Canceled Conference Revives Concerns About Academic Freedom in the Persian Gulf

February 25, 2013

The London School of Economics and Political Science abruptly canceled an academic conference on the Arab Spring it planned to hold over the weekend at the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, citing "restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom."

The last-minute cancellation took place after Emirati authorities requested that a presentation on the neighboring kingdom of Bahrain—where a protest movement was harshly repressed with the support of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—be dropped from the program.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a scholar on Arab politics at the London School of Economics who was scheduled to give the presentation, was stopped and briefly detained on Friday at the Dubai airport's passport control. A security official told him he was on a blacklist and not allowed to enter the country.

"The U.A.E. is a strong supporter of efforts by the Government of Bahrain and the opposition parties to resolve their situation through peaceful dialogue," said a written statement from the Emirati foreign ministry. "Dr. Coates Ulrichsen has consistently propagated views delegitimizing the Bahraini monarchy. The U.A.E. took the view that, at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain's national dialogue, it would be unhelpful to allow nonconstructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another GCC state." (GCC stands for Gulf Cooperation Council, a political and economic bloc Bahrain and the U.A.E. are a part of.)

Mr. Ulrichsen believes what happened to him is "a taste of things to come," an example of the unavoidable "tension between cash-strapped universities and Gulf governments" that have funds to spare but also expect that Western academics will defer to local sensitivities and restrictions.

The London School of Economics' Middle East Centre has received $8.5-million from the Emirates Foundation, which is financed by the government (but reportedly played no role in the demands to alter the conference program). A spokeswoman for the British institution told The Chronicle in an e-mail that it is "currently monitoring the situation carefully and will assess the implications in due course."

This is not the first time the school has run into difficulties because of its ties to the Arab world.

In 2011 the school's director resigned after the institution faced criticism for accepting a $2.27-million donation from Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son of the former Libyan dictator and a graduate of the school. A subsequent report said the decision to accept the Qaddafi donation had showed a "disconcerting number of failures in communication and governance."

The American University of Sharjah, a private university founded with the support of the ruler of Sharjah, one of the seven principalities that make up the U.A.E., was to serve as the conference's host. It declined to answer inquiries and would say only that it had been the London school's decision to cancel the event.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the two richest and best known of the seven emirates that make up the U.A.E., are home to dozens of foreign branch campuses, including those of New York University and the Sorbonne.

The two emirates have invested heavily in making themselves international business and education hubs. But universities in the United Arab Emirates must obtain security clearances to hire professors and invite speakers, and public debates of any kind are tightly monitored. And ever since the Arab Spring, academics and human-rights groups have noted, the space for free public discourse has been shrinking.

Education vs. Security

Mr. Ulrichsen had "misgivings," he said, about visiting the country, and "especially about giving a paper on Bahrain in the current climate."

During the Arab Spring, Bahrain's Shia majority staged vast street protests demanding greater political and economic participation. The ruling Sunni family treated the protests as a plot to overthrow the state and cracked down on them with the support of the ruling families of neighboring Sunni kingdoms.

Calls for reform in the oil-rich and socially conservative Emirates have been much more timid, but seem to have nonetheless unsettled the authorities. In the last year, they have denied several international organizations the right to operate there, passed a law restricting freedom of expression online, and detained dozens of activists and Islamist reformists.

Mr. Ulrichsen believes that an article he wrote last summer for the Web site OpenDemocracy, entitled "The U.A.E.: Holding Back the Tide," may have played a part in his blacklisting.

In the article, he criticized recent political repression and noted that it "calls into question the judgment of international institutions that bought into the benevolent 'images' so carefully promoted by ruling elites. … With each new arrest, it will become progressively harder for these predominantly cultural and educational institutions to continue to justify their engagement with a country currently so inimical to the freedoms and values they claim to represent."

The U.A.E.'s Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement also says that the decision not to allow Mr. Ulrichsen to enter the country "in no way reflects the strong ties with both the AUS and LSE and their academic excellence."

"The U.A.E. states that education is a priority for the country as it develops," said Matt J. Duffy, a former professor of journalism at the national Zayed University who was abruptly dismissed last summer. However, he said, incidents like this one and several others show that "security forces of the country often undermine this goal."

Institutions such as the American University of Sharjah "have international accreditation," noted Mr. Duffy, "so they are supposed to be able to teach and hold events that aren't subject to censorship. These types of actions will severely hurt their chances of retaining international accreditation."

Mr. Ulrichsen said that by daring the London School of Economics to acquiesce to their demands or cancel the conference, the Emirati authorities had "shot themselves in the foot."

They've put so much capital into international partnerships that when this sort of thing happens, it's "incredibly damaging," he said. The professor noted that the Emirates Foundation's grant to his university's Middle East Centre supports collaborative research between British and Arab and Emirati scholars. But he doubts the viability or value of such work, he said, "if we can't even get in, let alone do free research."