Thursday, 27 October 2011

Biting the hand that tortures

I may - in passing - have mentioned my objections to The Hegemon running training courses for the police forces of the UAE: those outstanding boys in white who specialise in brutally repressing political demonstrators, led by a man who filmed himself torturing and murdering a business partner when a deal went sour. And who was acquitted by his cousin because 'he was drugged by his staff'.

What these countries are buying isn't education: it's legitimacy. When Amnesty or whoever point to massive human rights abuses, they can point to our logo (and the honorary doctorate in law we gave to this Minister of the Interior) as proof that they're on the level. Presumably we're happy to take the cash and keep quiet. Who knows, perhaps the classes are fearlessly critical of what the UAE's security forces did to their fellow citizens this year - including our academic colleague Nasser bin Ghaith… or perhaps they aren't.

I'm not the only one either: the Times Higher Education isn't impressed either. Lo and behold, the parlous state of the UAE's HE institutions is - yet again - the result of monarchical nepotism:
The blame, within the academic community at least, was usually levelled at the Ministry for Higher Education, or the competence of the sheikh in question - who was a cousin of the ruler.… as with Gaddafi, there seems to be a fascination in many of the Gulf monarchies - most of which are similarly autocratic, and have been similarly flush - with spending vast sums on overseas education projects, even if the domestic sector is left to languish.
Our American cousins sup with a longer-handled spoon, at least in relation to Arab money, thanks to the influence of the Israel lobby - they're perfectly happy to take cash from the evil Koch brothers and other assorted loons:
the Harvard University staff and student body rejected a chair in Islamic studies from Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan on the grounds of anti-Semitism and well-documented human rights abuses in the UAE, including the use of child slaves as camel jockeys. Similarly, in 2007 the University of Connecticut pulled out of a relationship with Dubai for much the same reasons.
God I'd love the chance to actually put forward a view in my place, but democracy has never been on the agenda, here or there:
In such circumstances, junior members of staff or PhD students may feel uncomfortable pursuing sensitive topics relating to these countries. Imagine, for example, writing a negative critique of a regime that has paid for your salary, your scholarship or the building you sit in. In many UK universities, this is not only a possible scenario but now rather likely. What it may lead to (and in some cases it already has led to) is a field that carefully skirts around the key "red line" subjects such as political reform, corruption, human rights and revolution.
The large, youthful, English-speaking and internet-savvy populations of these countries are unlikely to tolerate the current set-up for much longer, and the Western democracies - including their universities - need to make sure they are not out of step with the region's reality. 

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