UAE Detains Prominent Professor, Raising Questions About Academic Freedom At NYUAD

As the Middle East continues to be shaken by pro-reform protests and government crackdowns on demonstrators and journalists, top NYU administrators are no doubt keeping a close eye on such activity near students. Last month, the university asked those studying abroad to cancel any travel plans to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Morocco, due to unsafe conditions.

Pro-democracy demonstrations have not spread to the United Arab Emirates, home to NYU’s new campus in Abu Dhabi. However, according to the Associated Press, online discussions about a need for reform have increased. In response, the UAE government has detained three outspoken advocates for human rights and political reform. Last Friday, police arrested blogger Ahmed Mansoor (his final tweets are chilling) after a request from the UAE Attorney General. He had recently signed a petition calling for a democratically elected parliament.

Over the weekend, authorities detained two more activists. The whereabouts of the detainees are unknown. The AP reports:

The pair includes one of the country’s most outspoken academics, Nasser bin Ghaith, who is a financial analyst and an economics professor at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris’ Sorbonne university. He was detained Sunday in Dubai, said Mohammed al-Mansouri, the lawyer and a fellow activist.

He has frequently criticized the Gulf region’s ruling sheiks for refusing to consider all but the most limited of political reforms and for failing to provide a legal framework for the staggering economic development of the past decade.

In an article he wrote prior to his detention, Bin Ghaith “voiced unusually bold criticism of the Western-allied Gulf Arab states’ political system and their moves to create jobs and raise social spending in a bid to prevent the eruption of popular unrest.”

The willingness of the UAE government to detain a prominent academic who is affiliated with a foreign university in Abu Dhabi (he is only a lecturer at the Sorbonne, not a full professor) naturally raises concerns about NYUAD’s agreements with the government. The university assures us that the campus operates under the principle of academic freedom, which entitles professors to “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject” and “full freedom in research.”

Bin Ghaith, it is important to note, was detained after making public statements as a citizen, though he also challenged the government in his university lectures. The major question — and the one I asked NYUAD Spokesman Josh Taylor — is: can NYU professors openly criticize the UAE government in the classroom or a public lecture?

“Let me be clear: Academic freedom is a core principle for NYU across our global network, and we support this principle at NYU Abu Dhabi using the same standard we use at Washington Square,” Taylor answered. “NYUAD is committed to an environment that ensures academic freedom, providing a context in which students, faculty and staff can engage in the intellectual exploration and analysis of even the most sensitive issues, while ensuring respect for local culture and customs. This freedom does not extend to tolerating speech, writing, and behavior that intentionally demeans others based on gender, race, religion, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation; nor does it extend to public defamation, libel, or slander. Such behavior runs counter to NYUAD’s educational mission.”

Stephen Underwood, NYU Local’s Abu Dhabi correspondent, adds that students “have determined that none of us feel that our academic freedom is at danger” since the event happened in the public sphere.

However, the message from the UAE government seems loud and clear: dissent will not be tolerated. Andrew Ross, an NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis who recently wrote about the difficulties of establishing a university branch abroad, agrees, calling the arrests “serious violations of human rights standards.” He told NYU Local in a statement:

Ahmed Mansoor and others calling for basic rights for citizens in the UAE have been subject to severe intimidation these past weeks…In Bin Ghaith’s case, [the arrest] also violate[s] the principle of academic freedom that has been vouchsafed by UAE authorities on behalf of faculty of foreign universities operating there. Ordinarily, academics would be among the foremost voices protesting against such violations. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine any academics in the UAE, including our own colleagues at NYU Abu Dhabi, speaking out against the detentions.

Sources in Abu Dhabi explain that no cases have arisen where the campus’ academic freedom has been questioned. But that freedom really only becomes important in the borderline cases where, say, the government feels threatened by a professor’s research that critiques the country’s political system. I hope that an NYUAD politics professor would be comfortable publishing that paper, but given what’s happened this week, it’s not at all clear that they would. And just that uncertainty undermines academic freedom.

After the news of these detentions, NYU would be remiss not to reassess the UAE’s commitment to upholding that freedom at NYUAD.

UPDATE (1:45 PM): Habiba Hamid, an editorial writer at the UAE English-language paper The National, wrote a list of thoughts about the bin Ghaith arrest. She notes that the government taking the step of arresting a “credible domestic dissident for political reasons…seems unprecedented.” She adds, “Whilst thus far it has been impossible to verify whether or not Dr Nasser bin Ghaith has in fact been arrested, the perception that he may have been (as he is an exceptional figure) appears to, whether intentionally or not, criminalise dissent.”

