In response to the challenge thrown down by pro-democracy movements in the Middle East since the Arab Spring, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become one of the most repressive regimes in the region. It now boasts one of the highest rates of political prisoners per capita anywhere in the world, with foreign nationals accounting for more than 87 percent of its prison population.

This population grew by one earlier this month, when Emirati authorities arrested a visiting Lebanese gynecologist, Dr. Richard Kharrat, at a hotel in Abu Dhabi, because of criticisms and jokes he had posted on Twitter that offended the Emirati government, according to multiple reports.

Emirati authorities arrested a visiting Lebanese gynecologist, Dr. Richard Kharrat.

One of the tweets that led to his arrest was a joke he posted on Twitter in October 2020, comparing the last names of Emirati and Lebanese families, in which he used “Nahyan” – the last name of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. Another joke Dr. Kharrat tweeted urged the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen to attack Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, as reported by French newspaper L’Orient Le Jour.

There’s no doubt that his wisecrack made two years ago – at the expense of the House of Nahyan – was interpreted as a verbal assault on a regime that has become increasingly paranoid and repressive since pro-democracy movements removed dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, and almost in Syria.

Dr. Kharrat’s arrest has sparked a firestorm on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, particularly among Lebanese social media users, who are demanding his immediate release and repatriation.

“My friend from university, a very noble and kind doctor, who always has a nice word to say to each and everyone. I am choked to hear this sad news. All I can do is pray that you come back sane to your beloved ones and to your patients who love you so much,” tweeted Sandra Klat, founder and president of BASSMA, a non-profit organization founded in Lebanon to empower destitute families.

Some analysts have theorized that the arrest of the Lebanese doctor is collateral damage in an ongoing feud between Abu Dhabi and Beirut over the Saudi/Emirati-led war in Yemen, where Hezbollah has been accused of supporting the Houthi rebels to prepare and launch missiles and drones against targets in Yemen, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

The arrest of Kharrat may be collateral damage in an ongoing feud between Abu Dhabi and Beirut over the Yemen war.

The Saudi-led coalition hasn’t forgotten boasts made by Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah, who lauded his forces for carrying out “honorable” military operations in Yemen, last year.

But while geopolitical wrangling may or may not partly explain Dr. Kharrat’s arrest, it’s an undeniable reality that the UAE has established a track record of arresting foreign nationals over social media posts, including the arrest of a British woman in 2019, who was jailed for two years and fined $65,000 after calling her ex-husband’s new wife a “horse” on Facebook.

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That same year, two Filipino women were arrested for filming a police officer interrogating a man and posting the video on social media. In 2015, an Australian woman was jailed for two days, fined $3,600, and deported from the country after posting a photo of a car parked in a disabled spot.

But Emirati citizens have received far worse punishment, particularly those critical of the UAE government.

In 2013, the UAE arrested 94 human rights lawyers, activists, university professors, and students on bogus conspiracy charges that alleged all had plotted to overthrow the government. More than two-thirds of them were sentenced to ten years in prison, as reported by Inside Arabia last year.

In 2018, the government jailed five human rights defenders, including prominent Emirati poet and activist Ahmed Mansoor, for making “insulting comments” against the country’s leaders, a move described by Amnesty International as a “violation of a right to freedom of expression.”

In 2018, the government jailed five human rights defenders.

Last year, UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor accused the UAE of subjecting political prisoners, who should never have been detained in the first place, to “enduring conditions that may amount to torture.”

These allegations and realities have done little to tarnish the UAE’s reputation as a global hub for business and tourism, but partly because foreign governments have done little to warn their citizens of the severity of the country’s draconian cyber-crime laws, particularly as they relate to making “defamatory statements” on social media. Even sharing “fake news” on Facebook can land you a two-year prison sentence and a fine exceeding $100,000, but a social media post that defames Emirati rulers, or an act that might “antagonize the state,” will dump you in extra hot water.

This leaves unaware Western visitors, who are often blinded by the glitz and glamour of Dubai, or take free speech for granted, exposed to the machinations of the UAE’s criminal justice system, which is constructed on the suppression of political dissent, and enforced by arbitrary detention, show trials, and torture.

The UAE’s rulers are increasingly turning towards the tools of repression, including hi-tech surveillance systems and draconian “counterterrorism” laws to maintain a firm grip on power. As demonstrated time and time again, they are willing to use them against foreign nationals, as they did in 2018, when infecting the phone of Jamal Khashoggi’s former fiancée at the time Hanan Elatr with Pegasus spyware just six months before the Saudi journalist was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The recent arrest of the Lebanese doctor for posting tweets critical of the regime years ago fits within this pattern and should terrify anyone planning a visit to the UAE.