Last week, I was invited to attend an important academic conference in Dubai, UAE, and was looking forward to attending and presenting a research paper I had prepared about the key problems facing university education in the Arab world.
However, a few days before the conference was due to start, the government of the UAE banned a foreign professor attending another academic conference from entering the country. The organisers of our conference saw the decision as a serious violation of academic freedom and eventually decided to cancel the conference altogether.
Some colleagues and I welcomed the decision because we felt that by going to Dubai we would be indirectly sanctioning the UAE government’s policies violating freedom of expression and academic freedom.
The conference I was attending was not an academic gathering in the conventional sense, but was an event to launch a new publication called Al-Fanar (The Lighthouse) that focuses on higher education in the Arab world. The magazine is published by the London-based non-profit organisation Alexandria Trust founded by Salah Khalil, an Egyptian businessman living in the UK.
“The vision of Alexandria Trust is for an Arab region once again home to world-class standards of education, recapturing the ancient traditions of Alexandria as a centre of learning,” according to the non-profit organisation’s website.
Al-Fanar, meanwhile, seeks to cover higher education news in the Arab world and connect Arab universities together, as well as mentor a new generation of journalists interested in education issues. Khalil succeeded in hiring a leading journalist to be its editor, David Wheeler, who had served as managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education for 15 years. The Chronicle, an American publication, is a leading specialised magazine in the field.
When I received an invitation for the event, I did not hesitate in accepting. It is a unique opportunity by an Egyptian businessman to launch a pioneering and serious project that was carefully and calmly prepared, for a noble cause – raising the standard of university education in the Arab world.
I felt organisers were correct to choose Dubai as the city to launch this new magazine; not only is it an Arab city, but like other UAE cities, has for some time been trying to become a distinguished cultural and academic centre. It has endeavoured impressively to build world-class universities and museums.
Preparing for this promising event, I wrote a short research paper about what I believe is the main problem facing Arab universities, a topic I had addressed previously, namely the absence of the philosophy of liberal arts education. This means mistakenly believing the best way to train a university student is deeper knowledge of his/her major, rather than expanding their knowledge of other subjects or encouraging them to become familiar with the principles and fundamentals of other majors.
Arab universities essentially focus on deepening rather than broadening knowledge, and do not combine teaching academics and instilling the values of intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, innovation, moral courage and responsibility in students.
Only two days before our small conference was to be held, I learned that the UAE had banned a university professor from entering the country to present a paper at another academic conference. The American University in Sharjah (AUS), a new university the UAE government established, sponsored an academic conference titled 'The new Middle East: Transition in the Arab World' in cooperation with the London School of Economics (LSE), a prominent British university.
LSE’s Kristian Ulrichsen, an expert on Bahrain, was scheduled to make a presentation at the conference but upon his arrival at Dubai Airport, Ulrichsen was interrogated, denied entry and told to return to London at his own expense.
The UAE government issued an explanation, saying: “Dr Ulrichsen has consistently propagated views opposing the Bahraini monarchy, and the UAE believes it is unwise at this sensitive stage in Bahrain’s national dialogue to promote non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain expressed in another GCC state.”
In response, AUS cancelled its conference and the organisers of our conference also decided to cancel the launch of Al-Fanar in Dubai after consultations with participants. My colleague Moataz Attallah, head of the Right to Education at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and I said we were uncomfortable going to Dubai if the UAE government interferes so flagrantly in internal affairs of universities there.
Organisers were correct to cancel the launch of Al-Fanar in Dubai, since it makes no sense to launch a magazine specialising in higher education in the Arab world from a country that violates the principles of academic freedom.
In Egypt, 9 March marks the annual anniversary of independence of universities. Given this occasion, we have to remind ourselves of the dangers of violating academic freedom under the pretext of protecting national security, which is something Egyptian universities suffer from even worse than UAE universities – and even in more flagrant ways than what happened at the AUS conference. But there is a special feature of university affairs in the UAE and the Gulf in general that we must be aware of, namely the rush to attract leading American and European universities to open branches in the Gulf.
I do not oppose using universities as a means of building “soft power” for Gulf states; after all, investing in education is better than building a weapons arsenal. But the question remains: What is the intention of all these enormous investments in attracting foreign universities? Would it be better to redirect these funds to support already existing national universities? And in the end, who will truly benefit from these universities?
A quick glance at the student population at many of these foreign universities reveals those “the bedoun” and foreign workers are not allowed to enroll in them, and the true beneficiaries of vast grants these universities dole out from extravagant funds by Gulf states are students from “around the globe.” They come from everywhere: Russia, Australia, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Some of these foreign universities are particularly interested in attracting the best students from around the “globe” and pride themselves on striving to promote “global citizenship” and building a “global citizen.”
This is all good and well, but what about the domestic and regional context? Are these universities allowed to discuss political, economic and social problems in Gulf states? Or is the price of these vast investments by Gulf governments that these universities disassociate themselves from the “domestic” and the “regional” and focus only on the “global?”
These are some of the questions raised by the UAE government’s decision to ban Dr Ulrichsen because of his views on the “monarchy in Bahrain.” The decision suggests that the physical presence of these foreign universities in the UAE is only incidental and that they are intended to be dissociated from the domestic and regional context. This existence in a bubble voids these universities of their content and undermines both their social and academic missions.
The writer is professor and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo. He is a member of the advisory board of Al-Fanar.