The Middle East Channel

Academic freedom and UAE funding

On Friday, February 22, I flew from London to Dubai to participate in a conference jointly organized by the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics (LSE) — where I work — and the American University of Sharjah (AUS). The theme of the conference was "The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab ...


On Friday, February 22, I flew from London to Dubai to participate in a conference jointly organized by the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics (LSE) — where I work — and the American University of Sharjah (AUS). The theme of the conference was "The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab World," and my paper was entitled "Bahrain’s Uprising: Domestic Implications and Regional and International Perspectives." The one-day event was scheduled to take place on Sunday, February 24 at the AUS campus. However, the LSE abruptly pulled out of the conference on Thursday after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government intervened to inform AUS that no discussion of Bahrain would be permitted. By leaving their decision until the very last minute — the weekend immediately prior to the conference — the authorities may have hoped that AUS and the LSE would accept it as a "fait accompli" and proceed. To their credit, the LSE immediately withdrew from the event, citing "restrictions imposed on the intellectual control of the event that threatened academic freedom." With many of the U.S.-based workshop speakers already in Dubai or in the air, we took the decision to continue with our trip; for me it was the first leg of a three-country visit in the Gulf, and I also had been invited to lecture at Zayed University on February 25.

On arrival at Dubai International Airport, I was stopped by immigration officials and separated from the two LSE colleagues with whom I had been traveling. My passport clearly had triggered a red flag in the system and the official called over his supervisor. I was separated from my colleagues and taken to a backroom where security personnel examined each page of my passport in minute detail. An official then disappeared with my passport for 45 minutes before returning with a representative from Emirates Airline who informed me that I was being denied entry to the UAE and sent back to London. I had to purchase my own ticket to fly back to Gatwick — but not before randomly being approached by an airport staffer who asked if I would complete a customer satisfaction survey.

To some extent, the decision to deny me entry was not surprising; I have written critically about the security crackdown in the UAE over the past year, and the threshold of "legitimate criticism" that governments across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are prepared to tolerate has fallen dramatically. From an upsurge in arrests of Twitter users in Kuwait to the recent sentencing to life imprisonment of Qatari poet Muhammad al-Ajami, the imprisonment of 35 Omani activists to varying offences such as "defaming the Sultan" and "illegal gathering," the revoking of Bahraini citizenship from 31 opposition activists, and the continuing case of the 94 political detainees in the UAE, the monarchies are reacting to the transformative online power of new media and social networking sites by attempting to close down these spaces for free discussion and debate and reminding would-be detractors of the coercive power at their disposal.

In tandem with these "hard" security measures, the monarchies have pushed through draconian new media and cyber laws. In November 2012, the UAE amended its 2006 Cyber Crimes law. The new decree (Federal Legal Decree No. 5 for 2012) issued by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, included a sweeping declaration stipulating "penalties of imprisonment" for any act intended to "damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions, its President, the Vice President, any of the Rulers of the emirates, their Crown Princes, the Deputy Rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols." The decree was so wide in its scope, and so vague in its potential interpretation, that even the normally pro-government English-language newspaper The National ran an editorial requesting clarification "on what types of speech or actions would be considered damaging."

The unwillingness of Gulf governments to accept criticism reflects multiple factors. One is a sense among the oil- and gas-rich regimes that external partners need them more than the other way around; hence, the UAE can threaten to turn companies and countries against each other to secure compliance or engagement on their own terms. This reportedly happened in August 2012 when British Petroleum (BP) surprisingly was omitted from the shortlist to renew the lucrative onshore oilfield concession in apparent retaliation for British parliamentary members’ and the BBC Arabic service’s criticism of the UAE’s arrest of dozens of human rights and opposition activists. Another factor is a lingering unease that the Gulf States certainly are not immune to the contagious wave of Arab Spring upheaval; in the case of the UAE, the ostentatious glitz of Abu Dhabi and Dubai is countermanded by much higher levels of poverty and income inequality in the five northern emirates, as well as an unemployment rate among Emirati nationals that the Federal National Council in December 2012 estimated to be 20.8 percent.

Economic challenges are compounded by societal tensions and unease as nationals of GCC states question their rulers’ breakneck development strategies. This is most in evidence in the freewheeling cities of Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai — where a 2012 study found that Emiratis comprised a tiny two percent of the labor force. Such misgivings were eloquently expressed by veteran Qatari academic dissident and author of The People want Reform in Qatar…too, Ali al-Kuwari, in an interview with the Heinrich Boll Foundation. Al-Kuwari argued that the demographic imbalance in Qatar and the UAE, in which nationals constituted less than one-fifth of the total population, reflected and enabled "the desire of the ruler to govern a population without political rights…without having to enact developmental policies to increase the productivity of its citizens, protect their dignity, preserve the common identity that binds society together or considers the lives of future generations."

Similar concerns at the perceived erosion of local values and dilution of national identity have long been expressed by Emirati nationals, most recently in the rapid spread of the #UAEDressCode Twitter campaign in 2012. In the UAE, social unease is complicated by the weakening of the legacy of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, who died in 2004. His sons and successors do not share their father’s charismatic authority and have struggled to stamp their own brand of leadership on the country. The construction of a national myth around the legacy of Zayed is evident in the reverence with which he is spoken of and in the invocation of his memory in public and institutional spaces. Yet, with the passage of time since his death and with his sons now associated with a repressive and heavy-handed clampdown on dissidents, the bonds of Zayedism are beginning to fray, and it is not clear what model of political authority will fill the vacuum.

Over the past decade, the UAE has invested heavily in cultivating a sophisticated international brand. This has included a significant soft power component based around creating links with prestigious and world-leading cultural and academic institutions, with Abu Dhabi attracting New York University (NYU) and branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, and major British universities — including the LSE, Durham, and Exeter — in receipt of large amounts of funding from the country. Particularly in the current age of austerity and budget-slashing in the West, Gulf funding has increasingly become important to universities struggling to cope financially, yet this exposes academics and students to new pressures and vulnerabilities. Christopher Davidson has noted how many donations "tend to have the effect of steering academic debate away from the Gulf monarchies" toward safer topics of study while a "culture of self-censorship" takes root as academics and students feel uncomfortable "pursuing sensitive topics relating to the donor country." This feeling was captured in a June 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled "NYU-Abu Dhabi Behaves Like Careful Guest in Foreign Land," detailing the tensions between students and staff in Abu Dhabi keen not to rock the boat and the concerns among NYU faculty in New York for reputational risk.

Given their commitment to opening minds and intellectual creativity, universities now are caught in the crossfire of the Gulf rulers’ growing intolerance of criticism. This latest example of attempted intervention in a university’s affairs marks the culmination of a depressing pattern that has seen the UAE authorities take closer control of domestic academic institutions, close down branches of international think-tanks and research institutes, expel a U.S. professor of media and communications, and — now — seek to control research and conference agendas. Denying me entry may have been a sovereign right, but it signifies that the gloves are off, and that the UAE currently is a deeply inimical place for the values that universities are supposed to uphold. As it becomes harder for academics and administrators to turn a blind eye to increasingly open abuses, proponents of academic engagement with the UAE will face a set of difficult choices as they try to balance the competing pressures of funding gaps and freedom of thought. The LSE-AUS conference may have been the first, but will by no means be the last, casualty in this looming clash.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

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