Salvos Degrees of Danger

In the United Arab Emirates

Andrew Ross

Update, March 17, 2015: Several critics of human rights abuse among UAE’s migrant workforce have been barred from entry or deported. It’s a growing list, and I joined it when I was stopped from boarding a flight to Abu Dhabi on March 14. The airline representative told me that I could not enter the country “for security reasons.” At my insistence on speaking to the U.S. Embassy, he gave me a number to call in the UAE. It turned out to be the contact for a U.S. Marine base in Dubai–the officer who took the call was nonplussed, but understandably curious as to why I had reached him. The consulate in Abu Dhabi was not much more helpful. I was told that the Embassy had no say over who the UAE decides to admit or deny entry. (American diplomats have no influence in the UAE?)

As it happens, my university administration claims that it does have some influence in matters like this. An agreement was reached, for example, with its UAE partners that Israeli scholars would be able to enter the country if they had business at NYU Abu Dhabi. This exception was engineered to ward off criticism that UAE discriminates against Israeli nationals. (Of course, no cognate agreement was reached with the Israeli authorities when NYU opened an overseas program in Tel Aviv.) In addition, the president of NYU has insisted that he can guarantee full academic freedom to all faculty members and students moving in and out of Abu Dhabi, and that his Emirati partners have agreed to honor this commitment.

It was only a matter of time before this declaration was revealed to be a sham. Neither NYU, nor the Louvre, the Guggenheim, or any other cultural institution lured to the Emirates by piles of cash, can guarantee that speech or expression will be protected there.

In my case, the cold shoulder did not come as a great surprise. The last time I visited Abu Dhabi, I was followed, as I recounted in this Baffler article, below. In recent months, I learned that a private investigator had been calling academic acquaintances to gather information about me. And my activist work, with the Gulf Labor Coalition, had provoked strong reactions from the state agencies responsible for building Abu Dhabi’s “cultural zone” on Saadiyat Island.

More worrying is the kind of signal this sends to less secure faculty employed at NYU Abu Dhabi. How are they now to view the rights that were promised to them? And will the same fate one day befall artists invited to participate in exhibitions and events at the Guggenheim or Louvre in Abu Dhabi? 

Either the driver of the car behind us was incompetent, or else he wanted us to know we were being followed. It was 3 a.m. on the mostly deserted highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi—not a good time or place to be attracting the attention of Emirati authorities—and an unknown sedan was tailing our late-night movements. For the past several hours, we had been trying to shake him off, taking cues from movies we had seen, but the car just kept popping up in the rearview mirror. It would be another day till we could piece together the obvious-in-hindsight surveillance trick: our whereabouts were being tracked via a cellphone.

What lay behind all this cloak and dagger intrigue? I was traveling with fellow members of the Gulf Labor coalition, an international network of activists protesting labor practices at the Guggenheim’s latest building: a new museum on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s up-and-coming “cultural zone.” Saadiyat is under development, and at seventeen square miles and $27 billion, it’s a giant construction project—one staffed almost entirely by migrant workers. In March of this year, we had accepted an official invitation to tour the island’s showpiece migrant labor camp, or “accommodation village.” That visit yielded equivocal findings, at best, about the treatment of migrant workers recruited from South Asia to build the island’s luxury villas, five-star hotels, and top brand museums. But it afforded us a close-up view of the careful techniques used to promote the facility itself, which boasts ping-pong tables and a well-manicured cricket pitch and is built to house twenty thousand construction workers.

Since such amenities seem calculated to mollify foreign would-be critics of working conditions for migrants in the United Arab Emirates—how could anyone be exploited if they’re just a stroll away from the cricket green?—our team decided to go off-script. Over the course of several days, we’d been interviewing workers in much less shipshape accommodations, far from the gleaming boomtown towers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Unannounced visits to migrant labor camps are guaranteed to attract suspicion pretty much anywhere you go. But in the UAE, the authorities are particularly sensitive to unofficial inspections of this sort. The international press has scrutinized neighboring Qatar for labor conditions that in 2012 and 2013 led to the deaths of nearly a thousand migrant workers, many of them on construction sites for the 2022 World Cup facilities. Meanwhile, in the UAE, human rights groups have reported extensive exploitation of migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, who are sucked into the Gulf Dream by the promise of lucrative wages.

