several times between 2019 and 2021. Not only Mr. Radosław Sikorski’s trips got paid by his hosts, but he also received an additional $100,000 (93,000€) annually from the Emirates for advising on the Sir Bani Yas Conference – a conference established by the UAE to conduct international diplomacy through soft power. Mr. Sikorski has been very friendly to the UAE with quite surprising behavior, to say the least, by supporting opposition to a stop on arms supplies to the UAE and its closest ally Saudi Arabia, which are being deployed in a devastating war in Yemen. He supported an attempt to soften a resolution on Saudi death sentences, meanwhile voting against a European Parliament resolution calling on the member states to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2020.

Moreover, the unofficial groups formed by MEPs, so called “friendship groups”, are playing a critical role in maintaining relations with non-EU countries outside of conventional procedures. In this case, the UAE-EU friendship group is led by the MEP Antonio López-Istúriz White, who is also secretary general of the Christian Democrats, the largest group in the European Parliament. The UAE, with the help of MEPs from the friendship group, is very active in polishing the country’s image as moderate. It can be achieved through meetings between Mohamed bin Zayed and Antonio López-Istúriz White, or through the participation in the launch of an exhibition in the European Parliament.

Such activities can be transformed into a political influence with, for instance, Antonio López-Istúriz White using the same rhetoric as the Emirates, especially during the vote to adopt the Annual Report 2020 on Common Foreign and Security Policy. In fact, as part of the vote, he abstained criticizing the UAE and Saudi Arabia for the grave violations of human rights, and voted against part of the amendment that called on the EU to sanction any Emirati and Saudi officials involved in said alleged war crimes. In the end, the goal is to shape the narrative and the image the rest of the world has about the UAE. Similarly, the UAE’s investments seems to be paying off, since EU decision-makers have been quite receptive to the narratives that have been disseminated and have failed to take serious actions against the UAE’s clampdown on journalists, political activists, human rights defenders, like in the case of Ahmed Mansoor.

Conclusion and Recommendations:

Though the resolutions issued by the Parliament and the international advocacy designed for the liberation of Ahmed Mansoor and other human rights defenders represent significant efforts to drive positive change in the UAE, this approach is no longer sufficient for the scale of ongoing human rights violations. The dismissive whitewashing attitude of the government and the MEPs’ endorsement underpin the human rights violations and the unfair imprisonment of Ahmed Mansoor.

In order for UAE to abide to international human rights obligations, real accountability for crimes of torture and other human rights violations must be demanded not only  through resolutions. Indeed, to effectively pressure the government to reconsider its intensified assault on civil society, the EU must implement targeted sanctions towards those responsible, showing that the EU will not tolerate these violations of human rights.

This is precisely the scope of the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, which, unlike other past sanctioning tools, has been designed to specifically target officials and, as such, constitutes the most effective means at the EU’s disposal for putting an end to the culture of impunity in the UAE.. We firmly assert that the EEAS should take advantage of the existing resolutions and the new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

Therefore, considering the repressive legal and regulatory environment, as well as Mr. Mansoor’s arbitrary and unjust detention and the constant violations of his rights as a prisoner, we count on the essential action of the European Parliament and the EEAS to:

  • Ensure the “asks” of resolutions are effectively implemented in the long-term by attending follow-ups by the European Parliament on the existing resolutions, and ensure the High Representative will put more emphasis on the situation of imprisoned human rights defenders and activists like Ahmed Mansoor during the next EU-UAE Human Rights Dialogues;
  • Submit a proposal under the Global Human Rights Sanction Regime regarding the application of targeted sanctions against UAE officials and entities involved in the persecution, imprisonment, torture, ill-treatment, and clampdown on digital freedoms of human rights defenders like Ahmed Mansoor;
  • Prevent UAE’s officials to whitewash human rights abuses by publicly raising their concerns and requesting the Emirati government to immediately and unconditionally release Ahmed Mansoor and other political and human rights defenders;
  • EU leaders should design a common, human rights based approach to economic partnerships in the GCC region to weaken the leverage GCC countries have through their SWFs.