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Break the Silence in the UAE

As the silent response to certain locales of the Arab Spring shows, states and businesses have a history of divorcing their espoused lofty ends from the actions. In the Gulf states, this stance props up the political and economic interests of “friendly” dictatorships and undermines the interests of the people.

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Foreign Policy In Focus

As democratic uprisings have spread across the Middle East in the Arab Spring, the U.S. response has been as notable for its silences as for its selective words and deeds on behalf of the democracy movements in the region.

It took weeks of incessant protest in Tunisia and Egypt before the Obama administration was willing to say much or do anything to support the protesters. And while the United States intervened in Libya to protect civilians being killed by Gaddafi, it has responded to the uprisings in Bahrain and Iraq with a particular quiescence. The Obama administration has hardly said a peep about the need for democracy in Saudi Arabia or the other oil-rich states of the Gulf, even as the regimes of these regions are cracking down on the small but growing number of democracy activists in their midst.

In recent weeks, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has joined the list of Gulf states that, with little reaction from the United States, have silenced individuals demanding even modest steps toward democratic reform. The UAE, a federation of emirates including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has no political parties and no free elections. In response to the revolutions in the region, public intellectuals, academics, and political activists in the country have been advancing a democracy campaign of their own.

So far, in comparison to the massive street protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria, their activities have been very tame, but nonetheless historic. On March 9, the activists published a petition, signed by 133 citizens, calling for constitutional and parliamentary reforms, including free and fair elections. Ibtissam Ketbi, a political scientist and the first signatory of the petition, noted that, “This is probably the first political petition in the history of the UAE.”


It did not take long before the UAE authorities began to crack down on the nascent democracy movement. On April 8, a team of security forces and police officers in Dubai entered the apartment of one of the movement’s most prominent voices, Ahmed Mansour, and arrested him. After several days, he was finally charged with the possession of alcohol. Two days later, the authorities arrested Nasser bin Ghaith, an eminent economics professor, and Fahad Salem al-Shehhy, a prominent blogger, both of whom participated in the democracy campaign. Two more activists have since been arrested and detained. The authorities now admit that Mansour is facing charges that involve his speaking out against the government. Meanwhile, the government has dissolved the board of directors of the Jurist Association, one of four prominent civil rights organizations calling for direct elections in the UAE, and replaced it with state appointees.

The Obama administration has not only failed to publicly condemn the crackdown but has continued to underscore its firm alliance with the UAE government. On March 14, Secretary Clinton met with UAE Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed in Paris. In her remarks to the press, Clinton referred to Abdullah as her “colleague, counterpart, and friend,” after which Abdullah explained why the UAE had sent 500 police officers to Bahrain to “defuse the tension” there. On April 26, the Obama administration invited Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan to the White House, saying, “The president looks forward to discussing with the crown prince the strong ties between the United States and the UAE and our common strategic interests in the region.”

The chumminess between the United States and the United Arab Emirates comes as no surprise. The UAE is a central ally in the region, a “partner” in the war on terror and the military strikes on Libya, and a major purchaser of U.S. arms. In 2009, the UAE was the largest foreign buyer of U.S. defense equipment. We won’t be hearing any complaints from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, or Boeing about the crackdown on the democracy movements in the UAE. Or from the foreign companies who have invested or are planning to invest there. Under the current laws, foreign investors must partner with a UAE company. New legislation, which will allow full foreign ownership, is likely to pass later this year, and is expected to lead to a dramatic increase in foreign direct investment.

The Silence Expands

States and for-profit businesses look the other way in the face of political oppression when it suits their interests to do so. They are not the only ones, however, who have chosen to remain quiet in the face of the crackdown. The group of the silent also includes non-profit cultural and educational institutions that have partnered with the UAE government to open extensions in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Foremost among these are the extension of the Paris-Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi (where Nasser bin Ghaith is a professor), New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus (which opened this past fall), and the extension of the Guggenheim museum (which is now being constructed off the coast of Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island).

