The British national displayed a talent for making friends and getting security officials to speak to him, often overstepping the mark, but he was no amateur
The curious case of Matthew Hedges
To those who knew him, Matthew Hedges was a gregarious young security professional with a knack for befriending people – Arab government officials, military officers and security consultants in the Gulf.
The Briton, raised in Dubai, used his job as an events manager with a security consultancy to meet people of influence and mix in circles often above his pay grade. But his line of questioning was rarely subtle and got him in trouble on more than one occasion.
What at first appeared be a bookish fascination with all matters security now appears to be the start of a short career as a spy for British security services.
Emirati officials stress this was not the work of a blundering junior analyst, but a skilled operator given the task of acquiring highly sensitive information.
Hedges, 31, was arrested at Dubai airport on May 5 after a two-week mission where he tried to obtain information about sensitive military procurement and specific security details of senior royal figures, The National understands.
As his life sentence for spying was handed down last week, followed by his pardon yesterday, former colleagues reflected on how Hedges, who lived in the UAE on and off from the age of nine to his late twenties, had set off alarm bells.
“We always work with the military wherever we go and he was always interested in this area,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, where Hedges worked.
“And I remember complaints that he asked too many questions. There were some peculiar things about what he'd ask that put people at misease.
"He was interested in the decision-making process, who did what, who called the shots, he wanted to get all these details.
"I think he could very well be a victim of his own character."
Hedges first worked for Inegma in Jumeirah Lakes Towers as an intern in 2010, before leaving Dubai to join the British army.
“But he said he’d failed the medical and gone for his BA at Exeter, I believe,” Mr Kahwaji said. “When he returned, I offered him the job.”
What followed was a period of frequent travel, often on his own time, to meet security officials with whom he had made contact in the Arab world.
“He would even fly to countries to meet security officials,” Mr Kahwaji said. “We’d ask how he’d found these people but we didn’t think much of it at the time. He used to travel all over on his own.”
His colleagues said he excelled at making friends and getting people talking.
Hedges lived with his mother and stepfather at first and then moved into a flat in Tecom, now known as Barsha Heights.
His girlfriend, now wife, PR executive Daniela Tejada, joined him and they lived there for a time.
Hedges’ colleagues said he “lacked that analytical skill”, though that is in contrast to statements from colleagues at Durham who described him as particularly astute.
“As an analyst you should know how to connect the dots and he always failed at this,” Mr Kahwaji said. “He quit and worked for another consultancy that had clients in Libya but he failed to complete his probation.”
That was the last his colleagues in Dubai heard from him.
What remains unclear in Hedges’ story is how he came – according to his own video admission to Emirati investigators – to work for Britain’s overseas secret intelligence service, MI6.
Hedges began a PhD at Durham University. That, according to Emirati officials and his video evidence released yesterday, was when he was recruited.
The version of events from his family and the British press appears at odds with what unfolded during two weeks of research in April and May this year.
Hedges flew into Dubai under the guise of researching UAE security after the Arab uprisings.
But Emirati sources said his line of questioning went so far beyond this – to the security arrangements of key government companies and the security detail of the royal family – that it was clear he was seeking information sensitive to the country's national security.
One UAE source with knowledge of the case told The National that it quickly became clear that Hedges was trying to procure highly sensitive information, which was first reported by an Emirati that Hedges had questioned.
“This sort of activity between friends and allies is very strange, which is why we were very perplexed by it”, the source said.
After his arrest on May 5, the UAE “wanted to deal with it off the radar, through the British government”, the source said.
With 120,000 Britons living in the UAE, more than a million visitors from the UK annually, and political, security and economic ties, Emirati officials were keen to resolve it amicably.
But they could not allow the case to go by without accountability or acknowledgment from London that such actions could not be tolerated or repeated.
The source said: “We wanted to deal with it before it took a legal course.”
The UK government denied Hedges was working for them, but a UAE source said “the evidence was compelling, including electronic, from people he dealt with and his confessions”.
“Our whole idea was to send a message that this is not done among friends and all our sources are open to you, but we got nowhere and we were frustrated.”
UK officials were adamant the UAE should drop it. But the UAE sought an “acknowledgement that this sort of activity shouldn’t happen between friends”.
While the UAE tried to find a way forward, there were veiled messages from officials that the country should not proceed with action as it would damage its image abroad.
But the source said once the legal process began – there were four hearings, not a five-minute case as some media reported – there could be no interference.
“As the UAE tries to build its institutions, it has been careful not to interfere in the legal processes,” the source said.
“There was a lot of pressure that the only acceptable legal outcome is that the suspect is innocent, regardless of the evidence. But we insisted we need the legal process to go ahead.”
While Hedges’ next step is unclear, it is certain that he was not new to the region’s security scene, and that he did not overstep the mark by accident.