These guest workers arrive in the UAE bound to an employer by the kafala (sponsorship) system. By the time they report for their first day on the job, they are already heavily indebted from paying steep recruitment and transit fees that cumulatively run from $1,500 to $2,000. In most cases, the sponsoring employer confiscates their passports, assigns them to substandard housing, pays much less than they had been promised, and extracts long and punishing hours in extreme temperatures. A common joke among workers here is that the official temperature in the UAE never exceeds 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit)—even though it sometimes does—because no one is supposed to work when the mercury hits that threshold. And it’s not exactly easy for workers to pursue grievances against their sponsors—indeed, in some cases, the sponsor is simply a private citizen on the take, who never actually meets the worker.

The workers we interviewed estimated that paying off their recruitment debts takes two years on average, which also happens to be the duration of a standard work visa for migrant laborers. At that point, remittances flow more readily—provided, that is, the visas can be renewed. Far from being an incidental by-product of the recruitment system (from which rapacious middle men extract their cut), these debts are key to the entire labor regime. No one can get to the Gulf without incurring debts, and no one would work for such low wages and under such poor conditions unless they were under the gun to pay them off.

The primary utility of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is to help sell luxury real estate on Saadiyat Island, where a resource enclaveis being built for the 1 percent.

What distinguished our interviewees from the multitude of other migrant workers caught in this debt trap were the logos on two of the Saadiyat Island buildings they were helping to construct—New York University and the Louvre. Over the course of the last decade, Western high-culture institutions have been following in the path of corporations that went offshore twenty years before. The underlying motive—to beef up their balance sheet—is more or less the same, but the rationale for operating overseas has to be presented as more than a fiscal exercise. More often than not, it is couched in rhetoric about spreading the virtues of Western-style liberal arts, which, at times, can sound little different from the nineteenth-century credo of the mission civilisatrice. When quizzed about the appearance of being in bed with authoritarian rulers—the preferred destinations are China and the Persian Gulf states—administrators will insist that their presence will allow them to “lead by example.” And institutions with reputations as “leaders” do not expect to have their decisions challenged. Yale University administrators, for example, were surprised to field criticism from faculty members following Yale’s agreement to a joint venture with the National University of Singapore; the faculty cited Singapore’s “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights.”

But the rhetoric of the civilizing West also creates an opening to challenge the basic terms of debt peonage that underwrite workers’ contracts in the UAE. Prominent, PR-sensitive brands like NYU, the Guggenheim, and the Louvre, along with an allied project sponsored by the British Museum, have attracted the attention of watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch, Gulf Labor, and NYU’s faculty-student Coalition for Fair Labor, which are demanding improved treatment of the UAE’s migrant workforce, together with sweeping changes to the entire sponsorship system.

Fifteen years ago, anti-sweatshop activists used the same tactic of shaming global brands like Nike and the Gap to publicize labor abuses in the offshore factories of the apparel industry. Just as the garment brands tried to deflect responsibility further down the subcontracting chain, so too have these high-profile educational and cultural institutions. Across the board, their alibi boils down to a simple claim: We have little control over what the subcontractors do or pay. It took many years of campaigning and legal pressure to force the apparel brands to accept some liability for abuses that occur all the way down the chain. Unlike garment factories, however, which can be moved overnight to more obscure locations, the museums and the NYU campus are there to stay, offering long-term leverage to activists. And while apparel manufacturers have little internal accountability to their users, universities have obligations to their faculty and students, and museums are answerable to public ethics upheld by the more conscientious factions of the art world.

All Quiet in the Walled Garden

The Guggenheim and NYU have been in the forefront of the race to go offshore, and so they invite particular scrutiny. How could they operate in an authoritarian society like the UAE? As window-dressing, to showcase that free speech is tolerated, if only within the bubble around them? Or would they flourish as hothouses for independent student thought and action in the region? The histories of the American University of Beirut (founded 1866) and the American University in Cairo (founded 1919) are an instructive case study: planned by their missionary founders as vehicles for Western Christian ideology, they came, in time, to serve as crucibles of secular Arab nationalism.

For New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), it’s too early to say whether similar reversals may lie in store—though the decision to recruit its student body from an international pool, rather than from the region itself, came around the time of the Arab Spring, and most probably with the fear of local insurgency in mind. So far, at least, the evidence is that students and teachers are chafing at the perception of being inside a “walled garden”—enjoying speech freedoms that appear to end the moment they step off campus. For their part, administrators have advanced their own cherry-picked understanding of academic freedom in order to paper over the compromises that are obvious to everyone else. “NYU Abu Dhabi enjoys full academic freedom,” commented one NYUAD administrator. “It is also worth noting that academic freedom is different than freedom of expression. As an example, it should not be assumed that academic freedom would protect tweets or Facebook posts.”

