LONDON — A court in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday sentenced a British academic to life in prison on spying charges, prompting a pledge from Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain that the issue would be raised “at the highest level” with the Emirati authorities.
The severity of the verdict stunned British officials, who had been reluctant to discuss the case in public in the hope that the Emirati authorities would settle the matter quietly after a high-level intervention by the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt. British officials had also said that it was not their practice to comment on matters related to espionage.
The academic, Matthew Hedges, a 31-year-old postgraduate student at Durham University in northeastern England, was arrested in Dubai on May 5 as he was planning to fly out. Colleagues said he had been pursuing research for a doctorate on the effects of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 on Emirati diplomacy.
But the response suggested that the Emirati authorities wanted to show other researchers that some lines of inquiry, which have not been publicly defined, were considered off limits. The Emirates largely sidestepped the pro-democracy protests that seized other Arab countries from North Africa to the Middle East in 2011.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston who is familiar with Mr. Hedges’ work, said in a telephone interview that the British scholar had been working on the relationships among the Emirates’ seven members after the Arab Spring.
The events of that year, Mr. Coates Ulrichsen said, had left the Emirati authorities “extremely concerned” about potential threats, and “they have tried to really close down independent spaces.” Mr. Hedges’ work could, therefore, “have been construed as crossing a red line,” he said.
Members of Mr. Hedges’ family said that his sentencing hearing had lasted for about five minutes, with his lawyer absent.
It was not clear whether the case was linked to the Emirates’ role as a leading ally of Saudi Arabia in the war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Hamad al-Shamsi, the Emirates’ attorney general, has said that Mr. Hedges was accused of “spying for a foreign country, jeopardizing the military, political and economic security of the state.”
Mr. Hunt, the British foreign secretary, traveled to Dubai recently for discussions about the case with senior officials including the crown prince, Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who is considered the de facto ruler of the Emirates.
“Today’s verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances,” Mr. Hunt said, adding that the sentencing would have unspecified repercussions for the relationship between Britain and the Emirates, “which has to be built on trust.”
Mr. Hunt also flew to Tehran this week to ask the Iranian authorities to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has British and Iranian nationality and who has been held on espionage charges since 2016.
The detentions on either side of the Persian Gulf seemed to illustrate the high tension between regional powers backing rival combatants in wars in Yemen and Syria.
Speaking in the British Parliament, Mrs. May said: “We are deeply disappointed and concerned at today’s verdict. We are raising it with the Emirati authorities at the highest level.”
Britain has a long history of close political, commercial and security ties with the United Arab Emirates, dating to the 19th century, when the seven sheikhdoms that now make up the United Arab Emirates were known as the Trucial States and became a British protectorate. The Emirates, which have been an independent state since 1971, remain a draw for British tourists and business interests.
Crispin Blunt, a lawmaker from Mrs. May’s Conservative party and a former head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, called the sentencing of Mr. Hedges “wholly inconsistent with the behavior of a nation with whom we have a mutual defense accord.”
In the past, there have been regular reports of Britons running afoul of judicial authorities in the conservative Emirates, usually over issues relating to personal morality and the consumption of alcohol.
Daniela Tejada, Mr. Hedges’ wife, was in court when the sentence was passed. She said the British authorities had made it clear to the Emirates’ leaders that her husband had not been engaged in espionage.
She said the British authorities had handled the case “appallingly from the very beginning.”
“The British government must take a stand now for Matthew, one of their citizens,” she said, according to news reports from Dubai. After the sentencing, she said: “I don’t know where they are taking him or what will happen now. Our nightmare has gotten even worse.”