The Mercenary University

NYU's Abu Dhabi campus puts a liberal gloss on labor abuse and political repression in the UAE.

At three o’clock in the morning on April 8, 2011, Emirati blogger and activist Ahmed Mansoor was awoken by three police officers at his front door. The men said they wanted to question him about his car and asked Mansoor to come with them.

Mansoor refused — and for good reason. A vocal proponent of an elected parliament, he had repeatedly called for more transparent governance and the curbing of censorship in the United Arab Emirates.

He was afraid he was going to be kidnapped, or that the men would use the opportunity to plant incriminating evidence. Eventually, the police left.

But Mansoor’s reprieve was only temporary. That afternoon, security forces stormed his home. Without producing a warrant, providing a reason for the arrest, or telling his wife where he was being taken, the men bundled Mansoor into a vehicle, searched the apartment, and confiscated his laptops, books, and papers.

A terse article in the local newspaper announced that he had been arrested “in connection with a criminal case.” Mansoor and four other activists were ultimately accused of threatening state security and convicted of “publicly insulting” Emirati officials, a criminal offense under the Emirati penal code.

Three weeks later, during a faculty senate meeting, then–New York University (NYU) president John Sexton was confronted about the arrests. The university had been building a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi that had become the heart of Sexton’s legacy.

But the arrests — which also scooped up an economist who taught at the Emirati branch of the Sorbonne — provided even more grist for critics of the campus.

Faced with allegations of quashing free speech rights, Sexton snapped. He berated his audience for jumping to conclusions about the innocence of the activists. Like any other state, Sexton said, the UAE had “genuine security concerns,” and “a right to defend itself against security threats.”

He concluded by saying that NYU needed to be less “ethnocentric” when approaching other cultures — as if raising concerns about the suppression of free speech represented an act of cultural imperialism.

While the idea of an American university president defending the imprisonment of pro-democracy activists may be jarring, such apologetics are quite common among US elites.

The White House gives the regime glowing reviews, and a recent Washington Post piece described the Emirates as “a Muslim country that is increasingly open, tolerant, prosperous and adapting to the modern world.”

Yousef Al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the United States, is one of a few foreign officials regularly invited to high-level American policy meetings, while his love of sports and prominence in the DC social circuit have earned him the affectionate nickname “Brotaiba.”

The US connection to Emirati authoritarianism is longstanding. Building on the legacy of British imperialism in the Persian Gulf, US support for UAE repression manifests itself in the form of technology companies assisting government surveillance of dissidents and arms manufacturers selling American weapons to a state perfectly willing to torture and forcibly disappear its own citizens.

In one particularly colorful example, the UAE hired Blackwater founder Erik Prince to train a private army of Colombian mercenaries that has since been deployed in a bloody war in Yemen — itself being waged with US logistical support.

The Abu Dhabi campus added NYU to an already impressive Emirati payroll. When Sexton announced the satellite campus in 2007, he declared, “We and our counterparts in Abu Dhabi saw something in one another.” For NYU, that something was money.

The Abu Dhabi government not only bankrolls the entire Abu Dhabi campus — it has also become one of the university’s largest donors. In fact, the sealing of the deal came with a $50 million “gift,” with the understanding that, “The investment will be many times greater than the first $50 million.” For a university with ambitious expansion plans and a small endowment, the partnership has been a godsend.

Less understood, but perhaps more interesting, is what Abu Dhabi gets out of the deal. As the university has grown increasingly dependent on the Emirati regime, the ruling Al Nahyan family has used the university to advance its own agenda.

The Emirati state justifies its repressive rule with a slick marketing campaign that frames the monarchy as an enlightened cadre of modernizing technocrats and mutes calls for more transparent and participatory governance.

The purple torch of NYU is a crown jewel in this endeavor. Positioned on Saadiyat Island, the centerpiece project of a new state development plan, the NYU name lends a veneer of respectability to a real-estate venture marred by nepotism and labor abuse.

And the university administration — at this point effectively an arm of the Emirati public relations machine — actively defends the government’s actions.

The Island University

Most coverage, whether supportive or critical, has assumed that NYU Abu Dhabi is an American institution dedicated to boosting the quality of higher education in Abu Dhabi. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite the purple logo, NYUAD is effectively a state institution, incorporated into the bureaucracy of Abu Dhabi Emirate. The university is a shared partnership between NYU and Tamkeen, a government agency that reports up the chain of command via the Executive Affairs Authority (EAA) to the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

NYU has reinforced this partnership by carefully grafting Abu Dhabi money onto its New York bureaucracy. Administrators distribute Emirati funds directly to academic departments, rendering them reliant on the Emirati golden egg.