Her thoughts are worth reading in full. Unfortunately, they only increase my concerns about diminished academic freedom at NYUAD.

UPDATE (8:00 PM): Human Rights Watch has sent a letter to NYU President John Sexton asking for the university “to condemn publicly [the UAE government's] outrageous attacks on activists.” In a separate press release, Sarah Whitman, the Middle East director of HRW, said, “Is NYU going to advertise the magnificence of studying in Abu Dhabi while the government persecutes an academic for his political beliefs?”

The letter also asks the Guggenheim and the French Museum Agency (responsible for the Louvre) to condemn the detentions. Both organizations are building museums on Saadiyat Island, where NYUAD’s campus will also eventually be located.

UPDATE (11:00 PM): The NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (the group that wrote the academic freedom guidelines that both NYU and NYUAD follow), led by Ross, sent the letter below to Sexton today. It calls for the university to “speak out strongly on behalf of the human rights of these three Emirati citizens.”

UPDATE (4/13): Josh Taylor, NYUAD spokesman, issued this statement today in response to the Human Rights Watch letter:

NYU is a diverse community that prides itself on featuring a robust debate among its constituents on virtually every issue. It long has taken the position — both in NY and throughout its global network — that the institution itself does not take public stands on issues and policies that fall outside of its core mission of operating a world-class university.

It is by focusing on our core mission — the development of powerful centers of ideas, discourse, and critical thinking — that we believe we can best contribute to a global dialogue that facilitates the growth of a more informed, more responsible, humane and just world.”

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    38 Comments

  1. April Xiong says

    As a current student at NYUAD, I have to completely agree with Nicole LDC’s point that what works in one country will not necessarily work in another country. Of course I don’t agree with the UAE trying to shut down free speech here, but I also don’t think the right solution necessarily lies in the very outspoken criticism that people in the States are used to when dealing with such issues. As Nicole said, the students at NYUAD have been incredibly involved in direct action to help the situation, rather than talking a lot about it, because that’s the method we think is the most useful in dealing with human rights issues HERE. Not in the States. Here.

    In fact, I would say the student body here is doubly, triply, concerned with the human rights violations in this country, simply because we’re exposed to them every day. And yeah, they make us sad and angry and frustrated, but the reality is that we can do more to help the situation with action than with words. Just because you don’t hear from us about these very sensitive issues all the time doesn’t mean we don’t care, doesn’t mean we implicitly agree with the government’s and NYU’s actions here, doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything to try to change things. We know very well how valuable our position here could be, but it would be foolish to jeopardize everything we could accomplish in the future, through more direct means than criticism, by making brash comments right now. Remember, any critical comments made by a faculty member or a student of NYUAD, although made individually, could cause the government to completely lose trust in NYUAD as an institution. This would severely obstruct our future ability to finagle concessions on human rights issues from the government, which would be vastly counterproductive.

    Now, you might wonder what all these human rights concessions we could finagle in the future are. I myself don’t know that at this point. I myself get very frustrated sometimes because it feels like we’re not actually accomplishing anything here, and that we were falsely promised the opportunity to create (although perhaps more incrementally than we would like) change in this country. I myself feel that our administration sometimes creates unnecessary obstacles for us in doing so. I don’t know the solution to all these problems yet, and maybe I never will. I just know that my own belief, right now, is that the best way to foster change here is to be more silent than I would like, and yet more active in doing what I can to help those most in need. I’m still trying to figure it out, as are all (well, most) of us.

    Tom Levin: you are sorely mistaken in believing that the NYUAD student community is as complacent as you think we are. I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but by no means are we entirely happy with either the UAE government or the NYUAD administration. Just because you don’t know about it, or don’t hear about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And when we are defensive of the government or the administration here, it’s usually because we have reason to be, and we know more about the situation than people like, well, you.

    Also, Jeffrey Mei isn’t actually a student here yet, and although I know he has good intentions and just wants to defend his future institution (welcome, Jeffrey!), he too does not have the same perspective that we do on this country. Yet. So don’t think that he represents the views of all the students here, because he doesn’t. (And neither do I, but I believe the majority of the students here would agree with me. Of course there are almost definitely dissenting opinions among NYUAD students; I would love for them to join the discussion too!)

