Over the summer my wife and I both received notices that our contracts had been terminated and our residency visas would be canceled. Our employers told us that the order came from “outside the organization” and with no further explanation. Without a residency visa or a job, my family and I have been forced to leave the United Arab Emirates.
So, I appear to have discovered the limit for the tolerance of academic discourse in the UAE.
Matt J. Duffy, former assistant professor of communication at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi
During my two-year tenure, my colleagues and others constantly warned me that such a fate could await me. Still, I felt I had a duty as an academic and professor at Zayed University to speak and teach with minimal reservation about my area of expertise—journalism, international media law and communication ethics.
I wrote columns in Dubai’s Gulf News about press freedom and other issues. I taught international media law in my classes, including accurate appraisal of the UAE’s media regulation and how it differed from other approaches. I also helped organize events that allowed for public discussion and debate of Emirati issues. I blogged and tweeted about sensitive subjects—particularly how local press coverage differed from international counterparts. I launched a student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, a prestigious U.S. journalism organization. And these students organized a celebration of the U.N.’s World Press Freedom Day in May. See the post below for a more exhaustive list of activities that may have led to my ouster.
I understood the risks in taking these actions and have no regrets.
But, I should stress that I didn’t move to the UAE hoping to garner attention and get booted out as a security threat. I observed the landscape, tried to decipher the “red lines” that I shouldn’t cross, and listened to the words of the country’s leaders who constantly stress the importance of education to the development of the nation. H.H. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told faculty at a recent convocation that he wanted the university to “engage with the community.” I followed the example of other local university professors who offered constructive observations from an academic perspective.
Tales of ex-pats who are mysteriously whisked away for various offenses are fairly plentiful in the United Arab Emirates. Some of them take on an apocryphal tone. I thought it might be helpful to document exactly how my departure was orchestrated.
H.H. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, minister of higher education
The Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) informed my wife, Dr. Ann Duffy, of the news of her immediate termination in mid-June. She was told that H.E. Dr. Mugheer Al Khaili was instructed to terminate Ann’s contract and revoke her visa. My wife had served as Division Manager for P-12 Policy, Planning and Performance Management with ADEC for more than a year and had received positive feedback on her performance. She holds a PhD in education policy and has 25 years of experience. She was also serving as chair of the school board for the American Community School, the school affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi.
I learned about my fate six weeks later via a phone call from Zayed University’s provost, Larry Wilson. He also said that the order came from outside the university system and that Shiekh Nahyan had tried to appeal the directive. This appeal explains the delay in notification between my wife’s termination and my own. After hearing of my wife’s termination, we assumed my notice would be arriving soon and were surprised after a few days that we hadn’t heard anything from Zayed University.
No other information accompanied our termination orders, other than that they originated from outside of the respective organizations. It appears certain that these directives to fire my wife and I originated from the security forces, although we have no more information than presented here.
I should note that at around the same time the university was also told to terminate the contract of one of my faculty colleagues. He had served with distinction in the College of Communication and Media Sciences for 14 years. No explanation accompanied his dismissal either.
I am heartened to learn that the university did not choose to fire me and have great admiration for Sheikh Nahyan. He appears serious about creating a university that strives to compete at a global level and understands the freedom required for academics to practice their profession without interference. Last year, we held a forum at Zayed University about the impact of censored media on the Arab world. Sheikh Nayhan invited the attendees to his majlis and spoke favorably of the event and the need for academics to bring these issues up for discussion. His comments were carried on the state news agency, WAM. These terminations seriously undermine the efforts to bring world-class education to Emirati citizens.
The unknown member of the security forces who suggested kicking me out of the country
Unfortunately, Sheikh Nahyan wasn’t able to counterbalance the demands of the security forces. In fact, since the advent of the Arab Spring in early 2011, the security forces in the UAE appear to be winning every argument. The government recently booted out several organizations that promoted community engagement and security forces arrested dozens of Emiratis over the summer.
That’s too bad.
The UAE that I moved to 2010 appeared to be a progressive country in a region of the world that featured little progression. The country’s leaders talked about the desire to build a knowledge economy and educate its residents according to international standards. I was particularly impressed that Sheikh Nahyan ordered the communication department I joined to attempt to earn accreditation from a U.S.-based journalism education accrediting body, ACEJMC. This organization insists that institutions offer “instruction in and understand the range of systems of freedom of expression around the world, including the right to dissent, to monitor and criticize power, and to assemble and petition for redress of grievances.”
I suspect that having two professors fired by the security forces will put a damper on my former department’s chances for accreditation.
The actions of the UAE’s security forces stand in stark contrast to the country’s publicly professed intentions regarding the development and education of its workforce. Quite simply, it’s impossible to teach creativity and innovation in an environment where both teachers and students are scared to express themselves.
To be fair, the UAE is more progressive than many of its neighbors. The country allows people of most religions to worship freely here and is generally welcoming to outsiders. Still, we cannot brush over its steadfast opposition to allow for even moderate forms of free expression and ability to offer dissent.
I suspect few Emiratis will speak publicly decrying my ouster and some will certainly cheer it. The security forces have created an atmosphere in which Emiratis understand the consequences of openly questioning the government’s actions. The public sector accounts for roughly 90 percent of jobs for Emiratis, meaning that anyone who crosses a “red line” can easily find they—or even a member of their family—are no longer able to receive security clearance for their high-paying government position. The government also employs more direct methods–like indefinitely detaining its citizens–to quell opposition voices.
These actions leave the sphere of public discussion in the UAE severely limited.
At some point, the intellectual leaders of the UAE must debate whether throwing people like me out of the country is making it stronger or slowing down progress. It can’t be both.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Click here to read my top 18 guesses at why I got booted from the UAE.
Click here to read a personal note.
And click here to see some supporting documents including my last job evaluation.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post referred incorrectly to Provost Larry Wilson’s job title.