The legal system of Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates is coming under renewed international scrutiny, with the launch of an inquiry by members of the British parliament into how foreign business executives are treated when accused of breaking the law.
Baroness Helena Kennedy, a prominent barrister and Labour Party member of the House of Lords, is chairing the inquiry, which held an evidence-gathering session in parliament on June 14, entitled The Real Cost of Doing Business in the UAE. Early on in the proceedings she pointed to the importance of an independent judiciary and due process and commented to one witness that “as your evidence has shown, there are shortcomings on many of those fronts in the UAE”.
The cross-party panel also includes Conservative Party MP Robert Buckland, who served as secretary of state for justice from 2019-21, and Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, who takes a close interest in human rights issues in Gulf states.
Among the witnesses was Matthew Hedges, who spoke about his experience of being arrested in Dubai in 2018. “I was arbitrarily detained, tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment in the UAE under the charge of espionage on behalf of the United Kingdom,” he said.
“The position there is that you’re guilty first and you have to prove your innocence,” he added. “You’re fighting against a system which is entirely focused around crushing you.”
The panel also held from British businessman Charles Ridley who called from his UAE prison. He is currently serving a 20-year sentence due to alleged fraud linked to a large real estate development in Dubai called The Plantation which had been backed by a loan from Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB).
Ridley’s colleague Ryan Cornelius is being held on the same charges and his wife Heather Cornelius and brother-in-law Chris Pagett were also in parliament to offer testimony.
Ridley and Cornelius were first detained in 2008. In 2011, they were handed a ten-year sentence and ordered to pay $500 million to the bank to cover the original loan and a further fine of $500 million to the state. Unable to pay these sums, the men served two additional periods of six months in lieu of the money due to the bank and the state.
Forbes Daily: Get our best stories, exclusive reporting and essential analysis of the day’s news in your inbox every weekday.Sign Up
They had then expected to be released, but in March 2018 fresh legal proceedings were launched against them and in May that year they were given a further 20-year term under Dubai’s Law 37 of 2009 – which had only come into force after the alleged fraud had taken place.
“We’re currently in for that 20 years and we’ve got another 15 or 16 years to go,” said Ridley.
In response to his testimony, Kennedy commented “We certainly have deep concerns about the whole way that this law operates and how you’ve been treated is scandalous.”
In May last year, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a report calling on the UAE to immediately release Cornelius, saying he was being arbitrarily detained.
These and similar cases prompted Meridith Morisson, head of business intelligence at the Risk Advisory Group, to describe the UAE as “the biggest latent business risk in the Middle East – because it’s the one that goes below the radar”.
Kennedy responded to that by saying the UAE “has a layer of respectability that it is perhaps not entitled to”.
Such issues have at times caused difficulty for international judges appointed to roles in the UAE judicial system. Last year, two prominent Irish judges resigned a few days after being appointed to the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) Courts, following controversy in their home country over their new positions.
A UAE government official told Forbes their country had a “strong pro-business environment underpinned by a legal system that operates in line with the highest global standards of transparency and equality” and insisted that the legal system “ensures all individuals and companies are subject to due process and guarantees the right to a fair, equitable and timely trial”.