Since their inception, these projects have stirred up controversy among artists, academics, and human rights organizations. Their concerns cover a wide span of social and political justice issues, ranging from the status of the migrant laborers who are building and maintaining the lavish extension sites to the protection of artistic and academic freedom for the artists and intellectuals who work there. These hypothetical concerns have been substantiated by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has been monitoring the working conditions for construction workers at the extension sites. In a 2009 report, HRW cited evidence of labor abuses at both the Guggenheim and NYU sites.

NYU has since hired an external monitor to review and maintain international labor standards on its site, but has failed to address questions about the connections between the monitor and the construction industry as well as about the transparency of the monitoring process. This past March, more than a thousand artists signed a petition calling for the boycott of the Guggenheim unless it ceases to engage in labor abuses. The Guggenheim issued a mixed reply, in which it blamed the protesters for “jeopardizing a project that promises to have a very positive effect in the region,” but also expressed a commitment to appoint an independent monitor that will publish its reports annually.

In response to the arrests of democracy activists, which substantiates concerns about the prospects for artistic and academic freedom in the UAE, HRW sent letters to the Sorbonne, NYU, and the Guggenheim urging them to publicly condemn the government’s crackdown. The NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) followed with its own letter to the university’s administration.

So far, the institutions on the receiving end of these letters have not only refused to comply with the request to speak out against the UAE authorities; they have refused to provide the kind of serious and comprehensive response this issue merits. NYU-Abu Dhabi spokesperson, Josh Taylor, issued the administration’s response in an email reply to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Taylor cast suspicion not on the authorities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi but instead on Human Rights Watch. “We’re not sure what to make of it when an outside group tries to insist on setting a particular political agenda for an independent institution of higher learning.”

As of the time of my writing this article, the NYU administration had not replied to the AAUP letter or responded to a petition signed by over 100 NYU faculty members. The Sorbonne and the Guggenheim have not even bothered to issue any public response to the HRW letter or associated requests.

The Globalizers' Silence

Non-profit educational and cultural institutions have been trying hard to convince the public that their mission in the UAE is about more than making money. For this to be the case, we must believe that global educational and cultural institutions in the UAE and elsewhere will help to foster a climate for the free exchange of ideas, not just of capital, and all ideas, not just those that promote business and industry.

According to the NYU administration, silence in the face of the crackdown is a necessary means to this loftier end: “We believe that we can have a far greater impact on creating a more informed, responsible, and just world, by creating powerful centers of ideas, discourse, and critical thinking, than by simply firing off a press release.”

In this framework, silence is justified as part of a larger strategy of gradualism. This strategy has a way of sounding wise and pragmatic, despite its less-than-admirable history at critical junctures in U.S. and international history. One of the most powerful challenges to gradualism was made by Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement. In a letter he wrote to his white clergy colleagues from Birmingham Jail, King argued that in the face of grave injustice, gradualism is neither a moral nor a practical philosophy, but simply a stalling tactic.

The globalization of western universities and museums necessarily internationalizes the broad question of how to bring about social and democratic reform and the more specific question of how educational and cultural institutions fit into the process. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” is a good example. As someone who has included this document on my own syllabi, I cannot help but wonder how or if a professor at an extension campus would teach it in Abu Dhabi. This dilemma raises fundamental questions about the gradualist strategy being espoused by western-based universities in their race to globalize. Is a gradualist approach to global academic freedom really possible, or will such compromised means render such an end impossible? The same question could be asked about the art exhibited at the Guggenheim and the possibilities of artistic freedom in the UAE or other “hot spots” of cultural capital. Can today’s silence actually be a means for tomorrow’s free exchange of ideas?

As the silent response to certain locales of the Arab Spring reminds us, states and businesses have a long history of divorcing the lofty ends that their leaders espouse from the means through which they actually function. In the Gulf states, this stance continues to promote the political and economic interests of “friendly” dictatorships and undermine the interests of the people over which these systems rule. If they really want to depart from this tradition, then the U.S. and European cultural and educational institutions in the UAE will have to do more to align their long-term goals and their current practices. To borrow another phrase from MLK, they can start by “breaking the silence.”

Hannah Gurman is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus and an assistant professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She writes on the politics, economics, and culture of U.S. diplomacy and military conflict. Her forthcoming book, The Dissent Papers: The Voice of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond, will be published by the University of Columbia Press in fall 2011.

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