As the Dubai Expo 2020 kicks off today, the UAE’s “tolerance narrative” has been slammed as a “sham” by Human Rights Watch in its latest report on Abu Dhabi’s wide scale crackdown including on domestic critics, researchers, academics and UN experts and urged governments and businesses to avoid contributing to the kingdom’s efforts to whitewash its abuses.

Domestic critics are routinely arrested, said the report, pointing out that UAE’s crackdown has become worse since at least 2015 when authorities began to ignore or deny requests for access to the country by UN experts, human rights researchers, critical academics and journalists.

“Dozens of UAE peaceful domestic critics have been arrested, railroaded in blatantly unfair trials, and condemned to many years in prison simply for trying to express their ideas on governance and human rights,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Expo 2020 is yet another opportunity for the UAE to falsely present itself on the world stage as open, tolerant, and rights-respecting while shutting down the space for politics, public discourse, and activism.”

The delayed Expo 2020 begins today and continues until 31 March 2022, with the theme, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” Organisers have said that this year’s theme is “based on the belief that bringing the world together can catalyse an exchange of new perspectives.”

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This narrative of openness and tolerance, however, has been slammed as a “sham” by HRW in its report. “This event, as with other expensive entertainment, cultural, sports, and educational events before it, is designed to promote a public relations image of the UAE as an open, progressive, and tolerant country while its abusive authorities forcefully bar all peaceful criticism and dissent,” the rights groups said. The European Parliament called for the boycott of Dubai Expo 2020, last month, over similar concerns.

HRW cited a catalogue of assaults on basic rights by the Emirates since 2011, following the pro-democracy uprising. Abu Dhabi was one of the most potent counter-revolutionary forces and played a decisive role in cracking down on the Arab populations across the region who called to end decades of authoritarian rule and misgovernment.

Since 2011 UAE authorities have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association, arresting and prosecuting hundreds of independent lawyers, judges, teachers, students, and activists, and shutting down key civil society associations and the offices of foreign organizations, effectively crushing any space for dissent

said HRW. It also noted that the UAE introduced new laws and amended already repressive ones to further suppress freedom of expression to more easily stamp out dissent.

The security apparatus installed by the UAE for the purpose of repression was described in the report as well as names of victims including Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. The notorious Israeli spyware technology manufactured by the NSO Group was cited among the techniques of repression used by Abu Dhabi.

Governments and businesses have been urged to avoid contributing to UAE authorities’ efforts to whitewash their abuses. “With widespread arrests, intimidation, surveillance, and retaliation that citizens and residents face for speaking out, Expo participants and other countries should raise concerns about rights abuses in the UAE,” Page said. “Countries participating in the expo should ensure that they are not helping the UAE whitewash its image and obscure its abuses.”

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