Last week a United Arab Emirates court sentenced Nasser Bin Ghaith, a prominent economist who has advocated greater democracy and human rights, to ten years in prison. His alleged crimes largely consist of online posts, including some criticizing the Emirates’ ally Egypt for human-rights abuses.
The economist was convicted of “communicating with secret organizations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, by creating accounts on social media and publishing photos and articles that are offensive to the state’s symbols and values, its internal and foreign policies and its relations with an Arab state.”
He was charged under a 2012 cybercrime law that provides for a maximum of 15 years in prison for publishing material online with “sarcastic intent” or to “damage the reputation” of the state or its leaders; and under a 2014 counter-terrorism law, which according to Human Rights Watch “enables the UAE authorities to prosecute those who express peaceful opposition to the government, whether in writing or verbally, as terrorists.”
In recent years intelligence services in the United Arab Emirates have also engaged in aggressive surveillance of social media, and in hacking operations targeting human-rights activists and foreign graduate students.
I met Bin Ghaith once, on a trip to the Emirates back in 2012. He had already been charged, convicted and pardoned in the “UAE Five” trial, in which he and other human rights activists were accused of insulting that nation’s leaders for posts they shared on an online pro-democracy forum.
Bin Ghaith had been a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Sorbonne University before his first trial, but the French university distanced itself from him as fast as it could.
“I thought foreign universities would bring the culture of freedom of expression,” he told me back then. “Academia is all about thinking and speaking freely. But unfortunately it was just like a showcase. There was some kind of a deal between the Abu Dhabi government and foreign universities—they needed exposure and maybe money; the local government needed exposure as well, and legitimacy, [by being able to say]: See, we have all these foreign educational institutions.”
The academic was arrested again in August 2015. For nine months Bin Ghaith’s family did not know his whereabouts; for most of his pre-trial detention he was held in solitary confinement. When he appeared in court for the first time in 2016, he said he had been beaten, tortured, and deprived of sleep for up to a week. The judge reportedly responded to this statement by turning off Bin Ghaith’s microphone so he could not be heard.
Already back in 2012, I had questions about how New York University, which had recently opened a local campus fully subsidized by the United Arab Emirates, could remain independent and uphold its liberal values while under the direct patronage of a ruling family that did not allow its citizens to express themselves freely. NYU has been the most prominent of the many Western universities that have beachheads in the Emirates, and certainly the most generously funded.
It is hard to interpret the silence of Western universities that have established themselves in the Emirates in the face of the widespread repression that has taken place as anything other than a deep compromise of institutional principles. NYU didn’t even object when one of its own professors, Andrew Ross, who has been a vocal critic of the treatment of migrant workers in the Emirates and of his university’s presence there, was barred from entering the country.
NYU argues that its only concern is academic freedom on its campus, which it claims is completely assured. (We have to take their word for it, and assume that there is no self-censorship. On the other hand I rather doubt that they can hire or invite whomever they want, as the local security services always have a say on who enters the country.)
I’m sure the academic programs at NYU-AD are top-notch and that most professors there are committed to open debate in class. And I admire initiatives such as the Library of Arabic Literature. The university holds screenings and symposia that wouldn’t be allowed at any other institution of higher learning in the country. But precisely because of that, one foreign academic who has long worked in the country called NYU-AD’s presence “hallucinatory.”
“They are called ‘Bubble U’ by most who teach in other universities because they function in an alternate reality out there on Saadiyat Island,” the professor told me. “They are not bound by the conservative and frankly paranoid security measures by which the rest of us must work.”
Far from being a model to other institutions in the country, NYU-AD is entirely cut off from them. Its relative freedom of speech is only assured at the expense of its solidarity with other universities (whose staff and students do not enjoy its protected status) and by avoiding participation in public debate or expressing any critical views of the political situation or social issues in its host country.
Can one seriously believe that academic freedom is guaranteed in a country that respects freedom of expression so little? What is the value of academic freedom when it is limited to elite, soft-spoken enclaves?