    In conclusion, I would like to reiterate Nicole’s point that we have been taking the policy of “actions speak louder than words” here in the UAE, and that although we’re not as vocal as you would probably like us to be about human rights issues here, we are deeply, deeply concerned with them. And we are taking the route we believe (or at least I believe) will address those issues most helpfully in the long term.

  2. April Xiong says

    Well, I suppose it’s partly our fault for not communicating all we’re doing, and that people in NY can’t really be expected to know everything that’s happening here in Abu Dhabi…but it’s all a matter of opening up the channels of communication more and NOT coming into the discussion with a predisposed inclination to disapprove or judge, especially when not all the facts are known. And on our side, we should be more willing to engage and share our initiatives, which, as I said, I suppose none of you could be expected to know.

  3. Charlie Eisenhood says

    @ April: “Remember, any critical comments made by a faculty member or a student of NYUAD, although made individually, could cause the government to completely lose trust in NYUAD as an institution.”

    To me, this statement clearly sums up the issue I’m raising. How can you claim the university has academic freedom if students and faculty are afraid to speak their mind?

  4. April Xiong says

    Because the rules of engagement are different in the UAE. It’s that simple. Frankly, I don’t understand why everyone is so hung up on this issue. It’s something that we here at NYUAD recognize for what it is, and it’s not something that can be easily, or quickly, changed. Maybe it’s because you’re coming solely from the perspective of the US (are you? I don’t know), where people want change to happen fast, fast, fast. But here, it has to happen slower- and we know that. We’ve signed up for that. And we’re working with what we have, we understand the rules of engagement here, we’ve accepted the fact that life here is just not like life in the States. It’s not about being afraid to speak our minds, it’s about knowing how to get things- important things relating to human rights- accomplished here. It’s about pragmatism. Having spent about 7 months here already, I honestly believe that it’s not at all about having our situation be perfect BEFORE we enter it; it’s about working within the situation to make it better.

    Maybe we don’t have perfect academic freedom, in the sense that students in the States do (although I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been enrolled in university in the States). But we do have a great deal of academic freedom for where we are, possibly an unprecedented amount, and that’s incredibly important.

  5. Observor # 2 says

    Charlie Eisenhood, how do you define Academic Freedom?

    There’s a difference between private and public discussion which I think you have welded together inseparably.

    Researching and writing an article about political reform, or about the disadvantages of autocratic regimes etc is totally fine (depending on how you go about your research).
    Getting it peer-reviewed by NYUAD faculty and students happens without a problem.
    Discussing it and debating it with amongst ourselves is 100% acceptable.

    Not everyone fully understands the boundaries of what is accepted and what is not, so, yes we are still a little cautious, but we NYUAD students have the academic freedom (research dependent) to write whatever we want to write about.

    But.

    I think you include under your concept of academic freedom, the idea of being able to distribute academic work publicly. And this is the crucial difference – what I think you and I may have a reaction to is the fact that the UAE government doesn’t tolerate critiques that are distributed publicly. But then coming from a different part of the world this reaction is normal, and as those of us who live here have commented above, the path to achieve change lies in a different direction. Which makes sense – a different way of doing things for a different culture.

  6. Western Observor says

    I’m glad to see such a healthy debate taking place on this forum, and especially interested in comments from NYUAD students.

    Somewhere along the lines it seems Charlie’s core argument got lost. While I don’t speak for Charlie, I’m going to take the liberty of expanding on what, in my humble opinion, is the crux of the issue.

    But first, let’s talk about what the issue ISN’T.

    I can’t imagine any human rights defender criticizing undergraduate students for “not speaking up” or for defending their institutions. I don’t think Charlie was suggesting that NYUAD students ought to take to the streets or march along the Corniche yelling down with Sheikh Khalifa.

    Observer 2 rightly pointed out that American approaches to public dissent need not be the most effective in the UAE. Authorities in Abu Dhabi do not take kindly to public criticism. A great example is the recent row between a group of artists lead by Human Rights Watch and the UAE Tourism Development Authority (TDIC, the builders of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim). The artists boycotted the planned museum last month, claiming that TDIC wasn’t doing enough to protect workers at the Guggenheim. TDIC held firm to their position.

    So, public remarks don’t always work here. The issue is this: was NYU’s leadership wise in opening a campus in Abu Dhabi?

    I’m not an NYU alum, but I imagine that academic freedom and adhering to principles of equality are very important to NYU’s Board of Trustees.

