With a freshly minted Ph.D. in public communication from Georgia State University in hand, I and my family journeyed to the Middle East two years ago for an international adventure.
I had accepted an assistant-professor position at Zayed University, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, teaching journalism courses to female students at their national institution. The country is ruled by monarchs but is known for a relatively progressive veneer led by its glitzy global hub, Dubai. I realized that teaching journalism in an authoritarian country would be challenging but was swayed by the country's outward signs of progressiveness and a commitment to international-education standards. My wife, who holds a Ph.D. in education policy, took a job with the Abu Dhabi Education Council.
Unfortunately, I recently discovered the limits to academic freedom and discourse in the United Arab Emirates.
Over the summer my wife and I both received abrupt notices that our contracts had been terminated and our residency visas would be canceled. Our government employers told us that the orders came from "outside the organization" and with no further explanation. Without a residency visa or a job, I and my family were forced to leave the country.
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 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 an accurate appraisal of the U.A.E.'s media regulation and how it differs from other approaches. I also helped organize events that allowed for public discussion and debate of Emirati issues in a culture that generally doesn't embrace public dialogue. I blogged and Tweeted about sensitive subjects—particularly how local press coverage differs from international counterparts. I launched a student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, a prestigious American journalism organization. And those students organized a celebration of the United Nations' World Press Freedom Day in May.
I understood the risks in taking those actions and have no regrets.
But I should stress that I didn't move to the U.A.E. 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. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the minister of higher education and scientific research, told faculty members at a recent convocation that he wanted the university to "engage with the community." I followed the example of a handful of other local university professors who offered constructive observations from an academic perspective.
It appears that the directives to fire my wife and me originated from the nation's security forces. (I've posted our termination notices as well as my last exemplary performance review on my blog.)
I should note that, at around the same time I was dismissed, one of my faculty colleagues at the university had his contract terminated for similarly opaque reasons.
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 Nahyan invited the attendees to his majlis, a social, intellectual gathering, and spoke favorably of the event and the need for academics to bring up those issues for discussion. His comments were carried by the state news agency. The terminations seriously undermine efforts to bring world-class education to Emirati citizens.
Unfortunately, it seems Sheikh Nahyan wasn't able to counterbalance the demands of the security forces, worried about the democracy uprisings occurring throughout the region. The Arab Spring has pushed this country away from its progressive trajectory toward a far more autocratic approach. The government recently jailed about 50 citizens, mostly over their comments on social-networking sites such as Twitter. The U.A.E. also recently booted out several organizations that encouraged community engagement.
Indeed, the U.A.E. that I moved to in 2010 appeared to be a progressive country in a region of the world that featured little progress. The country's leaders talked about their 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 an American group, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. The council 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."
Today's U.A.E. is quite different from the one I moved to. The security forces' apparent role in my dismissal stand in stark contrast to the country's publicly professed intentions regarding the development and education of its work force. 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 U.A.E. is more progressive than many of its neighbors. The country allows people of most religions to worship freely and is generally welcoming to outsiders. Still, we cannot paper over its steadfast opposition to even moderate forms of free expression and the ability to dissent.
For academics considering a jaunt of their own into an authoritarian country, my experience should give pause. Teaching in an environment such as the U.A.E. requires an ability to modify lessons for the culture of the institution. That may mean making tough choices: One of my colleagues told me that the Holocaust isn't broached in lessons on World War II because of fears of a backlash from a broadly anti-Semitic culture. Other topics for classroom discussion—such as different forms of government or laws regarding free expression—may produce similar trepidation.
Still, I'm sure that many of my colleagues at Zayed University are making a difference and expanding the minds of their students despite any self-imposed restrictions. In the end, a utilitarian decision regarding the "greater good" must help formulate decisions related to teaching in these environments.
However, if instruction is self-censored too much, then we must question whether we're really leading to any greater good.
Also, if the country's leaders are more concerned with "security" than they are with education, then perhaps no efforts will be truly satisfactory.