Academia,  Freedom & Liberty,  Freedom of Expression,  Middle East

Illiberal Arts

This is a cross-post by Sohrab Ahmari from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

In ancient Rome, even slaves, once freed, could rise to become senators. Not so in today’s United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), where hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are locked into a permanent underclass. “I couldn’t wait to get out of that place,” says Fatema Haji-Taki, who spent the first 18 years of her life in the Emirates. In the late 1970s, Haji-Taki’s parents, Tanzanians of Indian origin, were drawn to Dubai by job opportunities in the oil sector. Although born on U.A.E. soil, their children were denied Emirati citizenship. Haji-Taki painfully recalls the myriad humiliations she and her siblings were subjected to, including daily ostracism at school for being Shi’a Muslims.

Yet the family was powerless to respond. Speaking out meant immediate deportation.

Not much has changed in the U.A.E. since Haji-Taki left it behind. In 2009, Human Rights Watch found that migrant workers continue to “face severe exploitation and abuse, in some cases amounting to forced labor.” And when it comes to free speech, U.A.E. citizens – comprising roughly 20% of the population – are not much better off than the Haji-Takis ever were. “Although the U.A.E.’s constitution provides for some freedom of expression,” Freedom House reports, “the government has historically limited this right in practice.” Pro-democracy bloggers Ahmed Mansoor and Fahd al-Shehi could say a thing or two about those limits. Both were arrested just two weeks ago for calling for reform.

One thing that has changed, though, is the recent arrival of dozens of top-tier Western universities to the wealthy sheikdom and the wider Persian Gulf region.

University of Paris IV (Sorbonne) has an extension campus in Abu Dhabi. New York University runs a liberal arts college there, known as NYUAD. And if administrators at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee go through with plans currently under consideration, the elite American school may be the latest to join them. Over the past ten months, Vanderbilt administrators have been discussing an expansion of their education school – ranked first in the nation by U.S. News – with Abu Dhabi officials.

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