The recent investigation exposing the UAE's cyber-surveillance program fits in neatly with the country's quest to silence democratic actors across the Middle East.
More details regarding the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) shady cyber-surveillance and hacking programme have been exposed by Reuters this week, once again shining a light on Abu Dhabi’s efforts to quash the peaceful actions of human rights activists and political dissidents.
Emirati spymasters were also tasked with hacking the phones of foreign government officials, most notably Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hammad Al Thani, in what can only be described as a hostile action.
As usual, the UAE likes to frame such intelligence operations as falling under the umbrella of “counterterrorism.” But what the Emiratis are doing has very little to do with countering terrorism, and everything to do with countering democracy.
Spying to undermine human rights
The report recounts how respected American counterterrorism and intelligence official Richard Clarke left the active service of his country and decided to throw his lot in with the wealthy rulers of the UAE in 2008.
Clarke helped his Emirati benefactors to create a suitably terrifying new intelligence unit bearing the acronym DREAD, short for Development Research Exploitation and Analysis Department.
DREAD’s main objective was ostensibly to target extremists and terrorists that may target the tiny oil-rich country and seek to destabilise it. However, DREAD’s remit expanded to far more sinister levels in the years that followed, showing how Abu Dhabi wanted to use its newfound intelligence tools to target any who would oppose the UAE's vision for the region.
Nobody was safe from DREAD - also known as Project Raven by the American intelligence mercenaries who now worked for the Emiratis. A Saudi women’s rights activist, Loujain Al Hathloul, was spied on and subsequently detained, and even the United Nations and world football body FIFA were not safe from the UAE’s cyber spy network.
While the spying on bodies like FIFA was mainly in line with the UAE’s policy to undermine and damage its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar, what is terrifying is how human rights and pro-democracy activists have been targeted.
Journalists, activists and political rivals were all considered fair game by Project Raven staffers, mostly ex-intelligence operatives hailing from the US. In fact, the story was only exposed because these American mercenaries started to become upset that they were now being tasked to spy on US citizens.
Obviously, they did not feel any similar pangs of guilt when they were willingly targeting pro-democracy activists who would later be detained and likely tortured.
Prominent amongst these is Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati activist who regularly criticised his country’s policies in Yemen and its targeting of dissidents. Mansoor’s phone and computer were hacked by Project Raven contractors who used emails and photographs extracted from his system as evidence to convict him of “damaging the [UAE’s] unity” in 2017.
Mansoor is now languishing in prison, being held in solitary confinement, and his health is rapidly declining. Making matters worse, documents also show how his wife is still under surveillance, and she has been subjected to social isolation as people fear attracting the ire of the Emirati security apparatus.
All the while, reports show that American operatives obeyed the letter but not the spirit of the law, literally standing over the shoulders of Emirati operatives as they executed these surveillance operations against human rights activists.
Abu Dhabi’s attempts to undermine human rights and democracy stretch far beyond its borders, however.
In April this year, Turkish counter-espionage operations uncovered an Emirati spy network operating all over the country. Their mission was to gather intelligence on elements deemed to be anti-UAE, and Turkish intelligence also said that they had evidence that the Emirates were working directly with Israel to destabilise the government in Ankara.
The UAE has long perceived Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a threat, and the governing AK Party as a successful example of Muslim politicians operating within a functioning democracy.
Clearly, that is antithetical to the UAE’s model of rule by authoritarian and totalitarian force. That is why Abu Dhabi has poured billions into assisting autocrats across the Middle East, including Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. It is also why the Emiratis have attempted to destabilise democracies in Tunisia and more prominently Turkey.
The UAE’s intelligence efforts to undermine democracies are eerily similar to another world-renowned global intelligence service – the US’ Central Intelligence Agency, better known by its acronym, the CIA.
It is now common knowledge that the CIA purposefully killed off democracies particularly in Latin America and replaced elected governments with authoritarian military dictatorships that sent human rights in those countries back to the Dark Ages.
During the Cold War, most of the United States’ near-abroad in Central and South America were subjected to coup d’etats. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, Paraguay and others all had their democracies completely subverted and crushed by the world’s most powerful democracy.
The US preferred to deal with military fascists than to build relationships on equal terms with its neighbours, and this was all justified by wanting to counter malign Soviet influence.
Considering this American pedigree that has now been transferred to the UAE in the form of ex-NSA and CIA operatives working for a foreign government, it is no surprise that the UAE is one of the only countries in the world that the US does not spy on.
In many instances, it is hard to see where American spies end and Emirati intelligence operatives begin, and their methods are now verifiably similar.
Such an outcome is disastrous for the people of the Middle East who are seeking a change from autocratic dictatorships to democratic openness and transparency in their governments.
Those seeking freedom in the region now know they have a snake in the den and one that is ready and willing to spit poison at and kill anyone who opposes its authoritarian vision for the Middle East.
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