NYU Abu Dhabi Faculty: ‘Our Partners Are Trying to Do Their Best’

To the Editor:

We write as a group of New York University Abu Dhabi faculty and staff who are concerned about the labor situation in the United Arab Emirates and believe that NYUAD has striven to ensure good working conditions for its workers. We believe that our primary purpose in being here in Abu Dhabi is to create a dynamic and rigorous academic institution with the goal of educating a generation of gifted young people from the UAE and the entire world. To fulfill this goal coherently and ethically, we as a community need to keep pushing for better compliance with the high aspirations articulated in NYUAD’s labor values.

Because recent articles and the commentary they have provoked have questioned the legitimacy of NYUAD as a nascent institution, we should address why we have decided to be part of the NYUAD community, and whether we enjoy academic freedom here to teach classes and organize public events. We wish to be clear that none of us has experienced any restriction on what we teach, and, most relevant here, many of us discuss the complexities of labor in the Gulf, among other social issues, in our classrooms. In addition, NYUAD has hosted a variety of public events on labor, including a conference on urbanization in the Gulf, public talks by Neha Vora and Ahmed Kanna on aspects of labor and urbanization here in the UAE, as well as a public forum held by faculty and students on an installation of photographs on migrant labor in Qatar curated by Andrew Gardner and Kristin Giordano. Beyond these public events, our students have engaged with the subject of labor in multiple ways, from volunteering in labor camps and safe houses for domestic workers in and around Abu Dhabi to making it the topic of their senior work. Their work and passion in this realm have been inspirational for us.

The question of academic freedom brings up the broader question of what the faculty at NYUAD believe they are trying to accomplish by teaching at a liberal-arts college in the UAE. Many of us are here because of the promise of teaching an international, talented group of young people in a unique environment, where the student body is composed of over 100 nationalities and over 50 percent of the students are non-native speakers of English (10-15 percent of them are Emirati). Many of these students receive substantial financial aid, which, like all of our funding, comes from the government of Abu Dhabi. As we watched our first class graduate this weekend after having completed impressive capstone projects, and as we take stock of our first four years, we feel that we have both succeeded in this endeavor and have learned about how much we can improve as an institution.

Turning to labor: As faculty and staff we have no direct role in compliance management. We have, however, read the compliance reports published by Mott McDonald, and have tried to understand the structures that determine labor conditions in the UAE.

Labor conditions for construction workers are at best, challenging, if not downright bad in the Gulf. This is as much a function of the particular system of kafala (sponsorship) used in the Gulf countries as it is the result of ways in which global labor migration takes place within the system of capitalism. Rapid modernization, the sheer scale of the construction of the past few decades, the demand for work in South Asia, and the profit-driven system of capitalism have led to a situation in which migrant workers who come to the Gulf face exploitative circumstances. These can be alleviated in full only through systemic changes in the Gulf states in terms of enforcement of (largely existing) legislation, as well as through profound changes in the ways that workers are recruited in their home countries. This was the context into which NYU stepped when it committed to creating NYUAD.

To understand the scope of the challenge of reforming this system, it’s worth considering the phenomenon of labor migration globally and how other countries, notably including the United States, have also struggled with managing massive labor flows of migrants. The UAE is trying to establish itself as a member of the same global modernized and industrialized elite as the U.S. and Europe. As in other nations that are trying the same, their efforts have come at the price of at times very poor labor conditions, conditions that in one way or another are very similar to those that characterize the current global late-capitalist system, in which, for example, the U.S. and many of its institutions often depend on labor carried out under terrible conditions across the world and within its own borders.

In this context NYUAD has tried to bring better labor practices in setting up its campus in the UAE. As the institution’s repeated statements have made clear (and as outside observers have acknowledged), it has been successful in some areas, especially with the roughly 300 workers who work on our current campus who are monitored by our own compliance officers. The issue of the construction workers has been more complicated, falling outside of NYUAD’s direct purview: it is managed by Mubadala, who contracted al-Futtaim Carillon to oversee the construction of the Sa’adiyat campus, and was monitored by their compliance staff and externally by Mott McDonald. Overall, our impression—from reading the reports by Mott McDonald and speaking with our compliance people and other administrators about their experiences with the project—leads us to believe that our partners are trying to do their best within the current framework. Although construction on our campus is now near complete, recent reports in the media strongly suggest that these compliance mechanisms must now be thoroughly revisited by NYUAD and its partners due to a number of alleged abuses. We know that this review is now taking place, understand that it will take some time to complete, and are quite aware that the institution’s reputation rests upon it responding decisively to address any failings that emerge from this review.

In addition to this review, NYUAD faculty have had a long-standing conversation about the issue of labor and migration, most recently a town hall held this past February, which brought together faculty, students, staff, and administrators in the first meeting of its kind at NYUAD to address the intricacies of labor in the UAE. Furthermore, in response to the recent press coverage, individual faculty as well as the elected faculty governance representatives have translated these debates into more concrete measures on how to improve communications on compliance issues, integrate the subject of labor more extensively into the curriculum, and establish a standing faculty committee on labor issues. These proposals will be the subject of review during formal faculty town hall as well as council meetings at the beginning of next fall. We are also heartened that NYUAD has begun the process of hiring someone to work specifically with the domestic staff working within our community, an important facet of labor in the UAE that has not attracted as much attention as the construction workers.

