An ostrich defense in the Gulf

Nieuws | de redactie
25 juli 2013 | The position of American and European universities in the Gulf gets increasingly more problematic as Gulf States incarcerate academics and cancel conferences on inconvenient topics. “The relationship is getting very awkward”, says Gulf region expert Christopher Davidson.

Davidson is an author and currently researcher at Durham University. “This building I’m in is even paid for by the United Arab Emirates.” Davidson is trying to maintain a critical position while many colleagues suggest him to write more favorable on the sheikhs. ScienceGuide interviewed him on the phone.

How many western universities have a presence in the Gulf monarchies?

“Several dozen of them have a relationship with the Gulf States, and about ten of them operate campuses there, including very famous universities like NYU, Sorbonne, Cornell, Georgia, and Texas.”

Do you see a culture of self-censorship and is this on the increase?

“Yes it is on the increase,  even from my own experience I know this. There is certainly very little work being done on the domestic politics of the Gulf monarchies. The academic work that’s being done is mainly about economics and security.”

Which topics are avoided in particular?

“Particularly the work on political repression, on human rights, of freedom of speech. I consider this essential areas of academic research.”

What is your personal experience with the self-censorship?

“I myself was advised by several leading western academics to write favorably on the Gulf monarchies. Thankfully I’m more interested in academic research and in the people in the Gulf than in bringing money to universities or getting promoted. However, I’m concerned that other colleagues make other decisions.”

How many of your colleagues agree with your viewpoints?

“I would say that only 10 per cent of academics in my field agree with me.”

In your book ‘After the Sheikhs’ you predict the collapse of the Gulf monarchies, when do you expect this to happen?

“Within about 5 years the regimes in the region will not be the same anymore. Either they have changed into constitutional monarchies, or they succumb to revolution, especially Bahrain and Saudi-Arabia.”

What is the reason they will collapse?

“There is an economic reality that will force change upon them. The ability to subsidize the local population and to distribute wealth among friends is coming under a huge amount of pressure as a result of changes in the oil industry. You also have social and cultural changes and a large youthful population which is increasingly well educated and well connected through social networks. It is exploding: there are now 300.000 Kuwaitis on twitter. We have seen regimes respond by arresting people, but there is only so many people that you can arrest. It is trying holding back the tide. The young people say: ‘you cannot arrest us all’.”

“In the United Arab Emirates there are 100 political prisoners now, that’s a huge difference from what it was two years ago.  Then there were probably no more than 5 or 6.”

How do the western universities respond to this?

“That goes back to the self-censorship. You see conferences being cancelled, even an LSE-conference in London that was funded by Kuwait was cancelled earlier this year. The topic was politics in the Gulf. And it gets even more awkward when Arab academics are being detained.”

Are these universities financially dependent on the Gulf States, also for their activities at home?

“Of course. The largest lecture theatre of the London School of Economics is funded by the UAE. This building in Durham I’m in is also funded by the UAE.”

“What political change the region will see, you can be sure that the new regime is not going to be particularly favorable to the universities there.”

Do you think the NYU, Sorbonne, Cornell and all the others have their exit strategies in place?

“I honestly don’t think they have. Their main strategy is keeping their ears closed. There is very little due diligence that I’m aware of. These university branches date from before the Arab spring. It was believed then that the Gulf monarchies were extremely stable.”


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