THE BLOG

Guardians of the Free Word?

03/20/2015 05:19 am ET | Updated May 20, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

What happens when a world-class institution dedicated to the free exchange of ideas meets up with a government that doesn't share those values?

The latest episode of this drama played out Saturday evening at Terminal 4 of JFK airport when ground crew from Etihad, the United Arab Emirates' national airline, refused to allow Professor Andrew Ross of New York University to board a flight to Abu Dhabi. Professor Ross was on his way to research labor conditions at NYU's controversial Abu Dhabi campus, but when Etihad staff called the Emirati authorities, they were told Ross was "a security risk."

Until now, the criticism of NYU's involvement with the Emirates has focused on the serious mistreatment of the migrant workers who have built the campus, but this latest incident raises serious questions about the ability of faculty at NYU Abu Dhabi to encourage the critical thinking and free speech that are the cornerstones of any reputable academic institution.

The controversy over NYU's Abu Dhabi campus began in 2009 when Human Rights Watch reported that construction workers on Saadiyat Island, which will also host branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, were being subjected to serious abuses, including forced labor. It was clear that the culture of impunity that besets the UAE's construction industry had infected the Saadiyat Island project, with predictable consequences for the south Asian migrants working for the subcontractors at the bottom of the labor supply chain. These workers pay exorbitant recruitment fees, their bosses confiscate their passports to keep them from changing jobs, and the law prevents them from changing employers. The workers toil long hours for low or even unpaid wages, and can face arrest and deportation when they withdraw their labor in protest.

After the 2009 report, the quasi-governmental developers behind the project created codes of conduct designed to ensure workers' basic rights. However, in December 2013, the UK Observer found Saadiyat Island workers "living in squalor and being paid a pittance," while in May 2014 the New York Times reported that workers for one of the large contractors on the NYU site has been summarily deported after going on strike over low pay.

These reports ignited controversy on NYU's Greenwich Village campus. University President John Sexton called the workers' treatment, "if true as reported, troubling and unacceptable." In July, NYU's governmental partners in the UAE hired a US-based investigator, Nardello and Co., to examine the New York Times' allegations. Nardello's report has not yet been made public.

In February Human Rights Watch released a new report that substantiated the Times allegations and showed that despite some advances and many promises, some workers on the Saadiyat Island projects are still being subjected to abuses that contribute to forced labor. The report concluded that the codes of conduct designed to protect workers have not been effectively enforced.

And NYU now faces a fresh conundrum because Andrew Ross is not the first person against whom the Emirati authorities have taken retributive action for either speaking out or reporting critically on labor abuses on Saadiyat Island.

A few months after The Observer's report, a UAE government-linked website 24.ae released a video rejecting the claims and implying that the journalist who wrote the piece, David Batty, had links to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization the UAE recently classified as a terrorist group. Sean O'Driscoll, a UAE-based journalist who was co-author of the New York Times' article, was placed under police surveillance, questioned by the Interior Ministry and then deported in October 2014.

The day after I completed the first round of research for HRW's February report, as I was leaving Dubai, UAE authorities at the airport told me that I am now on an official blacklist and no longer welcome in the country. Although the authorities did not give any reason for their decision, we suspect that it stems from our criticism of the UAE government's aggressive crackdown on domestic dissent.

These are not isolated incidents. In recent years the UAE has locked up Islamists and liberals alike, deported bloggers, stripped critics of their UAE nationality, and denied entry to academics and nongovernmental groups that have criticized the authorities.

NYU might in the past have been able to claim that the UAE's crackdown on freedom of expression was of no concern to them but the denial of entry to one of their own professors and his classification as a security risk skewers that argument.

As Ross put it to me: "My administration has said it can guarantee full academic freedom to all faculty and students moving in and out of Abu Dhabi. What kind of signal does this send to less secure faculty employed at NYU Abu Dhabi? And will the same fate one day befall artists invited to participate in exhibitions and events at the Guggenheim or Louvre in Abu Dhabi?"