Will repression in UAE intensify under the Israel deal?

Thanks to the recent rapprochement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi should in future be able to access Israeli espionage software even more easily in order to spy on politically unpopular citizens. By Tom Allinson

By Kersten Knipp & Tom Allinson

Directly after Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed a deal normalising ties between their countries last week, prominent Emirati social media accounts, some with links to government, warned that anyone in the UAE criticising the deal should be reported to authorities.

One post linked to an app released by the Attorney General's Office, allowing users to easily report tweets that threaten "the basic principles of social security". In the past, critical social media posts have resulted in detention, forced disappearances and torture, contributing to a climate of fear, experts and activists say.

Such open repression of free expression matches the UAE's more covert means of silencing dissidents through long-standing cooperation with Israeli cyber-surveillance companies.

That relationship is expected to grow stronger under the new deal, paving the way for "increased surveillance and policing of speech, not just domestically but regionally too," Hiba Zayadin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.

Cyber-attacks on human rights activists

Israeli hardware and software have allowed Emirati authorities to "control any activity in the public and private space," said Andreas Krieg, a risk consultant and professor at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London. "It has contributed to a constraint of the freedom of speech over the past decade that is unprecedented in its rigidity, even in the Gulf."

One of the most high-profile Emirati rights activists, Ahmed Mansoor, was targeted by the Israel-based NSO Group's Pegasus spyware in 2016, Khalid Ibrahim, the executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, revealed.

Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, currently in prison (photo: Reuters)
Verhaftet und verurteilt: der emiratische Menschenrechtsaktivist Ahmed Mansur ist seit März 2017 aus politischen Gründen inhaftiert. Das PEN-Zentrum Deutschland hat den in den Vereinigten Arabischen Emiraten inhaftierten Blogger, Dichter und Menschenrechtsaktivisten Ahmed Mansoor zum Ehrenmitglied ernannt.

After hacking his Twitter account, "They sent him a text message with a link to a case of torture," Ibrahim said. "But he didn't click on the link. He sent it to Citizen Lab, and when they did the analysis, they discovered it was a link that will transform his cell phone into a spying device."

Mansoor was convicted of damaging the country's unity in a closed trial in 2017, sentenced to 10 years in jail and is now held in solitary confinement.

A 2018 lawsuit against NSO Group featured emails showing the firm offered Emirati officials proof of its software's effectiveness by secretly recording the phone calls of a London-based Arab newspaper editor, Abdul Aziz al-Khamis. Murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his exiled colleague Omar Abdulaziz were also allegedly targeted by the spyware.

In February, an NSO Group spokesperson told Deutsche Welle that the firm would rescind its software licences for customers who use its products for human rights violations. An NSO Group spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

UAE surveillance draws on Israeli expertise

More recently, the UAE branched into developing its own surveillance tools using U.S. and Israeli expertise, multiple investigations  have found.

In 2017, UAE company DarkMatter lured a wave of ex-Israel Defence Forces employees of NSO to work for it, with salaries as high as $1 million. DarkMatter hacked the iPhones of hundreds of activists, political leaders and suspected terrorists, according to a Reuters investigation.

Photo montage: Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, and Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (photo: Imago/picture-alliance/dpa)
Historischer diplomatischer Schulterschluss: Israels Premier Benjamin Netanjahu und Mohamed bin Zayed, Kronprinz von Abu Dhabi. Die Emirate hatten jüngst überraschend angekündigt, als drittes arabisches Land - nach Ägypten und Jordanien - diplomatische Beziehungen zu Israel aufzunehmen. Im Gegenzug will Israel die Annektierung von Gebieten im besetzten Westjordanland aussetzen, das die Palästinenser für einen eigenen Staat beanspruchen.

Just last year, a firm allegedly linked to DarkMatter released a messaging app called ToTok in the UAE, where similar platforms like Skype and WhatsApp are banned. An investigation by The New York Times found ToTok was actually used by the Emirati government "to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones."

ToTok's sole shareholder was listed as the Emirati company Group 42, whose CEO ran a subsidiary of DarkMatter for years, according to databases seen by the Associated Press. Group 42 denied any connection with DarkMatter.

A "win-win" for the new allies

Just before the normalisation deal was announced, Group 42 announced a deal to cooperate on coronavirus solutions with Israel Aerospace Industries' Elta Division, considered a world leader in cyber defence technology.

"With Israeli technology being world leading and the UAE building a 21st century surveillance state with deep penetration into countries in the region, both have seen this as a win-win," Krieg said. "Such relationships are only possible because the Israeli security establishment has sanctioned it."

DarkMatter, a spokesperson for the UAE Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Israeli Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Past cooperation has seen such surveillance extended into physical space as well. In 2015, Emirati authorities contracted Israeli businessman Mati Kochavi's company Asia Global Technology to set up a civil surveillance project in Abu Dhabi called Falcon Eye.

Officials say the thousands of cameras across the city are used to monitor traffic and unlawful gatherings. But a source close to the companies involved told Middle East Eye, a London-based outlet some complain to be anti-Emirati, "Every person is monitored from the moment they leave the doorstep to the moment they return to it."


EU remains silent on human rights

With Israeli officials also encouraging Gulf countries such as Bahrain and Oman to move toward normalisation, such security ties might expand across the region.

"A deal with Bahrain would provide opportunities for Israeli AI and cyber companies, however, it would be much harder for them to receive an export license of know-how and technology," Krieg said. "Any proliferation of expertise in this field to Bahrain would likely come indirectly via Abu Dhabi, which for Israel has become a new intel hub in the Gulf."

The proliferation of such tools is also not restricted to the UAE and Israel. Companies from Canada to Italy have also sold hacking tools to regional rulers to repress freedom of expression, says Ibrahim, pointing to Qatar as well as UAE as examples of repressive regional states.

"The EU says all the time human rights are at the very heart of our way," said Ibrahim. "But when it's about the cooperation of European companies with oppressive governments in relation to civilians, they've really done very little."

Tom Allinson

© Deutsche Welle 2020