The case of Matthew Hedges, the British doctoral student who was convicted of spying by the United Arab Emirates, has created an atmosphere of uncertainty among academics who are involved in study and research in the country.
Hedges, a doctoral candidate in political science at Durham University, in England, spent nearly seven months in detention in the Emirates—much of it in solitary confinement—after being arrested while researching security policy. He was among 785 prisoners given an official pardon on Monday ahead of the country’s national holiday. He was released and flew back to the United Kingdom.
In recent weeks, a number of universities and professional groups have reacted publicly to Hedges’ treatment. The Middle East Studies Association issued a statement expressing concern about “deteriorating security conditions for researchers in the United Arab Emirates,” and on November 22 faculty at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom voted to refuse to teach at the university’s branch campus in Dubai.
“The damage that has been done to the U.A.E.’s reputation by this case is quite profound,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, in the United States, who was refused entry into the United Arab Emirates in 2013.
“They have put so much investment into educational links with Western partners,” Ulrichsen said. “The notion that the U.A.E. is a safe and welcoming place has been heavily undermined by this case. Things will take time to rebuild.”
Uncertainty About Red Lines
At the heart of the issue is a new uncertainty about what kind of academic research is possible in the Emirates, especially for researchers working in the social sciences. As a political science student who had previously lived in the Emirates, Hedges may have found that research that previously would have been possible had become too sensitive to pursue safely in a changing political climate. He may have inadvertently crossed a red line, a limit of the permissible, where previously no such red line existed.
According to his LinkedIn page, Hedges was researching “the post-Arab Spring national security strategy of the U.A.E.”
“I am particularly interested in the GCC’s [Gulf Co-operation Council’s] evolving national and state security debate,” he wrote. “I also undertake freelance consultancy in the fields of corporate investigations, due diligence and research.”
His staff profile at Durham University lists research interests that include the changing nature of war, tribalism, and “weak and failing states.” His first listed publication is about the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Muslim Brotherhood, a touchy topic since the brotherhood is regarded as a fomenter of political unrest in the Arab region.
“The issue the Matthew Hedges case raised has to do with the uncertainty of the red lines,” said Laurie A. Brand, a professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the University of Southern California and chair of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom.
“People who knew the country well are shocked by what has happened,” Brand said. “We now have to ask, What are the boundaries? What should researchers expect? If you no longer know what the boundaries are, that raises questions about how researchers can plan their research.”
In the past, Brand said, researchers could learn which subjects could be safely executed by consulting not just their academic mentors but also a range of people at local institutions in the country in which they were interested in working.
“And if a person stepped over a boundary, the worst that could happen would be that they would be taken to the airport and deported,” she said.
Brand attributes the unexpected shifting of red lines for researchers in the Emirates to an “intensified authoritarianism” in Gulf countries caused by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and by the heightened security demands of military action in Yemen.
The United Arab Emirates has been adamant that Hedges was properly interrogated, tried, and convicted. “This was an extremely serious case,” said Sulaiman Hamid Almazrou, the Emirates’ ambassador to the United Kingdom, at a news conference. “We live in a dangerous neighborhood and national security should be a top priority. This was also an unusual case—many researchers visit the U.A.E. freely every year without breaking our laws.”
Brand said that the current American presidential administration has publicly given tacit approval for actions that would in the past have been censured as human rights violations. “Trump has signaled a preference for dealing with autocratic leaders and shown little interest in defending human rights or democracy in the region,” she said.
Whatever the cause, Brand said, the action against Hedges “is intended to have a chilling effect.”
Effect on Branch Campuses
The Hedges case may affect the approximately 40 international branch campuses of Western universities in the U.A.E., which are viewed as playing an essential role in the country’s projection of “soft power.”
“A lot of American universities suspended their overseas study programs to Egypt and Syria after the Arab Spring in 2011 and didn’t resume them,” Brand said. “Universities were looking for safe places to send students, and the Gulf states seemed like an appealing alternative. This now may change: University administrations are answerable to parents and to trustees. They are not going to put students in jeopardy.”
According to Ulrichsen, reaction will be felt mainly in Dubai, where the majority of the country’s international branch campuses are located. “Dubai has been projecting itself as an open place,” he said. Ulrichsen noted, however, that Hedges was questioned and imprisoned in the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi, not in Dubai. “Abu Dhabi has been calling the shots here,” he said.
A few days before Hedges’ release from detention, Jannis Grimm, a doctoral fellow at the Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies at Freie Universität, Berlin, published an overview of the conditions for academic research in the Middle East and North Africa region. He describes “a massive rollback of the auspicious research climate” in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“As their enthusiasm was matched with new funding opportunities,” Grimm wrote, “the Arab Spring created a gold-rush mood that prompted many social scientists to venture into new terrain. This effectively propelled the discipline of Middle East studies from a niche existence to the centre of political science.”
“When the Arab Spring gave way to an autocratic restoration, both newcomers and old hands were in for a rude awakening,” he wrote.
While “gold rush” may be an overstatement, those political scientists who have been intrigued by the internal politics and security concerns of Gulf Cooperation Council countries and other Arab nations may well give those topics a wide berth in the future, or at least avoid “on the ground” research.