Dodging a Very Long Vacation in Dubai

Another Westerner mistakes the UAE for a free country.

Quick quiz. What do these universities have in common: New York University, London Business School, Michigan State University, Middlesex University, Murdoch University (Australia), Heriot-Watt University (Scotland), the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Birmingham, the University of Bradford, the University of Exeter, the University of South Wales, City University London, and the University of West London?

Answer: they all have branches in the United Arab Emirates. This is a perfect set-up for the petroleum millionaires of the Persian Gulf, who want their sons to have American or British degrees but who may not want them to be exposed to the haram aspects of life in the U.S. or U.K. It’s thus also a perfect set-up for the universities themselves, because these oil sheikhs can afford whatever price these universities charge them to educate their little darlings.

A few decades ago, the idea of establishing branches of Western universities in a country like the UAE would be considered ethically problematic. No free speech, no free press, no due process, and all that. Premarital sex and the drinking of alcohol are punishable by flogging. The penalty for adultery and apostasy is death by stoning.

Fortunately for the American and British universities in question, these drawbacks are more than balanced out by the huge piles of cash that are in it for them. In any event, as you know, it’s politically incorrect – Islamophobic, in fact – to get too worked up about sharia law. And nowhere are people more determined not to be politically incorrect or Islamophobic than at your typical American or British university.

So if you look at it the right way, installing a university campus in the UAE is a supremely liberal act. So what if, as NPR noted in passing in an otherwise enthusiastic 2010 report on these colleges, “students and faculty from Israel cannot get visas to the UAE”? So what if, as an otherwise celebratory article the same year about NYU Abu Dhabi, the New York Times noted (in the mildest possible summation of sharia) that “homosexual acts are illegal and the Internet is censored” in that emirate?

These universities have provided the UAE not only with high-level educational facilities but with a terrific front. Along with the shiny buildings of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the UAE branches of NYU, MSU, and so on do a great job of making a primitive country look modern.

So do the media, CNN above all. I’ve written here previously about a truly nauseating series of promos on which CNN hack Becky Anderson slathered Abu Dhabi – a place where real journalists are thrown in prison – with the kind of praise Donald Trump will never get on that network in a million years.

Thanks to that kind of shameless propaganda, Westerners have been fooled into thinking that the UAE is indeed, as the Times put it in that 2010 article, a “modern, multicultural” state, and thus a safe place to do business or go on vacation. As a result, every so often you read a story about some foolish couple from North America or Europe who, thinking they were in a civilized country, committed some innocuous act that landed them in the clink.

Some random examples. In 2014, a U.S. architect in Dubai for a conference was arrested for photographing a building. In 2015, an American was arrested in the UAE for something he’d posted on Facebook while in the U.S. In 2016, a British woman was arrested in Dubai on charges of adultery after reporting a rape. Last year, a British tourist faced three years in a Dubai jail “after putting his hand out in a bar to stop himself spilling his drink and touching a man’s hip.” Last December, a British woman was arrested in Dubai “after witnessing a physical altercation in a hotel lobby.” 

That’s only a tiny sampling. The latest case is that of Matthew Hedges, a doctoral candidate at Durham University who was arrested in May on espionage charges while in the UAE to study its security policies. He spent five months in solitary confinement, and on November 21 he was sentenced to life in prison. The UAE did not make public any evidence of his guilt and British officials were criticized for wimping out on the case for fear of damaging relations with the Emirates.

But at least two British universities with UAE campuses took action. The staff of the University of Exeter voted to suspend academic relations with the UAE; the staff of the University of Birmingham voted to boycott its Dubai campus. James Brackley, president of the latter campus, said that the UAE’s treatment of Hedges raised “serious questions about the University of Birmingham’s decision to establish a Dubai campus.” Yes, you can say that again; in fact, it raised serious questions about a great many aspects of the relationship between the UAE and Western governments, universities, businesses, and media organizations.

Unfortunately, not all Western universities with a foothold in the UAE took the trouble to stand up for Hedges. Spokespeople for the University of Manchester, City University London, Bradford University, and Heriot-Watt University basically said, “We’re good.” Heriot-Watt, indeed, issued a statement saying that it encouraged its Dubai staff “to respect local laws and customs at all times.”

In any event, enough people kicked up enough of a fuss to make it clear to UAE that keeping Hedges in the slammer could well cost the country more than it bargained for. So on Sunday, Hedges was granted what the UAE called “gracious clemency.” He was freed shortly thereafter.

None of this should cloud our recognition of the reality of the UAE. It’s an autocratic theocracy masquerading as a part of the civilized free world. Hedges will not be the last Westerner to be incarcerated there for no good reason whatsoever. He was fortunate – if you can call somebody fortunate who, while obviously innocent, had to spend half a year behind bars – to have at least some of the UAE colleges on his side. Their support helped draw media attention to his case, and that, in turn, appears to have lit a fire under British diplomats.

One lesson of this episode is that the UAE cares a good deal about safeguarding its Western alliances, keeping its international university campuses, and preserving its phony image in the West as a cutting-edge modern state. Another lesson is that because the UAE cares so much about these things, people like James Brackley, head of Birmingham-Dubai, do have leverage in that oily oligarchy, and that it’s morally obligatory for them to use it when needed.

A corollary of that, of course, is that it’s cowardly for individuals in Brackley’s position to remain silent in such situations. Let it not be forgotten that, in a tough moment, the University of Manchester, City University London, Bradford University, and Heriot-Watt University refused to stand up for one of their own. Yes, it’s par for the course these days for elite Western institutions to bow down pusillanimously to Islamic tyranny, but it’s still not a pretty sight.