Those faculty members willing to overlook the unsavory collaboration are handsomely rewarded: NYU professors who teach just half a semester in Abu Dhabi earn a full paycheck, receive subsidized housing, and can even take the rest of the semester off, gaining valuable time to pursue their own research.

Not all professors are welcome, however. As NYU itself has admitted, the Emirati government reserves the right to deny visas to academics it doesn’t like, a veto it has already used against an NYU professor who criticized labor practices on the Abu Dhabi campus.

NYUAD and its supporters dismiss detractors’ misgivings. They say they are bringing the liberal arts to the Middle East. Sexton asserts that “the future of NYU’s liberal arts tradition will not and should not be confined to Washington Square,” and the NYUAD website maintains that NYU and the government of Abu Dhabi share “a common belief in the value of a liberal arts education.”

Yet these statements are quite remarkable considering the words “liberal” and “art” don’t appear even once in the Abu Dhabi Education Council’s thirty-three page policy statement, nor in any other major document outlining Emirati education policy.

The Abu Dhabi government is almost exclusively concerned with preparing its citizens for the job market. Even NYUAD appears to be turning away from the liberal arts.

In a recent interview, an NYUAD spokesman said the university plans to establish law, business, and engineering graduate schools in order to make the school financially sustainable.

But whether the emphasis is on humanities or not, few Emiratis will directly benefit.

Unlike NYU Shanghai, where Chinese students must comprise a majority of the student body, only a small fraction of NYUAD students are Emirati. It has no local institutional affiliate and is not incorporated into the Emirati education system.

Indeed, while NYUAD swims in cash — the campus facilities alone are estimated to have cost $1 billion — the Abu Dhabi Education Council itself admits that Emirati universities struggle with a chronic shortage of funding.

NYUAD’s isolation from the average Emirati is physical as well. NYUAD is an island—literally. It is located on Saadiyat Island, a once-barren patch of sand off the coast of Abu Dhabi that is now being transformed into one of the most ambitious luxury housing developments in the world.

For ordinary residents of the Emirates, NYUAD may as well be in another world.

So if liberal arts are not a priority, and UAE universities are in dire need of cash, why did the Abu Dhabi government pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a tiny, disconnected institution?

The answer is simple: what little NYUAD has done for Emirati higher education it has compensated by advancing two of the Al Nahyan’s top priorities: public relations and self-enrichment.

A Self-Interested Vision

Just over a decade ago, Abu Dhabi embarked on a spate of long-term planning that culminated in “The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030,” a policy document that outlines a strategy to diversify the Emirate’s oil-based economy.

Economic diversification had become perhaps the most visible political issue in the country, and one of the most pressing concerns of a state that employs the overwhelming majority of its citizens in an unsustainably bloated public sector.

To this end, in 2005 the Abu Dhabi government allowed non-citizens to purchase ninety-nine year leases in “Investment Areas” scattered across Abu Dhabi — effectively opening the property market to non-citizens for the first time.

The plan appears to be inspired by the “if you build it, they will come” strategy of Dubai, Abu Dhabi’s flashy neighbor.

Behind the narrative of economic diversification, however, lies naked self-interest. With its focus on high-profile prestige projects, the Vision seems to be another example of a Gulf state using development to redistribute oil wealth to well-connected elites.

Ruling families usually own most open land and control the oil wealth used for major projects, so urban development represents an opportunity to forge alliances, distribute patronage, build the family brand, and skim a little off the top. The larger the project, the greater the opportunity.

In Abu Dhabi, no real-estate development is larger than Saadiyat Island, the flagship project of the development boom. Rather than confront Abu Dhabi’s shortage of low-income housing, elites have designed an investment opportunity for the super-rich.

NYUAD students study on an island where, as one press report tells it, the “less wealthy” can purchase “reasonably priced” villas for around 8.1 million dirhams, or about $2.2 million.

NYUAD is just one of an array of prestige projects on the island. In addition to multi-star hotels and a pro golf course, Saadiyat will host outposts of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and the Zayed National Museum, which will tellingly “also serve as a memorial to Sheikh Zayed,” the father of the current ruler of Abu Dhabi.

In selecting Saadiyat Island as the centerpiece of its economic diversification plan, the state immediately turned an empty stretch of sand into some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

Like most other investment areas, the project was then handed to a state agency, the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), to oversee operations, and lucrative construction contracts were given to construction firms run by either the state or its allies.

In the case of NYUAD, the contract was awarded to Mubadala, a quasi-state firm directed by NYU trustee Khaldoon Al Mubarak. Even before they were built, the villas were acquired by well-connected real-estate firms and then rented or sold to tenants.