    But NYU’s leadership attached their name to the UAE – a country where being homosexual is illegal and where publicly criticizing the ruling family will get you jailed and deported.

    I think the argument you’ll hear from Sexton et al goes something like this: it is through engaging with the UAE through positive and constructive means that we can promote an agenda of reform, albeit slowly, by shifting attitudes.
    And that’s a good point – NYU secured the Gulf’s most effulgent example of fair labor standards for workers at NYUAD’s construction site. The agreement is regarded as a model by Human Rights Watch. The NYU Board didn’t get that agreement from the Crown Prince’s office through a name-and-shame campaign. It was quiet, private pressure from NYU that ultimately improved worker’s rights in the UAE.

    But the underlying problems remain. Can a liberal western center of higher learning operate in cahoots with an authoritarian regime? Make no mistake, while benevolent, the UAE is perhaps the most authoritarian of all Gulf Sheikhdoms. Observer 2 has an innovative solution: let’s all agree that academic freedom abounds in Abu Dhabi, as long as you don’t put your academic thoughts on the internet, or try and distribute it. There’s nothing “wrong” with that definition. The Burmese would consider that definition too liberal. But what would NYU’s Board think? How about NYU alumni thinking of donating to their alma mater?

    In my opinion, if NYU wants to risk its reputation and operate a full-fledged campus in Abu Dhabi, then University leadership back in New York will need to embrace a certain amount of friction with UAE authorities. Why not issue a public statement, asking the UAE to make Prof. Bin Gaith’s whereabouts known? Something, anything, just let constituents know that Sexton and the Board are concerned with recent arrests, and that they’re making their concerns known to the UAE.

    Emirati professors have already spoken out in support of their imprisoned colleague. Yet NYU says they’ve taken a vow of silence. Is that what a few hundred million dollars will buy?

  7. Food for Thought says

    Western Observer-

    Why is it that Prof. Bin Gaith is causing such outcries from western observers? The UAE has had many cases of unjust arrests and awful imprisonments of hundreds and yet it is this one professor’s arrest that is deemed “crossing the line” and requires a University outcry.

    Yes, it is terrible what has happened to Prof. Bin Gaith but just because he is “one of us” does not mean his case is more important or his well being and life more important than others who have been subjected to Emirati laws and prisons. No one is arguing that the arrests were just but I think it is important to note that unjust arrests do happen and the University has never and will never put out a politically charged letter condemning any arrest, as per University policy. I frankly believe it would be highly inappropriate if this were the case where the University would chose to take a stand.

  8. Scott South says

    Excuse me, people, but possession of alcohol in your Abu Dhabi home is NOT against the law if you are non-Muslim and you have a liquor license. I know because I lived there a few years ago, and I had such a license to purchase at a liquor store.

  9. Markus James says

    Smart people come to the UAE knowing the rules and how to play the game. Fools think that in its glitz it IS the west (A.K.A. the free world), but the realists (A.K.A. smart people) know that the rules are in place to keep everyone in their respective places. Play the “game” by the rules or be penalized.

  10. Globalized Observer says

    It seems that this debate got really out of hand in a lot of ways.

    First of all, I think its too much to expect the NYUAD students to actually be able to do anything: they are visitors with limited rights, and probably don’t want to end up on the front page of the NYTimes as that American student arrested for protesting.

    Second, so many people have been talking a whole lot about how you can’t compare Westernized/American this and that standard to a different culture/place/historical context etc. What I have to say is that “let’s be real” as some of you have put it, I doubt anyone here is trying to legitimize a country’s clear violation of human rights just because it is Muslim and doesn’t allow drinking, in the same way that we wouldn’t legitimize a communist nation’s violations. We live in a globalized society, we have an international human rights creed, there is a standard that CANNOT be considered only “Western.” Approaching it as so is basically saying that people can’t cry out, as those citizens did, because they live in a “backwards” or “not progressive” society, at least not one thats progressed enough to allow individuals to speak out.

  11. Daniel HC says

    @Globalized observer
    I agree, there is nothing cultural about autocracy–it’s a universal phenomenon. Arguing that it’s cultural legitimizes a cultural relativist attitude towards it. As the uprisings sweeping the Middle East have demonstrated, the desire for freedom isn’t limited to the West.

