The United Arab Emirates’ president has pardoned Matthew Hedges, the Durham university student sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly spying for the UK, ending a damaging spat that had threatened to derail close bilateral ties.
Officials said Mr Hedges had been released but had yet to leave the UAE.
The student, whose family had appealed for clemency, was arrested in May after conducting research for his PhD thesis on military development in the post Arab spring environment.
The UAE announced the pardon while reaffirming its accusations of espionage, in an apparent face-saving measure that allowed Abu Dhabi to grant clemency and secure the bilateral relationship without backing down on its initial complaint.
Daniela Tejada, Mr Hedges’ wife, who has repeatedly claimed he was innocent of the charges, said she was “elated” at the news of his pardon.
“The presidential pardon for Matt is the best news we could have received. Our six-plus months of nightmare are finally over and to say we are elated is an understatement.”
Jeremy Hunt, the UK foreign secretary, also welcomed the “wonderful news” and said that “the UAE authorities, to their credit, have been willing to listen to us”.
“This is one of those situations which was incredibly difficult for everybody involved but we never saw any evidence for these charges against Matthew Hedges,” he said in a radio interview.
Mr Hedges’ imprisonment had threatened to derail UK relations with the UAE, and marked a damaging new low in the mutual suspicions that emerged between the two historic allies in the wake of the Arab uprisings that swept the Middle East in 2011.
At that time, UAE leaders’ authority was challenged by Islamists and other activists calling for democratic reforms to the authoritarian tribal-based system. Dozens of activists were jailed and tough new cyber crime laws were introduced that closed down free speech.
Abu Dhabi was angered at London’s perceived ambivalence towards the rise of political Islam, a force they regarded as the region’s main source of instability. Behind the scenes some UK diplomats have also been critical of the UAE’s increasingly aggressive tone.
The UAE and close ally Saudi Arabia subsequently launched a more interventionist foreign policy, especially following the rise of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman since 2015. The UK’s dismay at the Saudi-Emirati embargo on Qatar, another British ally, was a further source of friction.
“The fact that both sides looked to maintain their strong relationship in the face of a serious consular incident that could have escalated shows that both are keen to maintain that relationship,” said Michael Stephens, research fellow for Middle East studies at the Royal United Services Institute. “But that it has taken an incident as serious as this to realise that is, of course, troubling.”
The UAE state news agency claimed the evidence against Mr Hedges included information secured from his personal electronic devices and evidence provided by the student himself, including “a corroborated account of asset recruitment and training”.
Jaber Al Lamki, a UAE government spokesman, on Monday said Mr Hedges had cultivated a network of contacts while working for a security consultancy in Dubai, which led to his recruitment back in the UK. “He was 100 per cent a full-time security service operative,” the spokesman told a press conference in Abu Dhabi.
Mr Lamki said Mr Hedges used the research trip to gather information on the UAE’s military procurement, economic data, sensitive information on members of the ruling families and classified information on the federation’s role in the war in Yemen. “He was here to steal the UAE’s sensitive national security secrets for his paymasters,” Mr Lamki said.
The UAE is Saudi Arabia’s main ally in an Arab coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, but the intervention has drawn widespread criticism because of the high civilian death toll and claims that their military operation has triggered a humanitarian disaster.
On Monday, local journalists were also shown a video of Mr Hedges’ purported confession that he was a “captain” for MI6, the British secret intelligence service, as well as being a PhD student. A UK security official said, however, that MI6 has no military ranks such as captain.
Anwar Gargash, the undersecretary for foreign affairs, said the pardon “allows us to close this chapter and to concentrate on the many positive aspects of the relationship”.
Rumours of the academic’s disappearance first emerged in May when he stopped answering colleagues’ emails. His WhatsApp status had been inactive since May 4, the day before his detention.
The Foreign Office advised his wife to encourage a media blackout to allow back-channel negotiations to take their course.
Mr Hedges’ pardon could be interpreted as a success for Mr Hunt’s forthright diplomacy. Since succeeding Boris Johnson as foreign secretary in July, he has taken up the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen jailed in Tehran. He warned Saudi Arabia would face “serious repercussions” over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and warned the UAE of “repercussions” from Mr Hedges’ sentence.
However, one UK official said that Mr Hunt had enraged the UAE with his stance on Khashoggi’s murder, and pointed out that Mr Hedges’ sentence came just days after the foreign secretary met his UAE counterpart to discuss the affair. A person close to Mr Hunt denied any link. Britain sees the UAE as a key export market, particularly after Brexit.
Additional reporting by Andrew England and David Bond in London