On May 5, 2018, 31-year-old British academic Matthew Hedges was detained at Dubai Airport as he tried to leave the UAE following two weeks of research for his doctorate. From there, conflicting accounts abound — from supporters claiming he was being kept in “inhumane” conditions including solitary confinement, to the UAE’s sleight of hand concerning his whereabouts. Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, reported that his physical and mental health had deteriorated.
Hedges was officially charged with spying “for a foreign state.” The UAE claimed his study was merely a “cover” for doing government surveillance for the United Kingdom, Hedges’ home country. His research included “Middle Eastern politics, the changing nature of war, civil-military relations, and tribalism,” according to The Guardian.
To some, jailing and sentencing an academic on thin evidence exemplifies a familiar and gradual global trend towards anti-intellectualism and the demonization of academia.
Journalist Alex Berezow, in a piece for the American Council on Science and Health, details this disturbing trend through the example of Brexit:
For instance, in the recent EU referendum, pro-Brexit politicians claimed that U.K. citizens “have had enough of experts,” and that the only expert that matters is the voter. A radio show caller noted, “Experts built the Titanic.” (That is indeed true. So, who should we have preferred build the Titanic? Non-experts?)
However, anti-intellectualism has a much darker side than simply faulty engineering. Political scientists have carefully documented the ongoing rise in authoritarian-leaning leaders around the world, including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, and others. One trait such leaders typically share — both now and historically — is an overt disdain for academics, experts, intelligence, and/or education. In most cases, they express outright hostility towards them.
One need not look far to find a connection between egregious injustice and the suppression of intellectual or free thought. Some familiar examples might include the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, the murder of intellectuals in Pol Pot’s killing fields, book burning in Nazi Germany, slave owners’ savage physical abuse of slaves in America for learning to read or write, or even the suppression not only of critical speech but of silence by the Saudi government, which murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi had urged to allow more free speech and freedom of expression. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram gained notoriety for kidnapping over 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria. The group’s name roughly translates to “Western education is a sin.”
The War In Yemen — A Sore Spot For The UAE
David Beasley, Executive Director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, warned that the war in Yemen is “undeniably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by far.”
The fact that Hedges also was “researching aspects of the UAE’s foreign and domestic security strategy, including the war in Yemen,” coincides neatly with the theory that researchers in the UAE may indeed be free to think and research what they like, but only provided it is within the strictest of parameters.
To be clear, it is not altogether shocking that a country allied with Saudi Arabia to create and exploit a previously unimaginable humanitarian crisis might see questions about that crisis, no matter how innocuous, as a threat. What is shocking is the UAE’s reticence to be seen as a place hostile to academics — even considering the court’s verdict today.
According to Al Jazeera, the country still holds a prized seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council and benefits from foreign investment contracts.
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) issued a statement on November 15 for immediate release, warning academics about the potential risks of engaging with the UAE:
[I]t has become unmistakably clear that the environment for the conduct of research in several countries of the MENA [region] has changed . . . . [W]e the elected representatives of MESA wish to alert our membership to the intensification of threats to researchers and resident colleagues in the UAE.
The outcome of the Hedges case demonstrates how the UAE chooses to proceed in an age where anti-intellectualism has made substantial gains in public consciousness, along with decisive wins in seats of power.
This morning, Abu Dhabi’s Federal Court of Appeal sentenced Hedges to a life sentence. Because he is a foreign national, this means a maximum of 25 years followed by deportation, according to Gulf News. Hedges can file for appeal of the decision before the Federal Supreme Court within 30 days, but he will be held in custody pending that appeal.
The case raises serious questions of due process and an abuse of Hedge’s civil and human rights. This morning’s hearing “lasted less than five minutes, and his lawyer was not present,” a family spokesperson told AFP news agency. During the five months the UAE detained him in custody until his provisional release on October 29 pending trial, a number of interrogations were conducted without counsel present nor any representative from the British government.
Relations with the British government are now strained. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt has urged the Emiratis to “reconsider” the case.
“Today’s verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances,” Hunt said in a statement.
In a country already criticized for previous crackdowns on critical thinking and academia, the UAE has had an opportunity to chart a path towards freer expression. However, the circumstances of this case (lack of counsel for the defendant, for example) and a resulting life sentence handed down amid blatant violations of due process and international human rights are stunning to many who anticipated a diplomatic resolution of the matter. Through this verdict, the UAE sends the message, intentionally or not, that the country is simply not yet ready to change.