As of March 2013, six international universities have begun operating campuses in the United Arab Emirates. NYU Abu Dhabi was one of them, inaugurated in 2010 as part of John Sexton’s plan of creating the “first truly global research university.” The campus is located on Saadiyat Island, a cultural hub in Abu Dhabi touted as “a cultural cornerstone where east meets west.” And the island houses not only NYUAD, but also branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums. Just across the island, a satellite campus of the Cleveland Clinic has opened its doors to patients. Driving around this part of Abu Dhabi, which is just a short drive away from downtown, it can be genuinely hard to tell that you are still in an Arab country.
Over the past few years, there has been a sharp spike in investment to attract western brands to invest in Abu Dhabi’s culture, education, technology and medicine sectors — made evident by the establishment of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s famous Internet and Healthcare cities. These sectored parts of the UAE have been allocated investment capital — and plots of land — to attract well-established foreign brands to open up satellite locations in the UAE.
This is all part of the country’s broad national agenda to strengthen its soft power, as it endeavors to use cultural and economic tools rather than employing forceful coercion to persuade other nations into cooperation.
This sentiment was best explained by Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, the Minister of State, who said, “It is no longer sufficient to have military or economic power if you are not able to share your values. Exchange — this is what soft power is about.” Nusseibeh went on to explain that opening a branch of the Louvre in the Middle East was a way to “counter the tensions in the region,” which seems more like the mission statement of a political campaign rather than that of a museum.
It is the wrong approach for the UAE to take in international diplomacy to invest so heavily in foreign entities. It has cost the nation over $400 million to rent the brand name of the renowned Louvre for 30 years and the UAE will eventually pay over $1 billion to the French government for the museum’s Abu Dhabi outpost. Meanwhile, in the case of NYUAD, Mubadala, the state-owned investment company, has paid upwards of $1 billion.
These huge sums don’t go to the local organizations that often struggle to receive funding. At the same time that the UAE government was subsidizing NYUAD, Masdar, the UAE’s leading graduate research university, was forced into a merger with Khalifa University and The Petroleum Institute to remain competitive and financially solvent within the region. Instead of investing into these local organizations, these huge sums of money went to foreign entities. All this investment in Western institutions essentially amounts to the purchase of prestige, which is detrimental and fails both parties of the exchange. Simply by existing in the UAE, foreign organizations like NYUAD and the Louvre are diverting state funds away from national organizations in their respective sectors. It is also worth noting that UAE locals make up around roughly 15 percent of the total student population — in the case of NYUAD, the government is spending so much to be educating so few of their own people.
This should serve as evidence for why Western universities should not be diving headfirst into the Middle East. At best, this movement is simply a cash grab — which, for NYUAD, came in the form a $50 million “gift.” I was initially accepted into NYUAD, and I can confidently say that had I gone there, I would have not felt like a true NYU student or a true UAE college student. I was astounded at how isolated the campus is from the rest of the Emirate. Physically, I couldn’t see the sandy landscape that defines the campus’s geographic area, as the outside premises are literally walled off by a structure eerily reminiscent of Rio’s “wall of shame,” the infamous structure that walled off Brazil’s impoverished favelas from the incoming Olympic crowd.
Lucas Wyman, a researcher studying labor in the Middle East, has discussed how NYU has become so intermingled with the UAE’s cultural and historical background that “it’s difficult to tell where the Emirati state ends and NYU begins.”
NYU’s mission statement has been hurt by this lack of boundaries. When Professor Andrew Ross, an outspoken critic of NYUAD’s labor practices and lack of transparency, was barred entry into the UAE, it raised the question of how NYUAD could be branded as a cosmopolitan university if some educators and students are denied entry.
In my opinion, there are systemic issues within the prioritization of investment capital in the UAE when it comes to these sectors. In most cases, the association with these brand-name institutions is costly for the state and causes extraneous burdens on local institutions. In some cases, the association conflicts with the values of the foreign institutions directly and causes internal struggles. “A country’s greatest investment is building generations of educated and knowledgeable youth,” Sheik Zayed, the founder of the UAE, said. In the UAE today, we have invested in everything else but our country, to prove ourselves to the rest of the world.
An Emirati Abroad offers insight into the social and cultural interactions of the United Arab Emirates population internally and its intersections with the Western world. As a local, Jasem hopes to correct the inaccurate and at times problematic perception of the UAE by shedding light on the important aspects of Emirati life and providing a reflection of the current UAE cultural landscape as he sees it.
Jasem Alzaabi is a junior studying Mechanical Engineering at Tandon School of Engineering. Email Jasem at [email protected]
Correction Sept. 13, 2018: Sentences were added to this piece for clarity on the writer’s opinion.
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