We believe that NYUAD has had a positive influence here in Abu Dhabi, both academically and more broadly. However, to appreciate that change, and this is certainly the case with labor conditions, it has to be seen in the light of the massive challenges that a start-up university faces. To the extent that external criticism can work to improve such conditions, we welcome it and hope that it helps structure a response from NYUAD and its partners here. To the extent that such criticism ignores the progress that NYUAD has made in its first four years here, it represents at best only part of the picture.

Justin Stearns
Associate Professor of Arab Crossroad Studies
Head of Arab Crossroads Studies Program
New York University Abu Dhabi

Marzia Balzani
Research Professor of Anthropology
New York University Abu Dhabi

Sue de Beer
Associate Professor of Visual Arts
New York University
Affiliate Faculty
New York University Abu Dhabi

Steve Caton
Visiting Professor of Anthropology
New York University Abu Dhabi

Aysan Celik
Assistant Professor of Theater
New York University Abu Dhabi

Una Chaudhuri
Professor of English, Drama, Environmental Studies
New York University
Affiliate Faculty
New York University Abu Dhabi

Kevin Coffey
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
New York University Abu Dhabi

Scandar Copti
Visiting Professor of Film and New Media
Head of Film Program
New York University Abu Dhabi

Catherine Coray
Associate Arts Professor
New York University
Affiliated Theater Faculty
New York University Abu Dhabi

Virginia Danielson
Director of the Library
New York University Abu Dhabi

Walter Feldman
Visiting Professor of Music
New York University Abu Dhabi

Carlos Guedes
Associate Professor of Music
Head of Music Program
New York University Abu Dhabi

Christian Haefke
Professor of Economics
New York University Abu Dhabi

Wail Hassan
Visiting Associate Professor of Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Stephanie Hilger
Visiting Associate Professor of Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Paulo Lemos Horta
Assistant Professor of Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Seung-hoon Jeong
Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies
New York University Abu Dhabi

Sohail Karmani
TESOL Specialist
Senior Lecturer, Writing Program
New York University Abu Dhabi

Philip Kennedy
Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Comparative Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Masha Kirasirova
Faculty Fellow
New York University Abu Dhabi

Richard Lennon
Technical Instructor of the Arts & Media
New York University Abu Dhabi

Wolfgang Neuber
Visiting Professor of Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Mo Ogrodnik
Associate Professor of Film and New Media
New York University Abu Dhabi
Associate Professor
Kanbar Institute of Film & Television
New York University

Cyrus R. K. Patell
Associate Professor
Department of English
New York University
Visiting Associate Professor of Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Nathalie Peutz
Assistant Professor of Arab Crossroads Studies
New York University Abu Dhabi

Maurice Pomerantz
Assistant Professor of Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Goffredo Puccetti
Visiting Assistant Professor of Visual Arts
New York University Abu Dhabi

Romain Ranciere
Visiting Professor of Economics
New York University Abu Dhabi

Anna Reidy
Doctoral Candidate
New York University
Humanities Research Fellow
New York University Abu Dhabi

Jennifer Roth
Senior Lecturer and Capstone Advisor
New York University Abu Dhabi

Beth Russell
Head, Center for Digital Scholarship
New York University Abu Dhabi

Jim Savio
Visiting Writing Instructor
New York University Abu Dhabi

Joanne Savio
Arts Professor of Film and New Media
New York University Abu Dhabi

Richard Schechner
University Professor and Professor of Performance Studies
New York University
Affiliated Faculty
New York University Abu Dhabi

Donald Scott
Visiting Professor of Comparative History
New York University Abu Dhabi

Qiuxia Shao
Senior Lecturer
Chinese Language
New York University
Affiliated Faculty
New York University Abu Dhabi

Omar Shoukri
Technical Instructor & Advisor of the Arts and Music
New York University Abu Dhabi

Matthew Silverstein
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Head of Philosophy Program
New York University Abu Dhabi

Sandra Sissel
Associate Arts Professor
New York University
Affiliated Faculty
New York University Abu Dhabi

Werner Sollers
Global Professor of Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Heidi Stalla
Director of the Writing Program
New York University Abu Dhabi

Robert Stam
University Professor and Professor of Cinema Studies
New York University
Affiliated Faculty
New York University Abu Dhabi

Andrew Starner
Lecturer – Writing Program
New York University Abu Dhabi

Catharine R. Stimpson
University Professor
New York University
Affiliated Faculty
New York University Abu Dhabi

John Torreano
Clinical Professor of Studio Art
New York University
Affiliated Faculty
New York University Abu Dhabi

Bryan Waterman
Associate Professor of English
New York University
Visiting Associate Professor of Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Deborah Williams
Affiliated Faculty Literature
New York University Abu Dhabi

Dean Williamson
Director of Faculty Business Services
New York University Abu Dhabi

Marion Wrenn
Associate Director for the Writing Center
New York University Abu Dhabi

Shamoon Zamir
Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities
Associate Professor of Literature and Visual StudiesNew York University Abu Dhabi

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