Kristina Bogos reports that American universities such as Georgetown and New York University are expanding to the United Arab Emirates but are ill-equipped to deal effectively with human rights abuses and media censorship there–or have flat out refused to do so, in fear of the wealthy U.A.E. scaling back their investments. Although it has been widely reported that immigrant labor under slave-like conditions have been building the universities and museums popping up in the U.A.E., none of the universities have spoken out against these abuses. What’s more, the university students and employees who have spoken out against U.A.E. worker abuses have been both banned from the nation and spied upon, reports Bogos. Read her report in partial below, or in full via New York Times.
N.Y.U., my alma mater, had made similar statements after the Emirati authorities denied access to one of its professors, Andrew Ross, in March 2015. He had also been traveling to the U.A.E. to conduct research into migrant worker abuses. N.Y.U. said that it supported the “free movement of people and ideas,” but that “it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university.” The administration also offered the somewhat self-serving argument that N.Y.U.’s “presence in these nations and societies brings more freedom of ideas, not less.”
These responses seem uninformed or disingenuous. Both Qatar and the U.A.E. use sophisticated internet attack tools to execute what Human Rights Watch recently called a “systematic and well-funded assault on free speech to subvert the potentially transformative impact of social media and internet technology.” Generally, it is the citizens of these gulf countries, not foreign visitors, who face the worst of such repression.
An Emirati professor named Nasser bin Ghaith was detained with no access to his family or a lawyer for nine months, and claimed in a court hearing to have been tortured, for criticizing the government on Twitter. He has been charged under the 2012 Cybercrimes Law that prescribes up to 15 years in prison for people who post content that could “damage the reputation” of the U.A.E. leadership.
In May, Citizen Lab, a watchdog group based at the University of Toronto, uncovered a five-year campaign of spyware attacks against Emirati journalists, activists and dissidents, including the human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who has frequently been targeted by hackers since calling for reform in 2011. In August, Mr. Mansoor became known as the “million-dollar dissident” after a costly but failed effort by the U.A.E. government to break into his iPhone.
It’s clear that N.Y.U. and Georgetown do not want to bite the hand that feeds them, but it may not end there.
According to reports, a Maryland-based company called CyberPoint International began providing advice on cybersecurity to the United Arab Emirates government in 2012. CyberPoint’s contract reportedly ended last year, but the company’s former chief strategy officer, Paul Kurtz, who worked in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, is still chairman of the advisory board of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi’s cybersecurity center. The center also partners with “government agencies” in an effort to “improve cybersecurity in the U.A.E.” and “more generally in the G.C.C. region.”
There is no evidence that CyberPoint was involved in spying, but it is worrying that N.Y.U. is involved in this field with the Emirates, since the government has used its cyber capabilities against its own citizens, and possibly foreign researchers, too.
*Image of NYU Abu Dhabi via NY Times