Relations between Britain and the UAE came under scrutiny after a judge in the Emirates sentenced a British academic to life imprisonment last week. Matthew Hedges, a PhD student from Durham, was charged in a five-minute hearing in Abu Dhabi with spying for the British government. He had been held in solitary confinement since his arrest in May and, it is alleged, interrogated without a lawyer or consular support.
Outraged by what appeared to many people in Britain as a gross injustice, denunciations were swift and harsh. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that the sentence could threaten relations between the two countries and urged the UAE to reconsider. Prime Minister Theresa May added her voice to the chorus of condemnation, saying that she was "deeply disappointed and concerned" about the case and would be raising it with the Emirati authorities "at the highest level".
There was backlash from British universities too. Staff at the University of Birmingham were the first to vote for an academic boycott of its own campus in the UAE. One lecturer at the university refused to teach in Dubai and provide the university's campus there with academic support. Durham and Exeter Universities endorsed a motion to boycott the wealthy Gulf State.
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Pressure for the release of Hedges mounted as more than 650 academics from around the world signed an online petition calling on the UAE to release him without delay. "Not only is he an innocent man being held unjustly," insisted the signatories, "but it also places into question existing and future academic ties between the UK and the UAE."
With the fallout from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi casting a long shadow in the background, the sentencing of a PhD researcher to life in prison underlined the degree to which freedom of thought and political scrutiny are dangerous in the eyes of Gulf autocracies. Both grabbed international attention and exposed the ruthlessness of absolute monarchies as well as the hypocrisy that has become a familiar characteristic of relations between western institutions and the Gulf.
In the case of Hedges it was the academic world that came under sharp focus. British universities have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with Gulf States like the UAE. Critics of what is often described as a marriage of convenience between Gulf money and British academia say that this relationship has come at a great cost to the democratic freedoms which universities in Britain are committed to upholding.
In the battle over who controls the Middle East, British academic institutions have become essential tools in the soft power armoury of authoritarian Gulf regimes. The UAE, perhaps more than any of its Arab neighbours, has employed this to great effect over the past decade. Its government has long infiltrated public debate through the funding of academic institutions, policy centres and think tanks, according to a Spinwatch report into the UAE's Subverting of British Democracy.
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While exposing the key individuals and agencies within the powerful lobbying network, the public interest investigations group described the role played by academic institutions. "So-called 'soft power', or influence," said Spinwatch, "came in the form of investment in overseas assets in financial institutions, real estate and, lately, football clubs, the hosting of business conferences, arts and film festivals, bidding for marquee sporting events, generous aid policies, and the funding of international museums and European and US academic institutions and universities."
While paid firms do much of the spadework on the lobbying front, universities, think tanks and policy centres have become indispensable in pushing the UAE narrative and the interests of its authoritarian rulers. The Spinwatch report cites the names of such think tanks and policy centres which are supposed to be independent institutions, but have received large donations from the UAE over the past few years, raising questions about whether they are lobbyists rather than researchers.
Universities have also become awash with Gulf money. From the middle of 2014, for example, the Abu Dhabi-funded Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy had given $8.04 million to the London School of Economics and a further $3 million to name the main lecture theatre in the LSE's new academic building after Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the founder of the UAE. The total amount pledged by the Foundation is said to be over $11 million. The report admits that, "in spite of this, LSE's output appears to show signs of independence."
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Perhaps of more concern are the efforts to fund research to support the policies of a foreign power. Illustrating this aspect of the UAE lobby in operation, the report's authors cite the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), a King's College London research centre linked to Israel's Inter Disciplinary Centre at Herzliya. According to the report, one of the prominent academics in the centre was approached to carry out research linking Qatar to terrorism for a fee of $25,000 a month.
Such an agreement, say the authors, is "controversial because it means that an agenda driven foreign power was trying to smear an enemy by looking to collaborate with an academic of King's College London, one of the UK's most respected universities." Spinwatch lists a number of articles and reports by the Kings College centre which they feel have been compromised by this arrangement.
In addition to co-opting the services of a reputable British university, the report claims that bogus organisations have also been set up in Britain specifically to discredit Qatar, especially since the start of the blockade imposed on the UAE's neighbour by the governments in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Manama and Cairo last year. These are another arm of the lobby and are called GONGOS ("government organised non-governmental organisations", or fake NGOs), established to further the political interests of those who fund them. In June, Dubai came under criticism for setting up a fake foundation at the University of Oxford.
British universities have been urged to review their ties with the UAE despite Abu Dhabi's decision to pardon and release Hedges, who is now back in the UK. Senior academics are calling on the universities to seek stronger assurances about human rights and the treatment of academics in the Emirates. David Wearing, author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, was reported by the Guardian as saying that it would now be difficult for universities in Britain to reconcile their corporate and academic interests in the UAE. "If completely legitimate academic activity can't be conducted in the UAE then why are universities there other than for money?" he asked.
According to Nicholas McGeehan, a human rights researcher looking at the Gulf States, "The western universities who have gobbled up UAE money should be thinking seriously about the wisdom of having any sort of ties to a government that does this. If not swiftly followed by a pardon, academics with links to universities that have taken UAE money – LSE, Oxford, to name but a few – need to exercise their collective power and stand up to these thugs."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.