The Middle East Channel

Academic freedom and UAE funding

On Friday, February 22, I flew from London to Dubai to participate in a conference jointly organized by the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics (LSE) -- where I work -- and the American University of Sharjah (AUS). The theme of the conference was "The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab World," and my paper was entitled "Bahrain's Uprising: Domestic Implications and Regional and International Perspectives." The one-day event was scheduled to take place on Sunday, February 24 at the AUS campus. However, the LSE abruptly pulled out of the conference on Thursday after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government intervened to inform AUS that no discussion of Bahrain would be permitted. By leaving their decision until the very last minute -- the weekend immediately prior to the conference -- the authorities may have hoped that AUS and the LSE would accept it as a "fait accompli" and proceed. To their credit, the LSE immediately withdrew from the event, citing "restrictions imposed on the intellectual control of the event that threatened academic freedom." With many of the U.S.-based workshop speakers already in Dubai or in the air, we took the decision to continue with our trip; for me it was the first leg of a three-country visit in the Gulf, and I also had been invited to lecture at Zayed University on February 25.

On arrival at Dubai International Airport, I was stopped by immigration officials and separated from the two LSE colleagues with whom I had been traveling. My passport clearly had triggered a red flag in the system and the official called over his supervisor. I was separated from my colleagues and taken to a backroom where security personnel examined each page of my passport in minute detail. An official then disappeared with my passport for 45 minutes before returning with a representative from Emirates Airline who informed me that I was being denied entry to the UAE and sent back to London. I had to purchase my own ticket to fly back to Gatwick -- but not before randomly being approached by an airport staffer who asked if I would complete a customer satisfaction survey.

To some extent, the decision to deny me entry was not surprising; I have written critically about the security crackdown in the UAE over the past year, and the threshold of "legitimate criticism" that governments across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are prepared to tolerate has fallen dramatically. From an upsurge in arrests of Twitter users in Kuwait to the recent sentencing to life imprisonment of Qatari poet Muhammad al-Ajami, the imprisonment of 35 Omani activists to varying offences such as "defaming the Sultan" and "illegal gathering," the revoking of Bahraini citizenship from 31 opposition activists, and the continuing case of the 94 political detainees in the UAE, the monarchies are reacting to the transformative online power of new media and social networking sites by attempting to close down these spaces for free discussion and debate and reminding would-be detractors of the coercive power at their disposal.

In tandem with these "hard" security measures, the monarchies have pushed through draconian new media and cyber laws. In November 2012, the UAE amended its 2006 Cyber Crimes law. The new decree (Federal Legal Decree No. 5 for 2012) issued by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, included a sweeping declaration stipulating "penalties of imprisonment" for any act intended to "damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions, its President, the Vice President, any of the Rulers of the emirates, their Crown Princes, the Deputy Rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols." The decree was so wide in its scope, and so vague in its potential interpretation, that even the normally pro-government English-language newspaper The National ran an editorial requesting clarification "on what types of speech or actions would be considered damaging."

The unwillingness of Gulf governments to accept criticism reflects multiple factors. One is a sense among the oil- and gas-rich regimes that external partners need them more than the other way around; hence, the UAE can threaten to turn companies and countries against each other to secure compliance or engagement on their own terms. This reportedly happened in August 2012 when British Petroleum (BP) surprisingly was omitted from the shortlist to renew the lucrative onshore oilfield concession in apparent retaliation for British parliamentary members' and the BBC Arabic service's criticism of the UAE's arrest of dozens of human rights and opposition activists. Another factor is a lingering unease that the Gulf States certainly are not immune to the contagious wave of Arab Spring upheaval; in the case of the UAE, the ostentatious glitz of Abu Dhabi and Dubai is countermanded by much higher levels of poverty and income inequality in the five northern emirates, as well as an unemployment rate among Emirati nationals that the Federal National Council in December 2012 estimated to be 20.8 percent.

Economic challenges are compounded by societal tensions and unease as nationals of GCC states question their rulers' breakneck development strategies. This is most in evidence in the freewheeling cities of Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai -- where a 2012 study found that Emiratis comprised a tiny two percent of the labor force. Such misgivings were eloquently expressed by veteran Qatari academic dissident and author of The People want Reform in Qatar...too, Ali al-Kuwari, in an interview with the Heinrich Boll Foundation. Al-Kuwari argued that the demographic imbalance in Qatar and the UAE, in which nationals constituted less than one-fifth of the total population, reflected and enabled "the desire of the ruler to govern a population without political rights...without having to enact developmental policies to increase the productivity of its citizens, protect their dignity, preserve the common identity that binds society together or considers the lives of future generations."