    @Western Observor
    I’m skeptical of Sexton’s argument. Unless the UAE decides the downsides of repression (international criticism etc.) outweigh the upsides (maintaining control of the state), the “constructive engagement” he advocates will have no more effect than that of Ronald Reagan in South Africa. Sure, he may win some minor concessions on issues directly related to the NYU campus, but he’s not going to win any broad reforms. If the elites believe it’s in their interests to maintain the status quo, they will, unless mass disruption of some kind (on the part of the UAE citizens) puts enough pressure on them to reform. That logic is quite obvious elsewhere in the Middle East right now.

    A different example: NYU Shanghai. Does Sexton think China will reform because NYU is there? They don’t listen to Western governments; they’re not going to listen to a university administration. I would argue that the same applies to Abu Dhabi.

    An article explaining what is going on right now in AD:
    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/14/the_making_of_a_police_state?page=0,0

  12. Valentina Vela says

    I am currently part of what will become NYUAD’s class of 2015. Clearly, this is a major issue, especially for all of us who are still in our home countries and see what is becoming of the place we are planning to move to in 4 months.

    At the rate things are evolving, nothing is really certain. It is precisely because of this that the NYUAD community is, from the way I see it, acting in a cautious way. Now, the mere fact here is that NYC is different from AD and I think this is something that some NYU NYC students are failing to recognize properly. Yes, NYUAD was built -or rather is being built- under the same standards of freedom as NYU NYC was. However, AD was not built under the same principles as NYC was and this is an inescapable fact that the NYUAD community faces every day.

    I, for one, did not apply to NYU in NYC. I exclusively applied to NYUAD because I am interested in the way it works and the way it copes with the extremely difficult cultural clashes that exist in the UAE. What is happening now is an example of this and it is, in my opinion, an opportunity for NYUAD to show their opinion and their clear stand in a way that is respectful and correct. When in Rome…

    It is easy to criticize and ask for public outcry when you live in a country like the US, and especially when you live in a city like NYC where the loudest is the first heard. I think students in NYU NYC need a deeper sense of tolerance in order to understand the delicate situation that exists in the whole Arab world at the moment to then begin to understand how NYUAD fits into this and then maybe try and have empathy towards the NYUAD community before they go on criticizing it and accusing it of lack of courage.

    I have no doubt that students and faculty at NYUAD have a voice. But I also have no doubt that they are smart enough to be cautious. I trust that what NYUADvocacy and the numerous groups at NYUAD that deal with cultural clashes are doing will show results that will speak louder than any public protest. Let’s just hope that students at NYU NYC understand what NYUAD is trying to do and more importantly, learn to put things into context and understand that theirs is different than ours.

  13. Western Observer #3 says

    I just want to endorse the views of Globalized Observer and Daniel HC. The NYUAD administration constantly tries to explain away violations of human rights in the UAE, and the limitations placed on freedoms of expression and protest here, in terms of “cultural difference.” There is nothing inherently Muslim, Arab, or Emirati about the practices of an authoritarian dictatorship — in fact it (as in other countries’ in the region) has its roots in Western mandate states and various forms of neocolonialism. Similar political situations can be found around the world. It is quite appalling that non-citizens at NYUAD who have been granted extraordinary rights of academic freedom and have the relative ability to speak their minds would use this right to defend oppression rather than to defend the voices of citizens who are seeking, through entirely peaceful means, to advocate for a cause they believe in (be it greater democracy or anything else).

    I would also like the question the views of “Food for Thought.” One can find examples of terrible injustices around the world. Is this ever a reason not to take a position or action when a particular injustice comes to your attention, and others explicitly call for your reaction and support? I’d also love to hear what exactly you have been doing to advocate on behalf of all of those whose plight you are apparently so much more concerned by and deem so much more worthy.

    Lastly, a major issue on the table as NYU morphs itself into a “Global Network University” is whether it is going to accept the position of being an academic mercenary — taking hundreds of millions of bucks from the UAE, China and elsewhere in exchange for bringing its brand and prestige — and accept that it will silently accept and issue “We don’t take political stand” statements in response to every issue that comes its way. Alternatively, the GNU could say to its current and future/prospective “partners”: our ‘global’ institution’s official stand is that we support the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and we will not remain silent and complicit if and when your government does things in violation of these most basic, fundamental and universal of human rights. The latter option gets my strong vote.

  14. Western Observor says

    @ Food for Thought

    Perhaps I’m an idealist – why should NYUAD make a public statement when it’s government partner cracks down on dissent?

    I’m reminded of Martin Niemoller’s famous words:

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

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