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Under The Radar – 09 July

Saad Khonaifer on Unsplash

This week, we discuss:

  1. Saudi Arabia and the UAE at loggerheads over oil production

  2. The “staggeringly” high numbers of autistic people being drawn into terrorism

  3. Controversial changes to the Official Secrets Act

Special Relationship on the rocks

What happened?

Oil prices hit a six-year high after the members of OPEC+ failed to agree on new oil production quotas. The United Arab Emirates scuppered agreement by rejecting Saudi Arabia’s proposed eight-month extension to output curbs, which were originally put in place to stabilise the market during the pandemic. The Emiratis want the freedom to pump out more oil, while the Saudis and the Russians are opposed.

What does it mean?

OPEC was simply a new forum for the ongoing dispute between the two Gulf nations. The chasm between the two leading members of the Gulf Cooperation Council is widening following the rare public disagreement between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The relationship between the two Arab nations had been anchored by the personal bond between their Crown Princes and de facto leaders: Mohammed Bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed. MBS and MBZ had to date presented a united front, launching a Saudi/Emirati alliance to back pro-government forces in Yemen, boycotting Qatar and rooting out Islamic terrorism at home and abroad.

Cracks began to appear in the relationship when the UAE withdrew forces from Yemen, leaving Saudi Arabia to fight an unwinnable war. Meanwhile, the UAE was displeased at Saudi Arabia for warming its relations with Qatar, with the Saudis in turn displeased with the Emiratis for normalising their relations with Israel.

The Crown Princes’ competing visions are making reconciliation difficult. Both the Saudi and Emirati economies need foreign investment to diversify their oil-based economies, and MBS has made no secret of his attempts to make Riyadh the financial and trade capital of the Gulf, a crown currently worn by Dubai. Saudi Arabia recently warned foreign firms they could lose out on state contracts if they do not set up regional headquarters in the Kingdom and has amended rules on imports from free zones – a direct challenge to the UAE and its trade hubs.

With Saudi Arabia eating into capital that was once exclusively invested into the UAE, the Emiratis now need to boost oil production to fund their costly diversification projects. Hence they rejected the curb extension. The UAE may be flexing its muscles, but Saudi Arabia remains the regional hegemon, and they know it. The Emirates cannot defy the Kingdom indefinitely, especially if it permanently damages the alliance crucial to the peace and stability of the Gulf.

Radical changes in anti-radicalisation policies?

What happened?

A new report on the operation of terror laws in Britain noted the “staggeringly” high numbers of autistic people — including children – being drawn into terrorism.

The report’s author Jonathan Hall QC claimed that more scrutiny is needed of the links between autism and terrorist activity, saying “it is possible that we are at a point where our understanding of terrorism and the terrorist threat is going to have to shift once again”.

What does it mean?

Hall is wading into risky territory: as he himself notes, there is a very real and respectable fear that making any sort of link between autism and terrorism will lead to stigma. But he’s not wrong that our understanding of the terrorist threat may be due a reassessment. Referrals to the UK’s anti-radicalisation programmes suggest that counter-terrorist officials are dealing with a social as much as ideological problem.

The UK has two anti-radicalisation programmes: Prevent, which offers practical help to try to prevent individuals being drawn into extremism and Channel, for cases where someone is already on that path. In recent years, the number of people being referred to Prevent with mixed, unclear or uncertain (MUU) ideological beliefs has been rising steadily. In 2019-20, 51% of the 6,287 referrals to Prevent comprised individuals with MUU. Of those, 127 were adopted as Channel cases. This amounts to a 535% increase on 2018-19.

And there are increasingly more children getting involved: arrests for terrorism-related activity among the under-18s never rose above 5% of the total before 2020; nowadays, it’s between 10% and 16%.

The statistics reflect that the most dynamic category of terrorist activity does not come from Islamists but socially-isolated teenagers affected by neurodivergent conditions or poor mental health. The challenge is now to develop counter-terrorism legislation that appropriately responds to the risk while also providing necessary and sensitive support for those vulnerable youth.

Is freedom of the press taking a step backward?  

What happened?

As part of the British government’s proposed reforms to the Official Secrets Act 1989, journalists, spooks, and members of the public could face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty of unauthorised disclosures of sensitive official information. The government has also firmly rejected a recommendation made by the Law Commission for a public interest defence to be made available for anyone charged under the Act.

What does it mean?

The government consultation on Legislation to Counter State Threats (Hostile State Activity) highlighted the need for revamped legislation regarding unauthorised disclosures of official information due to the significant change in “the scale and potential impact” of such disclosures since the Official Secrets Act 1989 came into force. The government cites the development in communications technology (hey there, internet) as a catalyst for toughening up the laws.

There is no better example of the possible implications of a change to the sentencing than the recent incident in which classified Ministry of Defence documents were found left at a Kent bus stop and then extensively reported on by the BBC. Should the government’s proposed reforms come into force, it would mean both the person who ‘left’ the documents and those at the BBC involved in the reporting of them could face up to 14 years in jail if found guilty of an unauthorised breach.

Furthermore, due to the government’s rejection of the Law Commission’s recommendation for a Public Interest Defence, public servants and civilians would be deterred from reporting on “concerns of wrongdoing”. And while the government’s position is understandable, the deterioration of the public’s access to information during the pandemic indicates a worrying trend. Is the government tightening the law to prevent journalists from delivering critical reporting, whether on the pandemic or national security?

No matter how you look at it, it is hard to see how freedom of expression among the press and public is protected without a robust public interest defence, and with severe penalties for those brave enough to defy the rule of law.

This Week’s Must Reads

  1. ‘Where is the Labour Party’s messiah?’ by George Chesterton for GQ

  2. ‘The toppling of Saddam’s statue: how the US military made a myth’ by Alex von Tunzelmann for The Guardian

  3. ‘Can Gareth Southgate deliver both victory and progressive patriotism?’ by Gideon Rachman for the Financial Times

  4. ‘No Tory should want to privatise Channel Four’ by Ruth Davidson for The Telegraph


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