The United Arab Emirates has never been a bastion of civil liberties, women's rights, or freedom of expression, but it has also never been subjected to much criticism from academic moralists. When it was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan, it attracted little attention from academia's professional protesters
Times have changed. Upon signing the Abraham Accords, the UAE found itself in academe's crosshairs. Now that it recognizes Israel's right to exist, supporters of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign have suddenly declared the UAE beyond the pale.
Last summer, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES), an enthusiastic BDS supporter, and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) collaborated to end a deal between the University of Cambridge and the UAE to create a UAE-Cambridge Innovation Institute in the Emirates. Suddenly these two organizations are concerned over "the poor record of the UAE in the field of academic freedom, and indeed, of human rights and freedom of expression more generally."
Call it the first volley in the BDS expansion beyond Israel.
Unlike many other Arab nations where Sharia is observed and all problems are blamed on Israel (or worse, "the Jews"), the UAE became an investment magnet in the 21st century, importing Western ideas and Westerners, and distinguishing itself as one of the more moderate nations in the region.
Dozens of American and British universities flocked to in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah to build satellite campuses. Even though there were restrictions that few would find acceptable on American campuses, students could take advantage of the relatively safe and open environments, and the UAE was a generous host.
I don't recall any academic uproar when the UAE was in the news for arresting bikini clad women and homosexuals.
What about its former soft-on-terrorism policies? Hamas operatives traveled freely to the UAE not too long ago. In 2010, when one named Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed in Dubai, academics were more likely to complain that he was killed rather than that the UAE was offering safe haven to Hamas terrorists.
I also can't recall any whiff of an academic boycott movement resulting from antisemitism in the Arab nation. After the hit on al-Mabhouh, embarrassed Emirati officials made efforts to control perception by demonstrating that they were in control of the nation's security. Dubai's police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, announced that they "will not allow those who hold Israeli passports into the UAE no matter what other passport they have," a reference to the Mossad agents who used British, Irish, and other European passports to gain entry into the country. Hinting that he knew what Jews look like, Tamim claimed his forces would "develop skills [to identify] physical features and the way they speak."
Academics have ignored behavior in the UAE they would never tolerate on their own campuses. As long as they were recipients of Emirati largesse, there was little complaining.
But when the UAE cooled on Palestinian Arab rejectionism and warmed to the Israeli perspective in the decades-long dispute, it was too much to ignore.
That's what happened to Saudi Arabia, once the darling Sugar Daddy of the Left. The Saudi royal family has endowed more chairs, spawned more Middle East studies centers, and funded more anti-Israel academics than any other entity on the planet.
Then Mohamad bin Salman came into power. Unlike his father and every other dictator who led the country since its founding, he became persona non grata to the Left, primarily because of the dramatic turn he took the Desert Kingdom against Iran and towards Israel. With Alwaleed bin-Talal in jail and his billions confiscated, it became financially safe to criticize Saudi Arabia like never before.
The closest the UAE has ever come to incurring the wrath of academia was when it expelled or denied entry to academics. MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom has sent letters opposing the firing of an academic who brought up the Muhammad cartoon controversy at Zayed University, arrests of academics who criticized the government or communicated with banned political groups, and the prevention of others from entering the UAE.
Watch your back Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Sudan, et al. – the BDS-ers are coming for you.
But these concerns never provoked a BDS-type response, except at NYU where the faculty of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute voted to sever ties with NYU's Abu Dhabi campus after two professors who are critics of the UAE were denied entry into the country. MESA's turn against the UAE comes with its sudden embrace of the BDS movement, which comes before a vote of the full MESA membership in a matter of days.
As more Arab and Muslim nations sign deals with Israel, each will surely come under new scrutiny by academics who barely pretend to tolerate Israel's existence. Watch your back Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Sudan, et al. – the BDS-ers are coming for you.