Bahrain thanks UAE for banning speaker

Bahrain has expressed its appreciation to the UAE for turning away a British academic who was due to speak at a conference in the Emirates last Sunday.

Bahrain's foreign ministry said the UAE's decision was "a true reflection of the strong bonds of fraternity between the UAE and Bahrain and an example of GCC co-operation in addressing such issues".

Dr Kristian Ulrichsen of the London School of Economics (LSE), had been scheduled to speak about Bahrain at a conference, "The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab World", which was jointly organised by the LSE and the American University of Sharjah.

The title of Dr Ulrichsen's talk was "Bahrain’s Uprising: Domestic Implications and Regional and International Perspectives".

Towards the end of last week the UAE authorities intervened and said no discussion of Bahrain would be allowed. Rather than accept what it regarded as a restriction on academic freedom, the LSE pulled out, causing the conference to be cancelled.

A statement issued by the UAE foreign ministry on Monday said Ulrichsen "has consistently propagated views de-legitimising the Bahraini monarchy". It continued:

"The UAE took the view that at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain's national dialogue it would be unhelpful to allow non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another GCC state."

The statement added that it was "important to avoid disruption at a difficult point in Bahrain's national dialogue process".

The idea that Bahrain's political future might hinge on an academic discussion in Sharjah prompted a comment from Bahraini activist Alaa Shehabi on Twitter that either Ulrichsen must be amazingly powerful or Bahrain's national dialogue process must be extremely feeble.

A paper on Bahrain, published by Ulrichsen last year, can be read on the LSE's website. It is certainly critical but scarcely inflammatory. It accurately describes the ruling family of Bahrain as "determined to swim against the tide of the Arab Spring, uninterested in meaningful political compromise and reliant on foreign protection as the guarantor of regime security".

Ulrichsen has also written critically about the UAE, describing its rulers as "unable or unwilling to comprehend or tolerate any form of political plurality". This hasn't been mentioned as a reason for excluding him from the UAE possibly it was an additional factor.

While this might seem like a fairly minor incident, Ulrichsen himself sees it as part of a bigger problem. Writing for Foreign Policy, 
he notes that the UAE has "invested heavily in cultivating a sophisticated international brand" and continues:

"This has included a significant soft power component based around creating links with prestigious and world-leading cultural and academic institutions, with Abu Dhabi attracting New York University (NYU) and branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, and major British universities – including the LSE, Durham, and Exeter – in receipt of large amounts of funding from the country."

One effect, he says, is that this tends to steer academic debate away from the Gulf monarchies and "toward safer topics".

As often happens, Gulf rulers are trying to have it both ways. They want the kudos and respectability that comes from being associated with renowned universities, but without buying into the principle of academic freedom. Ulrichsen adds:

"Universities now are caught in the crossfire of the Gulf rulers' growing intolerance of criticism. This latest example of attempted intervention in a university's affairs marks the culmination of a depressing pattern that has seen the UAE authorities take closer control of domestic academic institutions, close down branches of international think-tanks and research institutes, expel a US professor of media and communications, and – now – seek to control research and conference agendas."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 February 2013.