The fact that the UAE agreed to accept five Yemenis from the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay must have come as a relief to the American president, Barack Obama. He first promised to close the prison when he campaigned for office in 2008, and he has reiterated that pledge several times, including at his State of the Union speech in January this year. Cooperation from the UAE and other countries will probably allow him to shut the doors on the facility for ever before he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
There is no doubt that Guantanamo Bay has been a deep stain on the reputation of the United States and a low point in the way it conducts its foreign policy. Mr Obama has admitted that it is an embarrassment, but it is more than that. It is a palpable reminder that the US is in no position to lecture the rest of the world, as it so often does, on the topics of human rights, personal freedom and the rule of law. Guantanamo Bay’s very existence is a reminder that the Americans abducted people from sovereign countries, transported them illegally across borders and kept them in captivity in a cynically designated offshore facility without charge for as long as 14 years. While it was opened by his predecessor, George W Bush, it stands as a personal failure on Mr Obama’s part that he has taken so long to fulfil his promise.
To be fair, it has been difficult for him to find a home for those among the inmates who, while not convicted of any offence, are known to have links to extremist groups.
The fact that the five Yemenis are now back in the Gulf is important for the rehabilitation process they are undergoing. Although some of the men have been associated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, they are classified as being of “medium risk” and will be under close scrutiny, required to report to police regularly and prohibited from mixing. But they will be back in an Arab and Muslim country, in relatively familiar surroundings, unlike some other detainees of Middle Eastern origin who were sent from Guantanamo to Uruguay.
Accepting these former inmates demonstrates that the UAE is prepared to step up to the table and play its role both as an ally of the US and as a responsible global citizen. The path to normalisation in this region will be long and difficult, but putting behind us some of the serious missteps that the US made in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks is a positive step.