Relatives of an Australian man who has been jailed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for spying say he is a victim of the bitter feud between the Arabian Peninsula clans over Qatar’s recalcitrant foreign policies.

Naim Aziz Abbas, 65, was given a five-year term and fined the equivalent of almost US$2,000 for allegedly passing on secrets to Qatar. He had been incarcerated in Al Wathba prison since his arrest in Dubai 14 months ago.

His brother Adil Abbas said in Sydney that the former train driver was held after he applied for a job in Qatar, which has been shunned by its Arabian Gulf partners the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt since June 2017.

“He’s been charged with … communicating with a foreign state or with anyone who works in their interest to carry out a terrorist attack. He’s been in the middle of tensions between UAE and Qatar and he’s a scapegoat,” said Adil.

Iraqi-born Naim has worked in Dubai since 2009 for the UAE Roads and Transport Authority and has Australian citizenship. Relatives petitioned consular officials for help, but Naim has been mostly kept in isolation.

‘False confession’

Adil said he had been denied access to a lawyer during his initial interrogation, was assaulted and “tricked into signing a false confession.”

“He was subjected to torture … There has been verbal and physical abuse,” including being questioned in an electric chair, Adil told the Arabic service of the state-operated Australian Special Broadcasting Service. “My brother is innocent of any crime. He is not a spy nor a terrorist.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra confirmed before his last hearing in May that consular officials were providing assistance, and that “Mr Abbas’ case has been raised privately with the UAE government.”

Efforts to secure his release will be hampered by the tense relationship between the UAE and Qatar, which has been ostracized by the other Gulf Cooperation states over its support for radical Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and its expanding inks with Iran.

Strains first emerged in 2014 when Qatar backed activists allied with the Brotherhood during the Arab Spring political uprising in Egypt, prompting the other Gulf nations to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha. Qatar agreed to halt its support, but quietly continued to give financial aid.

Up to 15 years in jail

Last year, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt imposed a diplomatic and economic blockade on Qatar, demanding it deport Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Egypt, and cease all military and strategic ties with Iran. The UAE warned that anyone showing support for Qatar could face up to 15 years in jail.

Gulf states also want Doha to shut down the Al Jazeera media network, alleging it is a propaganda mouthpiece for the Brotherhood and Tehran.

Operated by the Qatari authorities, Al Jazeera sided with reformist leaders during the Arab Spring and was criticized by the US and its allies for giving leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist group a media platform during the Iraq war.

Fluctuating US policies toward Qatar have not helped. US President Donald Trump initially branded the Brotherhood as a reactionary movement and labeled Doha a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

However, he changed his tune in August, hosting Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the White House and calling him a “very big advocate” in the war on terror.

This is probably not a great surprise, as Qatar is home to the biggest US airbase in the Middle East at Al Udeid, southwest of Doha, crucial for aircraft launching attacks against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It was revealed during the US talks that the base will be greatly expanded.

All six Gulf nations are technically part of a US strategic alliance against Iran, which also gets indirect backing from Australia, another American ally. Australian forces use Al Minhad airbase in the UAE as their forward logistics facility for Middle East operations; it hosts F/A-18F Super Hornet fighters, E-7A Wedgetail early warning planes and transport aircraft.

Australia has provided patrol boats and other defense equipment to most of the Gulf nations and the partnership with the UAE is set to escalate. It was announced last year that the two countries had signed a 10-year deal that will include A$1 billion (now US$712 million) of defense supplies.

Then-Defense Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, who called the UAE one of Australia’s “closest friends in the Arab world,” said this could include everything from ammunition to “high-speed support vessels.”

Canberra, however, has not yet commented on the jailing of Naim Aziz Abbas.