As an internationally recognized human right, academic freedom pertains to faculty and students everywhere they go and in whatever medium they express themselves. It is not confined to speech about a narrow scholarly area of expertise, nor is it location- or media-specific. Moreover, academics, like all professionals, have an obligation to share their knowledge with the public, and so their capacity to speak publicly on a range of topics is not a form of overreach, but a kind of professional duty. In the Emirates, where the right to free speech is nonexistent and where any criticism of the royal family is illegal, this understanding of public commitment is less tenable. It is hardly surprising that NYU’s president, John Sexton, has found it more convenient to promote a restricted version of academic freedom when speaking of Abu Dhabi and of China, where NYU has built a second branch campus. “I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression,” he declared. “These are two different things.” But in reality, the distinction doesn’t fly for most academics, or reflect how they understand their speech protections. And it runs counter to the American Association of University Professors’ “gold standard” guidelines, which have proved crucial in monitoring the spread of meaningful dissent alongside the expansion of prestige educational institutions overseas.

The name-brand Western museums have yet to directly confront the contradictions involved in displaying the products of free aesthetic expression in unfree societies, though the stormy track record of censorship at the Sharjah Biennial, the UAE’s premier art event, is an indication that local elites are likely to insist on certain strictures governing what sorts of material can be exhibited, spoken, and performed. In the meantime, artists with precarious livelihoods—like underpaid academics—are prone to a more familiar form of censorship: the market lure of being bought off. After all, the money of Gulf elites has purchased everything else—including some of the most prized real estate in the world’s financial capitals.

Nonrelative Fairness

Speech and expression are easier to buy, and much cheaper, than chunks of Mayfair or Central Park South. Yet the persistence of those willing to resist has been exemplary. When the Gulf Labor Coalition launched its boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi three years ago, the first batch of signatures was drawn from prominent artists who came from the region. These were also, not coincidentally, the artists whose works were the most likely to be acquired as building blocks for the museum’s collection.

Artists and scholars are often negligent in connecting their own speech rights to those of others, especially people who happen not to traffic in the image or the word. But four years ago, the AAUP formulated a policy statement on the rights of academic employees at overseas branches of American universities. The statement (which I helped to draft) was issued jointly with the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and it committed both organizations, for the first time, to the support of offshore faculty. In another first, it addressed the rights of noninstructional staff—in particular, construction and maintenance workers. Faculty and students, the policy implied, should not be asked to teach or study in classrooms built on the backs of abused workers.

One of the goals of our policy committee was to prevent universities from lowering their employment standards as they rushed into partnerships with foreign governments. As we drew up our guidelines, we referred back to UNESCO’s “Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel,” adopted in November 1997 (during the period when the United States had withdrawn its UNESCO membership). We agreed that citing the terms and language of an international accord was the most effective way of heading off criticism that the AAUP was advocating the imposition of American or Western standards regarding academic freedom and, by extension, labor rights. Despite these precautions, the AAUP and UNESCO guidelines, and others like them, are routinely waved aside by administrators in deference to the need to be “sensitive to different cultural norms.”

Cross-cultural sensitivity has to be learned, on the ground or in the classroom. But the expectation of a fair wage to be paid on time is not something that reduces neatly to relative norms of cultural preference. It is, rather, a pretty universal demand on the part of aggrieved workers, regardless of the language they or their bosses speak or the cultural preferences they may or may not share.

How did this expectation play out in the case of NYUAD? As soon as NYU’s plans to build in Abu Dhabi were announced, activists and advocates in organizations like Human Rights Watch urged the school’s administrators to wield the prestige of the university’s name in order to ensure fair labor standards on site. Activists also argued that this precedent might, in turn, help to advance the cause of better working conditions throughout the region. NYU’s faculty-student Coalition for Fair Labor (I’m a member) brought additional pressure on the administration, and won some results: NYU adopted an adequate code of labor values, and the UAE’s TDIC, the state-owned master developer of Saadiyat Island and planner for the museum projects, followed suit with its own upgraded set of employment policies.

Implementation and enforcement was another matter. NYU officials and their UAE partners disregarded the Coalition for Fair Labor’s advice to commission an independent labor monitor and instead brought on, as the lead compliance monitor, Mott MacDonald, a firm heavily reliant on large state contracts for its business in the region. Even the most jaded corporate onlooker would have viewed the company’s preexisting lucrative contract to oversee infrastructural development for utilities on Saadiyat Island, awarded in 2006, as a blatant conflict of interest. Since beginning its monitoring work in 2010, Mott MacDonald’s annual reports have been thin, to say the least.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the monitor chosen by TDIC, has done a slightly better job, but has also fallen short in many areas of oversight. Every team of independent investigators—from Human Rights Watch and Gulf Labor to the Guardian and the Independent—has found it easy to uncover violations in off-island labor camps that these monitors were unable to catch.

