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Middle Eastern Autocrats Are Abetting China's Transnational Repression of Uyghurs

By Bradley Jardine

May 4, 2023

Editor's note: This article is adapted from a paper presented at a recent webinar examining Middle Eastern autocrats' complicity with China's repression of its Muslim communities, cohosted by DAWN and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

In a display of China's growing political influence in the Islamic world, leaders from 32 Muslim-majority countries flew to Xinjiang last year, in northwestern China, for a conference showcasing the region's supposed economic and social development. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the attendees expressed that "freedom of religious belief and various rights of Muslims are duly guaranteed" and that the reality in Xinjiang "is completely different from what some Western media reported," a veiled reference to the mass detention of as many as a million ethnic Uyghurs.

Public relations campaigns like these are just one element in Beijing's toolkit for whitewashing its repression in far western China, a province with a substantial Muslim population.

As Beijing deepens its ties with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the Uyghur diaspora in the Middle East is increasingly at risk of China's growing transnational repression. Last year, four Uyghurs residing in Saudi Arabia, including children, were held and told to prepare for deportation back to China, where they would likely be detained for "re-education" in Xinjiang's vast network of concentration camps, prisons and factories for forced labor. Since 2017, China has embarked on a draconian campaign to subjugate the vast region bordering Central Asia and reengineer, in line with Communist Party principles, Xinjiang's unique history and culture, which have been defined by its many ethnic minorities.

As Beijing deepens its ties with Arab countries, the Uyghur diaspora in the Middle East is increasingly at risk of China's growing transnational repression.


With its growing influence in the Middle East, culminating last month in the deal it helped broker to restore relations between Gulf rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, China has also gained diplomatic buy-in, and even complicity, for its repression of Uyghurs, in a region where Uyghurs have had centuries of contact and religious connection. During a 2019 visit to China, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, parroting Chinese government talking points justifying its repression of Uyghurs, assured his hosts: "We respect and support China's right to take counterterrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security." Riyadh also signed two joint letters to the United Nations, in 2019 and 2020, supporting China's widespread repression in Xinjiang.

Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East are going much further than just offering rhetorical backing for this campaign. According to my research, at least six governments across the region—Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates—have detained or deported Uyghurs at China's behest, with at least 292 Uyghurs forced to return to China from the Middle East since 2002.

While China's repression of Uyghurs has been ongoing for two decades, the scale and intensity increased dramatically in 2017 with the onset of China's campaign of mass internment within Xinjiang. According to research conducted by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, some 1,327 Uyghurs have been detained or rendered from 20 countries since the "re-education" campaign began. Inside China, having personal links to the Muslim world has been effectively criminalized, with security services blacklisting 26 Muslim-majority countries, including much of the Middle East. Authorities flag anyone with ties through family, personal contacts or education as being in need of "re-education."

China uses a complex web of international organizations to pursue Uyghurs overseas, including Interpol, the world police agency, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the security-focused Eurasian bloc headed by China. The Chinese government also capitalizes on its extensive bilateral extradition treaties, often signed in exchange for Chinese investments as part of its massive global infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative. When Beijing pursues an individual abroad, if one method fails, it can quickly use another.

Consider the case of Idris Hasan. In July 2021, Hasan, a computer engineer and Uyghur activist based in Turkey who had worked as a translator to document abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, fled the country after a series of threatening encounters with local police. He took a flight to Morocco, seeking asylum, but was detained by Moroccan police when he arrived at Casablanca Airport, acting on a "red notice" for his arrest that had been issued years earlier by Interpol at China's request. Following an international outcry over the politicized charges of "terrorism" against him—an accusation China uses to justify its atrocities in Xinjiang—Interpol issued an apology and suspended the red notice. Yet Hasan's ordeal continues to this day, as Moroccan courts proceeded to put him on trial, citing an extradition treaty that Morocco signed with China in 2016 as part of a trade deal. The courts ruled in favor of his extradition, but for now, he still remains detained in Morocco.

This transnational campaign of repression against Uyghurs has extended across the Middle East in autocracies that are increasingly close with Beijing. In July 2017, Egyptian police arrested and held for deportation several hundred Uyghurs who had been students at al-Azhar University, the prestigious Islamic institution in Cairo. Two were later reported dead in China in police custody, revealing the threat of torture, abuse and neglect that Uyghurs face with deportations. Several Uyghurs told me they had been interrogated by Chinese security services in Egypt, suggesting China has extensive security cooperation with its partners in the region.

Uyghurs need real safe havens around the world, away from the long arm of China's repression.


The United Arab Emirates is arguably China's closest partner in the region, positioning itself as an intelligence hub for Beijing's security services—and even hosting a suspected Chinese military base. As the Chinese government has expanded its mass surveillance of Uyghurs well beyond China's borders, it has pressured the UAE to collect biometric data on Uyghurs residing in the Emirates. When Ahmad Talip, who was working in the UAE, was detained by Emirati authorities in 2018, he told his wife Amannisa Abdulla that police in Dubai had collected his blood sample at the request of the Chinese government. He was allegedly deported soon after their last phone call that year.

By opening their borders to China's vast surveillance state, some of America's closest proclaimed allies and partners in the Middle East are aiding and abetting China's repressive campaign against Uyghurs, which is not only confined to Xinjiang. Western governments must respond, working to establish policies that would allow for Uyghur refugees and asylum-seekers to relocate in greater numbers from third countries that have grown increasingly dangerous, like Egypt and the UAE. The United States and its allies should adopt a common definition of transnational repression, recognizing the threat it poses and working to hold perpetrators and their third-party accomplices to account. The West already has extensive legislation for punishing perpetrators of such crimes with Magnitsky Act sanctions that have been used to target officials responsible for mass atrocities in Xinjiang.

Just as China's campaign against the Uyghurs has become global in scale, Western humanitarian efforts to protect Uyghurs must also become more coordinated and international in response. Uyghurs need real safe havens around the world, away from the long arm of China's repression.


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