Arab Upheavals Trigger New Sensitivities in Gulf Funding for Western Universities
Posted July 1, 2013
In February, a conference jointly organised by the London School of Economics and the American University of Sharjah was cancelled after the authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) refused to permit discussion of my paper on the uprising in Bahrain, and subsequently turned me back when I arrived in Dubai. The decision to deny me entry was not altogether surprising, as I have written critically about the security crackdown in the UAE over the past year. With such high levels of funding for academic research on the Gulf coming from the region, the episode raises urgent questions relating to intellectual freedom and integrity.
The threshold of ‘legitimate criticism’ that governments across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are prepared to tolerate has fallen dramatically in recent months. Increasingly, the Gulf monarchies are reacting to the transformative online power of new media and social networking sites by attempting to restrict these spaces for free discussion and reminding would-be detractors of the coercive power at their disposal.
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 donor or investor countries can threaten to turn companies and nations against each other to secure compliance or engagement on their own terms. Another factor is a lingering unease that the Gulf States certainly are not immune to the contagious wave of Arab Spring upheaval. Moreover, 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.
In his book After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of Gulf Monarchies, Christopher Davidson notes 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 mounting concerns among NYU faculty in New York for reputational risk. 
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 NYU and branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, and major UK universities – including the LSE, Durham, and Exeter – in receipt of large amounts of Emirati funding. 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.
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 an American professor of media and communications, and – now – seek to control research and conference agendas. Nor is this a pattern necessarily unique to the UAE; an international conference on The Arab Spring and the Gulf that was supposed to take place at the LSE on 25-26 March 2013 was abruptly cancelled at one week’s notice following pressure from the event’s Kuwaiti funders.
Denying me entry may have been a sovereign right, but it signifies that the gloves are off, and that the UAE currently is a problematic place for the values that universities are supposed to uphold. Proponents of academic engagement with the UAE and other Gulf States will face 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.
This looming clash seems inevitable, but only because it is difficult right now to imagine rulers in these states doing what is necessary for a truly great higher education sector, namely guarantee unfettered academic discourse, including research, teaching, publications, events and travel to/from them, for international and domestic scholars alike. But imagine the regime that allowed open academic discourse to exist within its borders. This would go far to dispel the impression of house-of-cards regimes afraid of the slightest breeze of independent thought.