Human rights activists launched a campaign of pressure on the British University of Cambridge to stop its likely cooperation with the ruling regime in the Emirates because of its approach of repression and human rights violations.
The Cambridge Ethical Affairs campaign called for halting any cooperation with the UAE regime in light of the UAE’s horrific history of human rights violations and violations of international law.
The campaign highlighted the arbitrary detention of academics in the UAE, such as Matthew Hedges, who was imprisoned and tortured in 2018 for several months because of his research on the state’s rulers and their abuses.
The human rights campaign described the UAE as an “authoritarian state that uses its wealth to whitewash its reputation,” stressing that the Abu Dhabi regime “does everything that higher education institutions should not do.”
The campaign concluded by sending a message to the Cambridge University administration that the university should not sell its values and principles for the UAE’s dirty money.
The tarnished image of the UAE has been reinforced in recent years due to its flagrant violations of human rights internally and its wars and aggressive interventions externally, which makes it an international pariah state.
The newspaper stated that the University of Cambridge and the UAE signed a cooperation agreement worth 400 million pounds, equivalent to 550 million dollars, and for ten years, as it is the largest deal in the university’s ancient history.
According to internal documents seen by the Guardian, the 10-year collaboration will help Cambridge “meet the challenges posed to universities as a result of the coronavirus, Brexit and a tight funding environment”.
The documents indicate that the UAE pledged 312 million pounds, which is the largest individual donation received by the university so far and paying 90 million pounds in kind for the working hours of Cambridge employees.
As the Guardian has learned, the deal has yet to be brought to the university’s General Counsel. If approved, the Cambridge Institute for Innovation in the UAE will start operating as a virtual entity, bearing the “UAE-Cambridge co-brand”.
Key focus areas will include education, Islamic art and culture, engineering and innovation, particularly research into alternatives to fossil fuels.
Three years ago, British academic Matthew Hedges was convicted in the UAE of espionage after he went to Dubai to conduct research. Hedges issued four senior officials from the Gulf state who he claims are complicit in his imprisonment and torture.
The Cambridge University documents acknowledge the reputational risk such collaboration poses, raising concerns about “the gap in values, academic freedom and institutional independence, and the potential burden such a large partnership could place on parts of the University and the attendant distractions from its mission.”
Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher on human rights in the Gulf states, said: “This is an ‘alliance with the devil’ and should be of deep concern to faculty, students and alumni at Cambridge and academics in the UK more broadly.”
He added that “the UAE is a deeply illiberal country that has zero tolerance for freedom of expression and critical thought, and it deals with its critics most brutally through torture and enforced disappearance.”
Joe Grady, secretary-general of the Association of Universities and Colleges, said: “This is a clear case of a wealthy authoritarian country using its wealth to try to wash its reputation. It would be a shame if Cambridge University would be willing to exploit it in this way.”
Human rights activists have previously accused the British government of covering up human rights violations and the “almost complete obliteration of freedom of expression” in the UAE.
According to the British Middle East Eye website, the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi cooperated with the Emirati newspaper, The National, launched the 2019 award. It asked applicants to write an opinion article on the UAE initiative “Year of Tolerance”.
The conditions of the competition said at the time that they should think about “what the world can learn from the Emirati model of tolerance” and “How can the Year of Tolerance initiative reflect the values of diversity that already exist in the UAE?”
But the terms of the award also told applicants that they must abide by the UAE’s media laws, which prohibit criticism of the UAE government, the ruling family, its monarchy, political decisions, or “defamation of government officials.”
For her part, Heba Zayadin, an expert on Gulf affairs with Human Rights Watch, criticized the British government for its participation in this initiative and said that it “helps cover-up (the actions)” of the UAE government.
“Hosting such an initiative in one of the most repressive countries is not just ridiculous, but irresponsible,” Heba told Middle East Eye.
She added, “The UAE is a country where red lines are constantly increasing, and journalists, academics, and critics are targeted, harassed, threatened, and arrested simply for expressing their opinion.”