Fraud, fakery and human rights: the end of a strange organisation

Emirati connections

The ill-treatment of migrant workers had long been a scandal in the Arab Gulf states, and Qatar was no exception. But GNRD’s specific focus on abuses by Qatar seemed to be motivated by politics. At the time, Qatar and its Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, were engaged in one of their periodic spats and despite GNRD’s claims of being “neutral and impartial” it had clear Emirati sympathies.

Loai Deeb, founder and president of GNRD

Online harassment

Intrigued by Deeb’s background and GNRD’s apparent connection with the UAE, I began monitoring its activities in a series of blog posts. GNRD responded by accusing me of “criminal harassment” and urging “respected institutions” to take no notice of what I was writing. It said in a press release:

Gaining acceptance

At its peak, GNRD had more than 100 staff, with branch offices in Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Sudan, Jordan and the UAE as well as its headquarters in Norway.

Big ambitions

By 2014 there were signs that GNRD had big ambitions but several attempts to engage with issues more directly and proactively resulted in failure — as with the hapless researchers sent to Qatar.

Questions of funding

Exactly who was paying for GNRD’s activities is still a mystery but it’s now known that almost all its funding came via the UAE — a total of more than $13 million between 2013 and 2015.

Deeb’s crimes

The money-laundering investigation didn’t get very far — largely because the UAE failed to cooperate. Norwegian police say they sent a request to the Emirati authorities for help with the investigation but never received an answer and were given no opportunity to question people in the Emirates who may have been involved in suspicious transfers.

What was it about?

Despite the lengthy police investigation, Deeb’s intentions in creating GNRD are still a puzzle. Although he founded the organisation in 2008, its website showed no significant activity until 2013 when large sums of money began arriving via the Emirates.

GNRD and the Emirates

One big unanswered question is the exact nature of GNRD’s relationship with the Emirates. Although no evidence has emerged of direct government funding, the UAE’s non-cooperation in the money-laundering case can be viewed as a sign of GNRD’s favoured status. It was also allowed to maintain a branch office in the Emirates where independent civil society organisations and international NGOs are not normally welcome.

GNRD and Egypt

Beyond the UAE, though, GNRD had several other political connections. In 2014 it was one of three obscure organisations appointed as international observers for the presidential election which legitimised General Sisi’s seizure of power. The observer mission later produced an enthusiastic report which said the Egyptian people had “experienced a unique process toward democratic transition” and complimented them on “their achievements thus far towards a path to democracy”.

Haytham Manna (left) and Khaled Issa of the PYD at GNRD’s conference “Against Dictatorship and Foreign Intervention in Syria” in 2013.

GNRD and the Kurds

During the conflict in Syria, GNRD developed a relationship with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). This appears to have come about through Deeb’s connection with Haytham Manna, a Syrian leftist and secularist based in Paris. Deeb and Manna had previously worked together in an organisation called the International Coalition Against War Criminals (ICAWC) which in 2009 attempted to have three Israeli politicians and seven military commanders prosecuted for war crimes.

GNRD and Palestine

GNRD’s connections with Palestine were no less intriguing than those with the UAE — and possibly even more significant in the light of claims that GNRD was a Palestinian front organisation.

Intelligence connections

More recently, the Norwegian broadcaster NRK discovered two formal connections between GNRD and the Palestinian Authority. One was a diplomatic passport that the PA had issued to Deeb in 2013. Diplomatic passports required special authorisation but, oddly, there was nothing in the PA’s records to show who authorised it for Deeb — which suggested that authorisation had come from Palestinian intelligence.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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