In fact, Mubadala itself purchased the entire first round of apartments, in partnership with American property investor Pramerica. Eventually, these villas could be taxed, channeling a reliable stream of revenue to the state.

Perhaps no one better personifies the insider opportunities of public-private partnerships — and the bond between NYU and Abu Dhabi — better than Khaldoon Al Mubarak.

In addition to serving as the director of Mubadala and as a member of the NYU Board of Trustees, he is the chairman of the aforementioned Executive Affairs Authority.

Al Mubarak is therefore the chief executive of the organization that both launched the Saadiyat project and negotiated the partnership between NYU and Abu Dhabi (EAA). A subsidiary of the EAA (TDIC) awarded the campus construction contract to a company that he runs himself (Mubadala).

Another subsidiary (Tamkeen) then hired the labor monitors to oversee conditions on a project managed by his construction company (Mubadala), which reported back to a board on which he sits (NYU) via its official intermediary (him). His company (Mubadala) then bought the first round of properties it had built, turned around, and sold them again.

The Saadiyat Island development thus functions as an enormous project of capital recycling, transforming state oil revenues into fixed investments for the royal family and its allies.

While siphoning off this much money straight from government coffers would be embarrassing, the byzantine subcontracting systems and no-bid contracts of “economic development” are just as effective.

NYU is inextricably implicated in this strategy. In fact, one major Abu Dhabi conglomerate is advertising a new housing complex by highlighting its location next to NYUAD. The joke in Greenwich Village — that NYU is a real-estate company that hands out diplomas — is dead serious in Abu Dhabi.

The Partners

Financial dependence bought the Emirati ruling family a vocal and prominent ally. From his first handshake with the crown prince, John Sexton has gone out of his way to defend his “excellent partners in the leadership of Abu Dhabi.”

He has sought to link his own grand plans to those of the government, and praised the crown prince as an enlightened benefactor of the liberal arts who understands the importance of higher education. He even went so far as to hang a portrait of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, on the wall of his New York office.

NYU has marshaled its own impressive connections to defend the Emirati state. High-level American policy-makers have regularly visited the campus, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

The initial agreement between NYU and Abu Dhabi was negotiated by Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s personal lawyer and former chief of staff. And when reports of labor abuse on Saadiyat Island threatened to embarrass the Abu Dhabi government, NYU recruited Bill Clinton to come to its defense.

Giving NYUAD’s first commencement address, the former president claimed that despite poor labor conditions, “NYU sought to change all that here, by coming up with a code of conduct strongly supported by its Abu Dhabi partners and by the government of the UAE.” Clinton didn’t mention that this public labor code was never legally enforced.

On its end, the Emirati government has incorporated NYUAD into its public relations campaign. One front-page ad in Politico, featuring smiling NYUAD students, read:  “New York University Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates share a common belief in the value of a liberal arts education and the important benefits that a research university has for its community.”

NYU has shown itself unwilling to move beyond similar PR gloss and answer serious questions about the effects of its Abu Dhabi excursion. Rather than confronting its troubling position in Emirati politics, the university has denied any role whatsoever. When asked how NYU will deal with heavy censorship in the UAE, the university absolves itself with a simple distinction: political and academic speech, the university maintains, are two different things.

This argument demeans academic work by suggesting that it has no real-world impact. Without publishing and public engagement, the academy becomes nothing more than an ivory tower.

And the distinction NYU tries to draw is equally flawed. An academic article about migrant labor in the Persian Gulf, for example, would certainly be deemed a political threat by the Emirati state, which has denied visas to scholars whose work touches on sensitive topics.

This silencing is reinforced through staffing choices: NYUAD doesn’t have a single permanent faculty member who specializes in the contemporary Persian Gulf. In effect, the university is pursuing a strategy of self-censorship through disengagement.

The forces that created the NYU-Abu Dhabi alliance have spawned a series of similar prestige projects, from Education City and the World Cup in Qatar to the Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. In the United States, they have been met with a wave of protests and critical press, which have largely focused on the complicity of Euro-American institutions in rampant labor abuses. In the Gulf itself, workers have organized a series of strikes at enormous personal risk.

As construction on many of these projects comes to a close, however, further action must highlight how local elites and transnational institutions act in concert to produce authoritarianism and labor abuse. They are global, not national phenomena, involving connections so intricate that it’s difficult to tell where the Emirati state ends and NYU begins.

This interdependence could be their Achilles heel. At the moment, however, the purple torch of NYU has become another feather in the cap of the government’s branding campaign. The university took the easy money, and the state got what it paid for.