Similar concerns at the perceived erosion of local values and dilution of national identity have long been expressed by Emirati nationals, most recently in the rapid spread of the #UAEDressCode Twitter campaign in 2012. In the UAE, social unease is complicated by the weakening of the legacy of the country's founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, who died in 2004. His sons and successors do not share their father's charismatic authority and have struggled to stamp their own brand of leadership on the country. The construction of a national myth around the legacy of Zayed is evident in the reverence with which he is spoken of and in the invocation of his memory in public and institutional spaces. Yet, with the passage of time since his death and with his sons now associated with a repressive and heavy-handed clampdown on dissidents, the bonds of Zayedism are beginning to fray, and it is not clear what model of political authority will fill the vacuum.

Over the past decade, the UAE has invested heavily in cultivating a sophisticated international brand. This has included a significant soft power component based around creating links with prestigious and world-leading cultural and academic institutions, with Abu Dhabi attracting New York University (NYU) and branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, and major British universities -- including the LSE, Durham, and Exeter -- in receipt of large amounts of funding from the country. Particularly in the current age of austerity and budget-slashing in the West, Gulf funding has increasingly become important to universities struggling to cope financially, yet this exposes academics and students to new pressures and vulnerabilities. Christopher Davidson has noted how many donations "tend to have the effect of steering academic debate away from the Gulf monarchies" toward safer topics of study while a "culture of self-censorship" takes root as academics and students feel uncomfortable "pursuing sensitive topics relating to the donor country." This feeling was captured in a June 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled "NYU-Abu Dhabi Behaves Like Careful Guest in Foreign Land," detailing the tensions between students and staff in Abu Dhabi keen not to rock the boat and the concerns among NYU faculty in New York for reputational risk.

Given their commitment to opening minds and intellectual creativity, universities now are caught in the crossfire of the Gulf rulers' growing intolerance of criticism. This latest example of attempted intervention in a university's affairs marks the culmination of a depressing pattern that has seen the UAE authorities take closer control of domestic academic institutions, close down branches of international think-tanks and research institutes, expel a U.S. professor of media and communications, and -- now -- seek to control research and conference agendas. Denying me entry may have been a sovereign right, but it signifies that the gloves are off, and that the UAE currently is a deeply inimical place for the values that universities are supposed to uphold. As it becomes harder for academics and administrators to turn a blind eye to increasingly open abuses, proponents of academic engagement with the UAE will face a set of difficult choices as they try to balance the competing pressures of funding gaps and freedom of thought. The LSE-AUS conference may have been the first, but will by no means be the last, casualty in this looming clash.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/GettyImages

The Middle East Channel

Palestinian prisoner's death fuels West Bank protests

Violence has escalated in the West Bank as over 10,000 Palestinians gathered on Monday for the funeral of Arafat Jaradat, 30, who died in Israeli custody on Saturday. The Israeli Defense Forces detained Jaradat for allegedly throwing stones and maintained that the cause of death is unclear. The investigation is ongoing, but Israel had initially cited cardiac arrest. According to the Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, "The signs that appeared during the autopsy show clearly that he was subjected to sever torture that led immediately to his death." Jaradat's death came after days of protest in the West Bank over Israel's treatment of Palestinian prisoners. Four prisoners who have been undergoing a hunger strike were joined on Sunday by the 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails and Palestinians have continued protests across the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made "an unequivocal demand" to the Palestinian Authority to calm protests and transferred $100 million in tax revenue it had been withholding to the Palestinian Authority.

Syria

Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Syria is ready to hold talks with the armed opposition, speaking from Russia on Monday, in the clearest yet offer for negotiations. The regime and the opposition in recent weeks have softened their positions and said they are prepared for some sort of contact. Moaz al-Khatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said he had not yet been in contact with the Syrian government about talks, and is waiting for communication. However, spokesman for the coalition, Khalid Saleh, told the Guardian that the opposition rejects the offer as "empty" and "deceitful." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is hoping to meet on Thursday in Rome with the Syrian opposition, along with foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East. However, the Syrian National Coalition said it would boycott the "Friends of Syria" meeting. The coalition said it is also turning down talks in Washington and Moscow, protesting the international community's "shameful" failure to stop violence in Syria. Last week was particularly bloody for Syria with a series of bombings in the capital Damascus and three missile strikes in the northern city Aleppo.  

