Over the summer my wife and I both received notices that our contracts had been terminated and our residency visas would be canceled. Our employers told us that the order came from “outside the organization” and with no further explanation. Without a residency visa or a job, my family and I have been forced to leave the United Arab Emirates.
So, I appear to have discovered the limit for the tolerance of academic discourse in the UAE.
During my two-year tenure, my colleagues and others constantly warned me that such a fate could await me. Still, I felt I had a duty as an academic and professor at Zayed University to speak and teach with minimal reservation about my area of expertise—journalism, international media law and communication ethics.
I wrote columns in Dubai’s Gulf News about press freedom and other issues. I taught international media law in my classes, including accurate appraisal of the UAE’s media regulation and how it differed from other approaches. I also helped organize events that allowed for public discussion and debate of Emirati issues. I blogged and tweeted about sensitive subjects—particularly how local press coverage differed from international counterparts. I launched a student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, a prestigious U.S. journalism organization. And these students organized a celebration of the U.N.’s World Press Freedom Day in May. See the post below for a more exhaustive list of activities that may have led to my ouster.
I understood the risks in taking these actions and have no regrets.
But, I should stress that I didn’t move to the UAE hoping to garner attention and get booted out as a security threat. I observed the landscape, tried to decipher the “red lines” that I shouldn’t cross, and listened to the words of the country’s leaders who constantly stress the importance of education to the development of the nation. H.H. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told faculty at a recent convocation that he wanted the university to “engage with the community.” I followed the example of other local university professors who offered constructive observations from an academic perspective.
Tales of ex-pats who are mysteriously whisked away for various offenses are fairly plentiful in the United Arab Emirates. Some of them take on an apocryphal tone. I thought it might be helpful to document exactly how my departure was orchestrated.
The Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) informed my wife, Dr. Ann Duffy, of the news of her immediate termination in mid-June. She was told that H.E. Dr. Mugheer Al Khaili was instructed to terminate Ann’s contract and revoke her visa. My wife had served as Division Manager for P-12 Policy, Planning and Performance Management with ADEC for more than a year and had received positive feedback on her performance. She holds a PhD in education policy and has 25 years of experience. She was also serving as chair of the school board for the American Community School, the school affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi.
I learned about my fate six weeks later via a phone call from Zayed University’s provost, Larry Wilson. He also said that the order came from outside the university system and that Shiekh Nahyan had tried to appeal the directive. This appeal explains the delay in notification between my wife’s termination and my own. After hearing of my wife’s termination, we assumed my notice would be arriving soon and were surprised after a few days that we hadn’t heard anything from Zayed University.
No other information accompanied our termination orders, other than that they originated from outside of the respective organizations. It appears certain that these directives to fire my wife and I originated from the security forces, although we have no more information than presented here.
I should note that at around the same time the university was also told to terminate the contract of one of my faculty colleagues. He had served with distinction in the College of Communication and Media Sciences for 14 years. No explanation accompanied his dismissal either.
I am heartened to learn that the university did not choose to fire me and have great admiration for Sheikh Nahyan. He appears serious about creating a university that strives to compete at a global level and understands the freedom required for academics to practice their profession without interference. Last year, we held a forum at Zayed University about the impact of censored media on the Arab world. Sheikh Nayhan invited the attendees to his majlis and spoke favorably of the event and the need for academics to bring these issues up for discussion. His comments were carried on the state news agency, WAM. These terminations seriously undermine the efforts to bring world-class education to Emirati citizens.
(This is an excerpt used with permission. Please visit Matt’s website for the rest of this article)
Dr. Matt J. Duffy focuses his academic research on journalism and media laws in the Middle East. His academic work has been published in the Journal of Middle East Media, the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, and the Newspaper Research Journal. Duffy is writing the book “Media Laws of the UAE” for the Encyclopedia of Media Laws series. He received a Ph.D. in Public Communication from Georgia State University in the United States where he studied the use of unnamed sources in journalism.