If there’s anything that gets the attention of top administrators and their boards, it’s high-profile press exposure. And so the landscape shifted quite abruptly with the May publication of a front-page New York Times story about abuses endured by NYUAD workers. The first response on the part of NYU administration was to distance the university from the builder of the campus by describing the facility as a “turn-key” project, a term used in the real estate industry to describe a building delivered without any oversight or input from the client. This strategy came undone when it emerged that Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the CEO of Mubadala, the development corporation behind the new campus, actually sits on NYU’s Board of Trustees. The second response was to issue an apology and promise a full investigation of the violations.

This initial apology is welcome, but the Coalition for Fair Labor has pressed NYU to take the necessary next step: to devote resources to system-level solutions that would terminate the abuses altogether. A research university is well positioned to advise on policy changes to the kafala system—even or especially if that institution has been implicated in abuses associated with it. NYU could help take the lead in the long-overdue reform of the system by working in conjunction with the UAE’s Ministry of Labour and NGOs like the ILO and the ITUC that have focused on migrants’ rights in the region. Instead of turning a blind eye now that its own building is complete, the university could emerge as a creditworthy agent of change.

Beyond the Cultural Zone

No one can doubt that the funds are available to implement these necessary changes. Money abounds in the UAE; the real obstacle here is power. In Gulf societies, a small elite draws on a vast servant class (in the UAE, up to 90 percent of the population) for all of its needs. Under those conditions, any improvements in pay and conditions of employment threaten to unravel the tight web of controls and strictures that keeps the system in place. Conceding that such improvements are eminently affordable might set in motion a revolution in rising expectations. That is why even the smallest and most isolated displays of worker insurgency in the UAE call down such draconian crackdowns. Strikes, as our Gulf Labor team discovered, are already quite common at some of the major contractors. In the instances we investigated, the leaders of work stoppages—or anyone branded a leader by the police—were summarily beaten and deported. Our team also found that few of the promised employer concessions arising from the actions had yet to materialize.

How should prestigious educational and cultural institutions fit into this kind of rigidly maintained power structure? Are they bound to comply with it, once they have accepted a host government’s offer to bankroll the operations? And when reports of labor and human rights abuses surface, do they bear any responsibility greater than the immediate PR directive of containing the damage to their image and clearing their name? The answer is far from simple, but the minimum guidelines are clear enough.

Nouveau riche elites often acquire top-brand cultural assets as part of a philanthropic exercise in nation-building. The best examples are the roomfuls of European art bought up by Gilded Age tycoons, which are now part of the cultural patrimony of the United States. But unlike paintings and sculptures, whose voices and bodies are frozen on canvas and in marble, museums and universities are not inert goods, to be possessed as trophy exhibits. If we expect museums and universities to be engines of inquiry and social progress, their activities cannot easily be confined within four walls, let alone a “cultural zone” in which speech permissions are quarantined from the narrower range of rights enjoyed by the general population.

These cultural bodies are also not quite like corporations, bent on repatriating their offshore profits as quickly as possible. Lavish rewards are dangled to lure university administrators who are hungry for revenue, but the spoils cannot be readily converted into cash, at least not without some spillage in the form of teaching, research, and symposia that raise uncomfortable questions about the nexus of money, power, and public interest. At home, NYU students, groaning under one of the worst debt burdens in the country, find good reason to wonder why their counterparts in Abu Dhabi enjoy a free ride. And departments that do not serve the teaching needs of the Gulf campus are neglected while others, more fully committed to Abu Dhabi service, are rewarded with treasuries of a million dollars or more for their cooperation.

As for museums like the Louvre and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, their primary utility is to help sell luxury real estate on Saadiyat Island, where a resource enclave is being built for the 1 percent, complete with well-stocked cultural repositories. Yet it is unlikely that these museums will function like the deluxe swimming pools and golf courses offered by an upscale master-planned community. If they are to profit from the cooperation of regional artists at the top of their game, then we can expect more than a few speed bumps.

Guaranteeing a full umbrella of speech protections to professionals employed at the overseas branches of universities and contemporary museums will almost certainly result in some conflicts with the host authorities in authoritarian societies. Professors, students, artists, and curators risk being caught in the crossfire of a moral panic or a state emergency. To assume otherwise is to court insincerity. But upholding the rights of manual laborers should be just as important. Otherwise, the freedoms claimed by academics and artists are more likely to be perceived as privileges, enjoyed only through the exclusion of others.