If our relations with China have taught us one thing, it is that politics is politics and business is business. This means that the economic benefits of a close relationship with a rich partner might necessitate skipping over such unpleasantness as autocratic rule and the odd human rights abuse. But at least we can satisfy ourselves with the thought that other places do political repression much worse and on a grander scale.
So in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods in Middle Eastern history, it appears that our "hear no evil, see no evil" approach, which has worked so well with China, is now being employed with one of our close regional allies, the UAE.
The closeness of our relationship is not only illustrated by the Emiratis hosting our military base at al-Minhad, but also by our recent announcement of a $200 million deal to sell uranium to the UAE
, and the UAE's announcement at the same time that it would support Australia's bid
for a seat at the UN Security Council.
What you won't hear from the government or Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr is any mention of the Emiratis recent intolerance for anything that approaches free speech. This strikes one as, well, hypocritical, considering this government has espoused the need for autocratic rulers to listen to the voice of the people and in some cases to step aside when they don't adopt this approach.
On the surface, the UAE is a socially liberal Arab state with which we and many other Western countries have close relations. But below the surface, the UAE is demonstrating that it is just as politically illiberal as other Arab regimes.
How else to explain the forced closure of democracy promotion NGOs
earlier this year such as the US-funded National Democratic Institute and the German-funded Konrad Adenauer Foundation? Concerns about what has been happening in the UAE are neatly summarised in an article on open democracy
Of more concern than the action against foreign NGOs, however, has been the detention without charge
of over 50 political and human rights activists accused of a rather Orwellian-sounding plot against state security
and the rather more standard claim that they had unspecified ties "to foreign parties". It appears that no political activists in the Arab world, be it in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Egypt, ever has a legitimate domestic political complaint: all political opposition is always carried out at the behest of foreign powers.
And what is Australia's view on the crackdown on political activists and the closure of democracy-promoting institutes in the UAE? You guessed it: nothing.
Carr's statements have spoken of our close trading relationship but you won't find a single word of criticism levelled against the Emiratis for their unwillingness to countenance free speech. I am an advocate of close relations with the UAE because I believe it serves both our national interests. But a relationship in which we have to remain silent about repression of individual freedoms in order to maintain business interests is one in which we reveal ourselves to be less an activist middle power than a subservient mineral exporter.
It reminds one of our China strategy.
*This article was first published at The Interpreter