CAIRO – Three days before a joint conference was to set to take place in Dubai last month, the London School of Economics and Political Science canceled the event “in response to restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom.”
The following day, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the London School of Economics who planned to present at the conference, was barred from entering the United Arab Emirates and sent back to London.
The incidents underscore what appear to be growing limitations on expression in a country that frames itself as a beacon of higher education, but where space for free and open discourse is dwindling.
Ulrichsen planned to give a presentation about Bahrain but when the government warned that no discussion about the topic would be allowed, the London School of Economics cancelled the event, titled “The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab World” and co-organized by American University of Sharjah, which is located in the Emirates.
The university said the decision was made by the LSE and that they are “unaware of any other information relating to the last-minute cancellation.”
Regardless, Ulrichsen decided to proceed with his trip, although he was denied entry.
“Dr. Coates Ulrichsen has consistently propagated views de-legitimizing the Bahraini monarchy,” said a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement published by the state news agency WAM. “The UAE took the view that at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain’s national dialogue it would be unhelpful to allow non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another GCC state.”
The Emirates has promoted itself as a hub for higher education, a home to branch campuses of the Sorbonne and New York University, and a cultural center where multiple museums, including the Guggenheim and the Louvre, will be built.
But the ministry statement spells out a government perspective that fundamentally conflicts with stated intentions to embrace Western-style education, which stresses a search for knowledge through open discussion, said Matt Duffy, who taught communication at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi before he was expelled from the Emirates last year. The reasons for his expulsion are murky, but it appeared to be an action taken by government security forces, not the government’s education agencies.
“There are people in the government who are security minded,” said Duffy, “and are concerned that allowing certain discussions creates instability in the UAE, and they just have to look at their neighbors to see they don’t want the kind of instability.”
Motaz Attalla, the Right to Education Officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Cairo, believes the dynamic is a problem.
“The Emirates is claiming for itself a lot of credit for being a beacon of higher education in the region,” Attalla said. “It’s highly problematic to claim that credit and position in light of its non-compliance with a fundamental aspect of one of the requirements of being an actual center of knowledge production, and that’s academic freedom.”
The Emirati foreign ministry said its decision to bar Ulrichsen from entering the country “in no way reflects the strong ties with both the AUS and LSE and their academic excellence.”
But some academics and experts say that such an action, and similar ones, could affect educators and institutions.
“It absolutely inculcates self-censorship in people,” said John Archer, a professor of English at New York University, which has a campus in Abu Dhabi.
Human rights groups say a crackdown on criticisms, and restrictions on expression, have grown in the Emirates over the past two years in the wake of uprisings across the region. In 2011, five activists known as the “UAE Five” were convicted of “publicly insulting” leading officials, although they were later pardoned and released from prison.
The case attracted a lot of criticism of the Emirates, said Nicholas McGeehan a Middle East consultant at Human Rights Watch.
The incident “presented a problem because the country’s reputation and economic model is dependent to some extent on the UAE and its rulers being seen as progressive and enlightened,” McGeehan said.
Late last year, the UAE president issued a highly restrictive federal cybercrime decree that lays the groundwork for the prosecution of residents for using the Internet to criticize senior officials, among other restrictions, Human Rights Watch said. The decree “effectively closes off the country’s only remaining forum for free speech,” the organization said.
“This marketplace of ideas is not an idea or concept to which the rulers of the UAE subscribe,” McGeehan said.
In a recently released Freedom in the World report that examines liberties across the globe in 2012, the UAE was labeled “Not Free” and the report indicated a trend of negative changes.
“The United Arab Emirates was downgraded due to stepped-up arrests of activists, lawyers, and judges calling for political reform; the passage of a highly restrictive Internet law that punishes online activism and free expression; and the dismissal and deportation of academics who were critical of government policies,” said the report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that advocates for human rights and political freedom.
In light of recent incidents surrounding academic institutions, it could become difficult for universities such as the American University of Sharjah to have their international accreditations renewed, Duffy said. Some academics considering moving to the Emirates may decide instead to steer clear if they don’t want to worry about restrictions on research.
“That said, the UAE has one thing despite all these limitations on academic freedom – they have lots of money,” Duffy said. “Never be surprised what can be accomplished or overlooked because there is a big paycheck at the end of it.”
Abu Dhabi gave New York University $50 million and agreed to finance its Abu Dhabi campus, which opened in 2010. The LSE’s Middle East Centre has received substantial support from the Emirates Foundation, a government-financed group, and the school had previously accepted a donation from Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi.
But governments that give millions of dollars to universities “will perhaps work against the end results of liberal education, and that’s why it’s problematic to take money from them to begin these projects,” said Archer, the New York University English professor, who describes himself as an “extreme skeptic” of the institution’s Abu Dhabi campus.
Egypt’s Attalla says it remains to be seen whether higher-education institutions in the Emirates will start to translate any on-the-ground concern about freedom of expression into a political position.
“This is like an ocean and there is turbulence in one of the bays,” Attalla said. “It will take a lot more to have these institutions start to leverage their own weight within that context, maybe because of the momentum of the pace at which institutions can operate, and because of how much has been invested.”
For now, at least some universities are appearing to tread lightly. When asked for comment on the incident, NYU Abu Dhabi did not condemn the UAE’s decision to bar Ulrichsen from entering.
“Universities do not have the authority to supersede a country’s visa and immigration decisions, whether in the US, the UAE, or in any of the nations on the six continents where we operate,” said an e-mailed statement from Josh Taylor, Associate Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs and Community Relations at NYUAD. “To date, this has not been an issue for NYU Abu Dhabi. As a university we are committed to the principle that ideas should be exchanged and debated wherever and whenever possible.”
But others are taking a harder stance.
Both Attalla and Khaled Fahmy, professor and chair of the department of history at the American University in Cairo, were scheduled to speak in Dubai at a now-cancelled inaugural event for Al Fanar but refused to do so after Ulrichsen was blacklisted.
Fahmy planned to speak about the lack of appreciation for a liberal arts philosophy at Arab universities, but didn’t want to send a message that he was turning a blind eye to the government’s actions.
“I saw the UAE government doing exactly the kind of things that I was basically criticizing throughout the Arab world,” Fahmy said. “I thought my personal presentation would mean nothing.”
He is also refusing to attend an upcoming conference at the New York University Abu Dhabi campus, and wonders if the Emirates is serious about education.
“Is it really an investment in education, or buying a cultural brand name to say, ‘I have the Guggenheim and the Louvre and NYU?’” he asked. “That’s the question.”