(San Antonio, TX—November 15, 2018) The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) issued the following statement at the start of its 52nd Annual Meeting:
Over the course of the past months, it has become unmistakably clear that the environment for the conduct of research in several countries of the MENA has changed, and in some cases, quite drastically. Where fieldwork continues to be possible, local and foreign researchers are often subjected to surveillance; they may be especially vulnerable if they attempt to conduct their research independently – without formal permission and/or a local partner; even supposedly “well-connected” scholars are not safe; and certain topics of research are “off limits.” These appear to be new rules for the conduct of research, even though there have been no official announcements of them by governing authorities. While few scholars would venture into Libya, Syria, Yemen, or parts of Iraq today to engage in fieldwork, and the challenges of conducting (especially social scientific) research in Egypt have already been highlighted by MESA (through its advisory in 2016 in the aftermath of the tragic death of Giulio Regeni), the potential difficulties facing scholars wishing to conduct research in the United Arab Emirates are less well-known to academics and the general public. The UAE has received less attention, in part, because of close ties with the US government. In view of recent developments in the UAE, and given our responsibilities both to our colleagues and as advisors and mentors to graduate students, we the elected representatives of MESA wish to alert our membership to the intensification of threats to researchers and resident colleagues in the UAE.
In May 2018, Matthew Hedges, a doctoral student from a university in the U.K., was detained as he was preparing to leave the UAE at the end of his fieldwork. For several weeks, his whereabouts were unknown to family, friends, and colleagues; he had “disappeared.” He was eventually allowed sporadic access to British consular officers and to his family. He was charged, on 10 October, with espionage for a foreign entity; it appears that one of his interlocutors reported him to the Emirati authorities. He has now been released on bail, is awaiting his trial, and is not allowed to depart the UAE. For details, see CAF’s letter of October 21, 2018.
MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom has written to the Emirati authorities on several occasions in the past few years to express its concerns about the deteriorating climate for academic freedom and the conduct of research in the country, citing such things as placing scholars on blacklists or denying them entry into the country. One such instance is the case of Ahmad Mansoor, a human rights activist, who has been sentenced to 10 years for his postings on social media. For details, see CAF’s letter of April 6, 2018.
In recent months, it has become obvious that there has been an escalation in insecurity for researchers. Gone are the days when one could simply arrive in the UAE and start asking questions; doing so in the current climate means taking enormous risks that could endanger scholars, students, and interlocutors. We urge scholars and graduate students planning to travel to the UAE for the purpose of conducting field research to take careful note of prevailing conditions, reflect carefully and exercise caution. Observers should acknowledge the worsening situation for academic pursuits and projects in the UAE.