Matthew Hedges affair should be a wake-up call for universities

The details coming from British academic Matthew Hedges about his six-month detention in the United Arab Emirates are harrowing. Hedges, who had been arrested in Dubai last May after completing a two-week research trip for his doctoral thesis, gave his first public interview in early December since his release the previous month. He described how he was kept in solitary confinement, interrogated in ankle cuffs, fed a dangerous mix of drugs, and forced to confess to spying for MI6. On November 21, at a five-minute hearing, an Abu Dhabi court sentenced him to life in prison for espionage. A global outcry followed, and after sustained efforts from Hedges’ wife and the British government, Hedges received a presidential pardon from the UAE – though a spokesman for the regime still asserted that the researcher was “100 percent” a spy.

The plight of Hedges adds to mounting concerns about academic freedom in the Gulf states, particularly in the wake of the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. For American universities based in the Gulf, the Hedges affair should serve as a wake-up call to reexamine their ties to such autocratic regimes.

Over the past few years, major Western universities have established branch campuses in the Gulf. Paris’ Sorbonne has a campus in Abu Dhabi, while Rochester Institute of Technology and Britain’s Cambridge and Manchester have branches in Dubai. Georgetown, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Texas A&M, and Virginia Commonwealth have Qatar-based campuses.

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Gulf governments have been incredibly generous to many of these institutions, doling out hefty chunks of their hydrocarbons-based wealth. In 2014, for example, among other grants, Qatar gave $59.5 million Georgetown University and $45.3 million to Northwestern University. In 2008, New York University opened its Abu Dhabi campus with the help of $50 million from the emirate. According to data from The Gazelle, an NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) student newspaper, more than 99 percent of NYUAD’s revenue comes from UAE grants. Abu Dhabi even committed to financing a chunk of NYU’s New York campus when the NYUAD deal was inked.

The only string attached to the grants these schools receive? Academic freedom.

A former professor at Georgetown Qatar describes Doha’s limits on academic freedom as “soft censorship,” where implicit red lines on certain topics – such as sectarianism or criticisms of the emir or Islam – extend into the classroom. Hard censorship exists too: Books can be confiscated by customs authorities or even banned.

Gulf states also use visa revocations or entry bans as punitive measures against academics critical of their regimes. In 2013, for example, Dubai denied entry to Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a prominent academic at the London School of Economics, who had been scheduled to attend a conference at the American University of Sharjah. In 2015, Qatar revoked the residency permit of a Georgetown Qatar professor, likely for publishing criticism of an ally of Doha. That same year, the UAE banned from entering the country a New York University professor who had published criticism of the UAE’s migrant issues. Last year, NYU’s journalism faculty stated it would refuse to teach at the school’s UAE branch after the federation denied entry to two of its professors.

The UAE’s incarceration of Hedges marks a natural progression in the federation’s repression of political space at home, part of a broader trend across the Gulf as these states grow more assertive in the region.

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Domestic red lines on acceptable public discourse have commensurately increased with the heightened geopolitical ambitions of Gulf states. The UAE may have planned to use Hedges’ release as a bargaining tool to change Britain’s critical stance toward UAE involvement in Yemen. Dubai also may have sought to pressure London to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, thereby facilitating the UAE’s larger efforts to contain its regional influence.

Universities must realize that they are not passive, value-neutral actors. Their campuses confer geopolitical benefits to Gulf states by giving them robust soft power, enabling the regimes to boost their global profiles by touting the Western institutions they host.

Western universities in the Gulf must re-evaluate whether the trade-off between financial largesse and reputational risk is worth it.

As the United States and Britain struggle to contain increasingly aggressive behavior from their Gulf partners, a pullback of their universities from the region would send a clear signal about what they stand to lose if they do not stop their authoritarian policies.

These universities’ home governments have a role, too. The U.S. and Britain have largely turned a blind eye to the domestic repression and human rights record of Gulf states. Now, in the wake of Hedges’ ordeal, the West may finally be realizing that its citizens are not immune from the Gulf’s creeping authoritarian tendencies. 

Unless Western governments bring strong pressure to bear on Gulf states to reform their rights records, cases like Matthew Hedges will become the norm rather than the exception. 

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst specializing in Gulf States issues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Find her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur.