Belmont Club

A land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new

In Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy, the insignificant protagonist, Joseph Vadassy, is accidentally caught up in intrigue at a beach resort where behind the gay facade, danger lurked unseen. While sitting in the garden he observed that despite appearances, all around him in the flowers, a vast tableau of death was being played out among insects and nocturnal birds, with unseen tragedy just behind every beautiful petal. Nothing in the world, he observed, was quite as unblemished as it seemed, as he would learn when the police came for him on subject he knew nothing about.

The theme of how the world works under the shiny surface was the subject of a Times Online video which shows a UAE Royal giving an Afghan grain salesman “the works” over a bad business deal. Another man now suing the royal in US court smuggled the video out to bolster his case in a separate matter; and it now threatens to derail a multibillion dollar nuclear power deal between the US and the Gulf kingdom. “The deal was sealed on January 15 during President Bush’s last week in office, but needs to be recertified by the new Administration. Under its terms, the US agrees to provide technology and equipment to help the UAE to develop civilian nuclear power plants. In return, the UAE pledges to abide by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and not to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel.”

In the tape the sheikh is seen torturing an Afghan grain salesman he claims has cheated … The 45-minute tape shows a man that the Government of Abu Dhabi has acknowledged is Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan — one of 22 royal brothers of the UAE President and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince — mercilessly and repeatedly beating a man with a cattle prod and a nailed board, burning his genitals and driving his Mercedes over him several times. He is assisted by a uniformed policeman.

The video will push a variety of buttons: those who are against the sale of nuclear power technology abroad; those who are against nuclear technology, period; and those who think nuclear technology will reduce carbon emissions. It will also push the buttons of all those who had counted on getting jobs which are now in danger of evaporating. Ironically, it might even bolster the case for finding ways to effectively interrogate prisoners in US custody because it shows what happens when they are not held in US custody. For even the most obtuse must realize what Sheik Crococile Dundee might have said when observing waterboarding. “That’s not torture, this is torture.” It might even press the buttons of the inveterately cynical, who will note that the torture film itself was taken by someone who used to work for the Sheikh and is now interested in suing him.

The tape was smuggled out of the UAE by Bassam Nabulsi, a former business associate of Sheikh Issa who fell out with him. The videotape was filmed by Mr Nabulsi’s brother, who used to work for the sheikh. Mr Nabulsi says that after he confronted the sheikh about the tape he was tortured in a UAE jail by members of the Interior Ministry, a claim the UAE Government denies. He is suing the sheikh in Houston, Texas, and wants to produce the tape as evidence.

The times being as hard as they are, I imagine there will be a number of people who will argue the sheik was engaging in private vengeance, not engaging in an act of state so as not to let it spoil the party. Pundits will cite the fact that diplomats and businessmen would have no one to talk to if they were overly particular about their company. The administration for example, is willing to talk to Iran, which probably knows a thing or two about nailed boards. The President himself shook hands with Chavez and who knows what implements Hugo’s hands have held? Finally there will be some who will say that these things should always be expected in places where they do things differently. Multiculturalism is a great thing. Sheik, shreik. What’s the difference? There’s a vast gulf in the way things are done in various parts of the world, and indeed in the lessons people derive from incidents like this. In much of the world the moral of this story would not be guilt but a resolve never let video like this leak out again and under no circumstances leave anyone to sue you. I predict the nuclear sales dispute will end based on which congressional districts stand to lose or gain employment in consequence of the eventual decision. After all it’s easy to convince people that we need to engage everyone because of the need to save jobs. What we need to do save lives, well that’s another calculus.