Headlines  

  • Protester Mahmood Aljazeeri, 20, died in a hospital after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister thrown by police. He is the third protester to die during demonstrations that occured in Bahrain last week.
  • Israel's Defense Ministry announced that Israel and the United States successfully tested the Arrow 3 anti-missile system.
  • The United States and other world powers will offer Iran some relief in sanctions during talks over the country's disputed nuclear program set for this week in Kazakhstan. 

Arguments and Analysis

Last call before next intifada (Haaretz)

"The writing was on the wall for quite some time. The recent riots and demonstrations that broke out over the last few days in the occupied territories should not have surprised anyone. After years of political stalemate, an election campaign that largely ignored the occupation, and statements by Israeli political figures that proved their dangerous complacency about putting the "situation" at the bottom of their list of priorities - the Palestinians were left in their despair and suffering without any political horizon.

Several developments have only deepened the despair: Israel's intention to build in Area E1; its repeat arrests of 14 prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit deal; the army's killing of nonviolent protesters and the harsh means through which it is trying to prevent demonstrations; the security forces' failure to do anything to thwart harassment of Palestinians by settlers, who have become emboldened recently; and Hamas' relative success in Operation Pillar of Defense at forcing Israel's hand through rocket fire."

How to Save Syria from Al Qaeda (Leslie H. Gelb, The Daily Beast)  

"The real dangers in Syria today come less from Assad, or even Iran, and much more from increasingly potent Sunni extremist fighters. If the "rebels" win, as matters now stand, jihadis likely would be the real victors. They'd swiftly create a terrorist state to menace Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. U.S. strategy must be constructed to blunt that nightmare.

Stopping jihadis from taking over Syria could represent the only common goal between Syria's ruling Alawites and the secular Sunni rebels. Shiite-related Alawites rightly fear an al Qaeda-like triumph in Syria as the worst possible outcome. There can be no doubt in their minds that Sunni extremists would make the mass killing of Alawites their number one priority. The secular leaders of the Syrian rebels, clustered in the exile group known as the Syrian National Council, also must worry about the extremist threat they themselves would face if the Assad government fell now. Remember, most Syrian Sunnis don't have a history of religious radicalism. They don't want rule by shari'a law any more than the Alawites do.

U.S. strategy must focus on building this common ground. Washington should want to ensure that neither its European nor its regional allies gave arms to groups suspected of being even slightly jihadi in nature. In particular, our Arab friends already sending arms must err even further on the side of great caution. Such restraint on our part would show the Alawites we care about their safety, a critical signal. Our negotiating efforts would follow along similar lines: yes, Assad would have to go. Yes, secular rebel leaders and the remaining Alawite leaders would agree to freeze the jihadis out of negotiations and governmental power. And yes, both secular Sunni and Alawite leaders would agree to share governmental power and to protect their own respective communities for the indefinite future. It's not pretty or easy, but it is common ground."

Is Egypt's new parliamentary election law constitutional? (Nathan Brown, The Arabist)

"The short answer is: Maybe. We'll have to wait and see.

The quick retort: Not again?

The quick answer: Yes, it could be déjà vu all over again. But it might not.

Here's the story. The country's Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) has struck down the country's parliamentary election law four times. Three of these times that led directly to a dissolution of the parliament. On the other occasion, the parliament had already been dissolved.

And each time that led to all kinds of problems: how to write a new election law with parliament dissolved; whether the new law would be constitutional; what happened with the actions taken by the old parliament; and so on. Those questions could be answered, but the turmoil was real-even with the Mubarak regime's pseudo-parliaments. When parliament is something to be taken far more seriously, the effects of a dissolution by court order are farther reaching. Egypt is still reeling from the effects of the 2012 dissolution.

So the constitution drafters knew what to do: they availed themselves of a tool sometimes spoken of but never used in Egypt before (with one exception): prior review. The parliamentary election law would be drafted and then sent to the SCC for review. That would immunize it from later attempts to challenge it on constitutional grounds. Egypt's SCC, like most specialized constitutional courts, does not try concrete cases (though concrete cases are the genesis of most of its work). In a sense it tries laws instead. Its job in constitutional matters is to say if a law is constitutional or not. If it says a law is constitutional one day, it is hard for it to change its mind later on. (For that reason, many justices of the SCC dislike prior review and regard it as an attempt to tie the SCC's hands-and indeed, in Mubarak's times some unsuccessfully argued for prior review with precisely that motivation)."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/MAHMUD HAMS