Britain's friends in the Emirates

Undeterred by the banning of a British academic from the UAE, the British government is urging closer ties between universities in the UK and the Emirates.

David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, was in Dubai yesterday, attending a conference on "the role of higher education in developing successful international knowledge economies".

In an interview with Gulf News, Willetts said:

"I have brought with me to the UAE a delegation with a representation of almost a dozen British universities who are keen to do more here because this is one of the liveliest centres for international universities. 

"Here in the UAE there are more foreign campuses than anywhere else in the world and we see the UAE and the Gulf as a crucial place where universities are setting up and I hope that there will be more universities established as a result of this visit."

In the Emirates, though, the meaning of a "knowledge economy" depends on what type of knowledge you are talking about.

Last month, the UAE authorities gave orders that the situation in neighbouring Bahrain could not be discussed at an academic conference in Sharjah on "Transition in the Arab world".

The conference had been jointly organised by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the American University of Sharjah. Dr Kristian Ulrichsen of LSE, who had been due to speak on Bahrain, was refused admission at the airport and sent back to Britain. 

Rather than accept what it regarded as a restriction on academic freedom, the LSE pulled out, causing the conference to be cancelled.

The UAE is certainly a "lively" place as far as universities are concerned – but not in the way that British minister Willetts seems to imagine. The Emirati authorities want to be associated with prestigious universities (for the sake of their image-building) but without buying into the principle of academic freedom.

In an article for Foreign Policy written after his expulsion, Ulrichsen wrote:

"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, 6 March 2013.