Rumours abound that the Royal College of Art, perhaps the most prestigious art school in Britain, is contemplating the opening of a branch in Dubai. Speculation centres on a recent survey issued to students at the College, which asked whether they would feel comfortable with a sister operation opening in a country where freedom of expression is carefully controlled by the authorities.
Why such a question needed to be asked is obvious; the UAE is one of the most oppressive states in the world. Will the financial attractions of a new branch exceed any reputational damage caused to one of Britain's greatest cultural institutions?
Art and cultural projects in the UAE have a habit of running aground. In April 2011, the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Jack Persekian, was fired for exhibiting an "anti-government and anti-police work". A campaign against him was led by the ruler of Sharjah himself, Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi. The bullying campaign included a viral email and text message component. This was art censorship literally from the highest level, using the latest technology.
The following year "Art Dubai", the Middle East's largest art conference, had four paintings removed following orders from on high. One of them had riffed off famous TV footage of a woman being beaten by Egyptian soldiers in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Another showed a woman holding underwear with "leave" written on it in Arabic. This had been a common chant during "Arab Spring" protests. It was obvious why these paintings were considered too much in the nervous UAE, as revolutionary slogans felled autocrats across the region.
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In 2014, Mexican art writer Jime Reyes Gonzalez moved to the UAE and was surprised by the cultural climate there. His analysis summed up well the dynamics of censorship, or self-censorship, which is often far more insidious than its more obvious cousin: "Coming to the UAE was an instant shock for me. As opposed to the self-service approach, art and media here are more visibly regulated. As part of an academic institution in the UAE, most of us have a fairly good idea of what kinds of things are allowed. We know not to criticise the government, politics, the royal family or Islam. We know to avoid delicate topics such as homosexuality and gender roles."
In September of this year, the Louvre Abu Dhabi – a brand that the Emirate paid some £402 million to the French government for permission to use — opened on Sadiyat Island. Artists from across the world protested against the move, not least because of the appalling working conditions laboured under by the workers building the museum.
Traditional Western notions of "human rights" — in this case freedom of expression — have started to take root in Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and even Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are re-opening and a burgeoning art scene led by female and male artists looks highly promising.
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The picture is far from perfect, though. Qatari poet Mohammed Al-Ajami was released last year after serving three years in prison for his criticism of the state. In September, Breek Bin Hadi Al-Marri, another Qatari poet, was arrested. In a curious twist, it was reportedly for praising Qatar's newest foe, Saudi Arabia.
In the United Arab Emirates, almost zero progress has been made on improving civil liberties. The country is oppressive in a way that might chill more Britons if they took the time to look closely.
Behind the glossy façade, the reality is that UAE security officials routinely use torture, beatings and threats to extract "confessions". This is not just affecting innocent British tourists – a number of whose cases are now being publicised by organisations like Detained in Dubai – but also stifling the political creativity that is needed to affect real change within Emirati society.
There is a reason why dictators go after artists; just ask Ai Wei Wei in communist China, or scrutinise why "Degenerate Art" evolved as a political concept in Germany in 1937. Freethinking art can challenge tyranny at its core.
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The general response of the students to that crucial RCA question is unknown. Will they view the move as a legitimate extension into an area which desires more, not less, creativity? Or will they see it as a grubby attempt by the College to generate funds?
One respondent appears to be cannily aware of the politics behind the RCA's thinking: "Well if the RCA wants to sponsor a blatantly sexist economy and insert themselves into a grossly patriarchal culture in exchange for the liquidity a place like the UAE provides, then sure."
If that sarcastic remark was transformed into a brilliant art piece, there is one place guaranteed to ban it: the United Arab Emirates. That says it all, doesn't it?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.