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Academic freedom in the Gulf

Posted on Facebook on February 27, 2013

Tomorrow I was supposed to got to Dubai to attend a one day workshop on Sunday in which the Alexandria Trust was expected to launch “al-Fanar“, a new publication devoted to the state of higher education in the Arab World. However, given the recent decision by the government of the UAE to deny entry to Prof. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of LSE, the whole launch was cancelled. 

Dr. Ulrichsen was supposed to give a paper on Bahrain in a conference organized by the American University of Sharjah in collaboration with LSE. He had earlier received a visa and had actually boarded his plane heading to Dubai together with two colleagues. Upon arriving in Dubai airport, he was set aside, denied entry and told to return back to London on his own expense.

Two days later the Ministry f Foreign Affairs of the UAE issued the following statement:

“Dr Coates Ulrichsen has consistently propagated views de-legitimizing the Bahraini monarchy. The UAE took the view that at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain’s national dialogue it would be unhelpful to allow non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another GCC state.”

I first heard about this incident late last night (when I posted the notes below). I immediately wrote to the organizers of our event telling them that I felt very uncomfortable attending our planned meeting.

Specifically, I wrote to the organizers saying:

“As you know, my friends and I have been active in our revolution form day one, and we have been demonstrating in the streets at huge risks to ourselves. I simply cannot accept the position taken by the government of the UAE against Ulrichsen who has done nothing but criticize the draconian measures taken by the Bahraini government against people just like me and my friends here in Cairo.

In addition, we are not going to Dubai to discuss any subject. Rather, we are going there to launch a new publication about higher education in the Arab World. I think doing so from Dubai can only be seen as condoning this decision, or at least turning a blind eye to what the UAE government is doing with regard to academic freedom. And this is something I cannot do.”

To their credit, the organizers not only understood my position; they cancelled the entire launch event. They felt that Dubai is simply not the right place from which to launch a new publication devoted to higher education in the Arab World.

Academic freedom means, among other things, creating the right environment in which faculty, students and staff of a university can express their ideas freely and without intimidation. Such free exchange of ideas is needed precisely in times of tension and turmoil, like what the entire Arab World is passing through these days. We need the space to think, reflect and express ideas without intimidation or fear of retaliation. By preventing Prof. Ulrichsen from attending an academic meeting in which he was expected to voice his ideas about what is happening in Bahrain now, the UAE government showed that it lacks the most basic understanding and appreciation of academic freedom.

The UAE government cannot have the cake and eat it too: they cannot use their wealth to buy the brand names of NYU, the Louvre, and the Guggenheim and at the same time violate the basic principles of academic freedom in this most flagrant manner.

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