Sheikhs, lives and videotape

April 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

‘A member of the UAE royal family is accused of torture – but is there any chance of justice when the country’s rulers are the law?’ asks Brian Whitaker.

The atrocities of Abu Ghraib caused much rightful indignation – and nowhere more so than in Arab countries where the sadistic torture of prisoners at the hands of their American jailers was viewed as symbolising the rape of Iraq by a foreign power.

I remember discussing this at the time with Hisham Kassem, a newspaper editor in Cairo who – contrary to the prevailing Arab view – described the coverage of Abu Ghraib by the Egyptian press as “shameless”.

“They talk about American monstrosities as if their own governments have never practised anything similar,” he said. “It’s nothing in comparison to what’s happening in Arab prisons.”

The torture policies of the Bush administration still cause soul-searching in the United States today, but let’s look at another case – one that as far as most of the Arab media are concerned never happened.

Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, brother of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, is said to have been cheated in a business deal by an Afghan grain dealer, Mohammed Shah Poor. Sheikh Issa probably had good reason to take Mr Poor to court, but that is not what he did.

A 45-minute video released last week purports to show what happened next: Mr Poor was dragged off into the desert and brutally tortured. In the words of Human Rights Watch, the tape provides overwhelming evidence that Sheikh Issa, together with members of the Emirates police:

• Fired bullets from an automatic rifle around Mr Poor in very close proximity as the victim was screaming;

• Used an electric cattle prod against Mr Poor’s testicles and inserted it into his anus;

• Poured lighter fluid on Mr Poor’s testicles and set them on fire;

• Pulled down the pants of Mr Poor and repeatedly struck him with a protruding nail attached to a wooden board. At one point, Sheikh [Issa] placed the nail next to Mr Poor’s buttocks and banged it through the flesh;

• Whipped Mr Poor over all his body including his face;

• Poured a large container of salt on to Mr Poor’s wounds which were still bleeding ;

• Positioned Mr Poor on the desert sand and then drove over him repeatedly in a 4×4 vehicle. The sound of what appears to be breaking bones can be heard on the tape.

Astonishingly, Mr Poor survived but spent a long period in hospital. The tape is evidence in a lawsuit filed in the United States by one of Sheikh Issa’s former business associates and parts of it were shown on television by ABC News last week.

The interior ministry in the Emirates, which is headed by another of Sheikh Issa’s brothers, does not deny that the incident took place but says the matter has now been sorted out “privately” between the sheikh and Mr Poor – as if it were merely some playground quarrel.

The ministry also maintains that “all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the police department” and that “the incidents depicted in the video tapes were not part of a pattern of behaviour”.

This is plainly not good enough.

One of the few notes of condemnation inside the Middle East came from the Iranian Press TV which said Sheikh Issa “has reaffirmed all the behaviours stereotyped in western films, media and literature about the basic and cruel nature of desert dwellers” – a fair point, except that the Iranian regime itself is no angel in these matters and has its own axe to grind against the UAE.

Silence in the UAE itself is only to be expected, especially with a new media law set to impose fines of more than $1.3m (£900,000) for articles that “disparage” members of the royal family or government officials. With penalties like that, there is no real hope for the kind of soul-searching seen in the US over Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo – and consequently there is nothing to stop it happening again.

But whatever the interior ministry may say, there is a pattern of behaviour here – and it’s not just about torture or one sheikh’s alleged fondness for making and watching sadistic videos. It’s about the abuse of state power for private purposes.

Arab regimes, and especially those in the Gulf, treat their countries like a family business. They behave as if they own the place – and, in a sense, they do own it.

This is what Max Weber, the German sociologist, described as a patrimonial style of government – a system once found also in Europe, where (as one writer put it) “the mechanics of the household are the model for political administration”. For “household” in this context, picture a rather grand ancestral home with plenty of land, servants, gardeners, gamekeepers etc, imagine how the lord of the household would have run it – then apply that to the running of a country.

One of the hallmarks of a patrimonial system is that government posts tend to be filled according to who people are, rather than their capacity to do the job: the holder of the office is often more important than the office itself. How this works in the UAE, where the Maktum and the Nayhan families rule the roost, can be seen from the list of senior government posts. Between them, the two families have carved up the positions of president, vice-president, prime minister and nine of the 24 other ministerial posts, including the key ministries of defence, finance, interior and foreign affairs. It’s a similar picture in Kuwait with the Sabah family, in Qatar with the Thani family, in Bahrain with the Khalifa family and, of course, in Saudi Arabia with the heirs of Ibn Saud.

Another hallmark of patrimonial systems is that “the ruler does not distinguish between personal and public patrimony and treats matters and resources of state as his personal affair”. The line between the state and its rulers, between the state’s property and the rulers’ property, becomes so blurred as to be almost indistinguishable: the rulers are not merely above the law, they are the law.

In 1972, Willie Morris, ending his term as British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, sent aconfidential note (pdf) to his diplomatic colleagues which later became public. Describing the royal family, he wrote:

They are a family which includes many of considerable ability, strong personality, and even their own kind of charm: but I doubt if there are any among them, not even King Faisal himself, who have seriously questioned the inherent right of the Saud family to regard Saudi Arabia as a family business, or to regard the promotion of the interests of the family business as taking priority over everything else.

Unfortunately, little has changed in the Gulf since then.

• Brian Whitaker’s book, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East will be published by Saqi in September.

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