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UAE: Abu Dhabi crown prince wins award for 'peace with Israel' and 'religious tolerance'

Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan receives 2021 Scholar-Statesman leadership award from Washington Institute, as activists deplore UAE rights abuses
WINEP executive director Robert Satloff said Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan's, pictured, normalisation deal with Israel had been a 'bold and visionary act' (AFP)

A leading Washington-based think tank has handed an award given to "outstanding leaders" to Abu Dhabi's crown prince, who has been accused of overseeing wide-ranging human rights abuses and brutal foreign interventions, for “securing peace with Israel” and “expanding religious tolerance”.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which aims to advance United States' interests in the Middle East, marked the first anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Tuesday by awarding Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan its 2021 Scholar-Statesman award. 

“Through his bold and visionary act, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan led the way for peace between Israel and the UAE and paved the road for three other Arab countries – Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan – to make their own agreements for full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state,” said WINEP executive director Robert Satloff.

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“His pioneering leadership made possible the first agreements between Israel and Arab nations in more than two decades and raised the bar on what constitutes full, warm peace between Arabs and Israelis.”

The crown prince was also recognised for “expanding religious tolerance at home”. 

“The flowering of churches, synagogues and related religious institutions in the UAE sets a new standard for religious tolerance one hopes countries around the region begin to emulate,” Satloff said.

'UAE under MBZ all but tolerant'

The announcement of the award has sparked condemnation and ridicule, with commentators and activists citing human rights abuses committed by the Gulf nation.

Nader Hashemi, assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the University of Denver, claimed the achievement rewarded the de facto Abu Dhabi ruler for "abandoning the Palestinians", a reference to the UAE's normalisation with Israel.

Several activists also took issue with WINEP's claims that the UAE had expanded religious tolerance at home.

'The Washington Institute's criteria for winners of its scholar statesman award seem to be those deeply involved in bringing suffering to the Middle East'

- Marc Owen Jones

Adam Coogle, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), responded by posting a report about Emirati authorities arbitrarily targeting Pakistani Shia residents. 

The report in June found that the UAE had forcibly disappeared and deported several Pakistanis of Shia origin in 2020, some of whom’s whereabouts remain unknown. 

"The UAE claims that it respects freedom and diversity, but arbitrarily disappearing and deporting long-time Shia residents indicates that this tolerance and respect does not extend to all religious sects," an HRW spokesperson said at the time.

“The Washington Institute might have a slightly different interpretation of tolerance than the liberal philosophical tradition dating back to Socrates - i.e. allowing or accepting ideas, beliefs, opinions that one disagrees with - because UAE under MbZ [Mohammed bin Zayed] are all but tolerant,” wrote Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London

The award came on the same day that three former US intelligence officials admitted in a US court to taking part in a UAE hacking operation aimed at enemies and rivals of the Gulf nation.

The former agents were part of a clandestine unit named Project Raven that hacked into the accounts of human rights activists, journalists and rival governments at the behest of the UAE’s monarchy.

They admitted to deploying a sophisticated cyberweapon that allowed the UAE to hack into Apple iPhones without requiring a target to click on malicious links.

A Reuters investigation found that Project Raven spied on numerous human rights activists, some of whom were later tortured by UAE security forces.

Blair and Kissinger previous winners

WINEP was established in 1985 to “advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American interests in the Middle East”. It has long been accused of being pro-Israeli, and receiving support from American Israeli lobby group AIPAC. 

Martin Indyk, its co-founder and first executive director, had previously worked as research director for AIPAC before joining the think tank. He went on to become the US ambassador to Israel and the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs under former US President Bill Clinton.

WINEP says that its Scholar-Statesman award celebrates “outstanding leaders who… exemplify the idea that sound scholarship and a discerning knowledge of history are essential to wise and effective policy and the advancement of peace and security in the Middle East”.

Previous recipients of the award include Bill Clinton, former Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, former US secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Henry Kissinger, and former British prime minister Tony Blair. 

“The Washington Institute's criteria for winners of its scholar statesman award seem to be those deeply involved in bringing suffering to the Middle East,” said academic and commentator Marc Owen Jones.