UK institutions have serious questions to answer before sending faculty to the UAE

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It is a relief that Durham PhD student Matthew Hedges has received a pardon from the UAE authorities. His case – involving a life sentence for allegedly spying – has nevertheless exposed the UAE’s ruthless approach to silencing voices deemed threatening to state security.

The UAE has form when it comes to quashing academic freedom. A sliding scale of repression is applied by the state to keep academics firmly in line, ranging from the imprisonment of researchers involved in human rights activism to barring scholars from entering the country.

I spent four months this year in the UAE as a visiting professor. I found much to admire in their universities. Research is conducted on campuses containing facilities that evoke awe and jealousy among visiting academics. Highly motivated students make teaching rewarding.

I cannot complain of any personal experience of censorship. I did, however, quickly learn the boundaries of what authorities consider acceptable academic activity.

I realised that it is not possible to perform research on issues that could be interpreted as dissent against the state. Research on the UAE’s human rights record is unwelcome. The scholarly treatment of sexuality is taboo since LGBTQ individuals are heavily suppressed. It is not advisable to bring attention to the status of migrant workers with few labour rights.

Rather than promote critical thinking, education in the UAE rests on a technocratic logic. Education is supposed to help society resolve tricky social problems and maintain the status quo. For example, more than 80 per cent of students at the national university are women and the university is segregated into female and male campuses. University study for women is intended to give them practical skills to help integrate them into the labour force while maintaining traditional roles as wives and mothers.

Matthew Hedges’ PhD topic, which examines the Arab Spring’s impact on the UAE’s security strategy, appears to have crossed the state’s arbitrary red lines. The UAE obsessively seeks to inoculate itself against the contaminating effects of the Arab uprisings. Anxieties are particularly evident in the UAE’s ongoing diplomatic quarrel with Qatar.

The UAE accuses its neighbour of supporting violent Islamic extremists and it claims that Al Jazeera – Qatar’s state-funded media network – is acting as the mouthpiece of sedition in the Middle East. These allegations are elevated to a major diplomatic conflict involving sanctions and a blockade against Qatar. Notably, in the immediate aftermath of his arrest in October, it appeared as if the UAE authorities accused Hedges of being a Qatari spy.

One can only speculate at this point on the real reasons behind the imprisonment of Matthew Hedges. It may certainly be interpreted as a severe warning to researchers not to pry too far into the UAE’s policies.

The distressing plight of Matthew Hedges provokes serious questions regarding the role of UK universities considering setting up shop in the UAE. The UAE is a lucrative location for cash-strapped UK universities, particularly in the wake of Brexit while British institutions are scrambling for new markets. The language of “internationalisation” and “widening access” are deployed as part of attempts to attract wealthy students.

But serious answers are required from our institutions. What labour laws will cover UK university staff working in the UAE? What protections are guaranteed for LGBTQ individuals and their partners working in states where homosexuality is criminalised? What can be done to ensure that we do not unwittingly legitimatise authoritarian regimes?

The issue of academic freedom is not confined to the UAE and the Middle East. On the contrary, scholars in Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt are at the vanguard of resisting authoritarianism and imperialism. Moreover, in the current context of the rise of global populism, academic freedom is one of the first things to be censured by authoritarian regimes, as witnessed recently with Hungary’s vindictive policies against the Central European University.

Lest we think that the UK is above such tendencies, it should be noted that the government’s anti-radicalisation scheme, Prevent, is accused of encouraging “fear, suspicion and censorship” on university campuses. While such policies may seem on the lower end of the spectrum, UK scholars fear a creeping barrage against academic freedom.

John Nagle is a reader at the Institute of Conflict, Transitions and Peace Research at the University of Aberdeen.