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Targeting Academia in the Gulf Region

Over the past few years, authorities in the Middle East and particularly in the Gulf states have been increasingly targeting academic scholars. There have been several recent cases of academics facing horrible surveillance and detention experiences in various parts of the region, primarily in Iran and some GCC states. One of the most prominent cases is the unfortunate arrest of Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian scholar of the Gulf who was jailed in Iran on charges of espionage.

Academics are Hostages of the Gulf Governments:

Like that of numerous scholars, Moore-Gilbert’s trial was secretive and failed to meet the basic international standards for justice and transparency. She has been detained since September 2018, when Iranian authorities arrested her at the Tehran airport as she was heading back to her home country of Australia after having attended a conference.

Friends, colleagues, academics, human rights activists, and people concerned about academic freedom are deeply troubled by her arrest circumstances and recent jailing conditions. Moore-Gilbert’s confinement situation has become more risky for her life as the Iranian authorities transferred the Cambridge-educated scholar to Qarchak, an overcrowded women’s prison in a barren desert east of the capital. This detention facility is known for its inhumane conditions, which are especially concerning given how hard COVID-19 has hit Iran. Prior to her transfer to Qarchak, she was held in solitary confinement at Tehran’s Evin prison. Her desperation prompted her to go on several hunger strikes.

Also in the Gulf, Matthew Hedges was detained in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on fake espionage charges from May to November 2018. Similar to Moore-Gilbert, Hedges’s nightmare began when the British Ph.D. student was detained at the airport leaving the country on his way back home to the United Kingdom. He had just finished a two-week trip to the Emirates to conduct academic research.

After a trial that only lasted a few minutes, Hedges received a life sentence, but the pressure from London on Abu Dhabi led to the UAE’s President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan pardoning Hedges. After being locked up for six months in the Emirates, mostly in solitary confinement, the British scholar returned home. Despite his release, his experience behind bars was, to say the least, extremely dark and disturbing. “During my imprisonment I was force-fed drugs, battled depression and thoughts of self-harm,” recalled Hedges. “Later, having endured nearly half a year of isolation and mistreatment, I wrestled with thoughts of suicide.”

A Grave Threat to Academics and Academic Freedom

These state attacks on scholars may also escalate to lethal means. Giulio Regeni, an Italian Ph.D. student, was doing research in Egypt when he was slowly tortured to death in 2016. Following an investigation by Italian prosecutors, Rome accused members of Egypt’s security apparatus of brutally killing the Trieste-born Ph.D. student and resisting efforts to investigate his murder. Regeni’s work on unions in Egypt made him a target for the Egyptian government.

To be sure, Moore-Gilbert, Regeni, and Hedges are not the only scholars that have paid huge prices — and in Regeni’s case the ultimate price — for taking the risks of doing scholarly research in the Middle East. Governments such as those in Iran and Egypt do not tolerate disagreement with official narratives. Authoritarian states are, by nature, opposed to academic freedom. The mistreatment of local scholars and censorship of research studies are not new. These stories of academics being accused or suspected of crimes that they did not commit and having to suffer egregious consequences is leaving a huge burden on the research in the Middle East. Nowadays, a western passport is no longer a guarantee of protection for scholars in Western-allied Arab countries as it was previously.

In the case of Iran, it appears difficult to deny that scholars with citizenship of western countries are at high risk of becoming pawns. In nasty games of geopolitical rivalry, authorities in Tehran seek to leverage these detained academics in order to gain concessions from Washington, London, or another country. In the post-Coronavirus period, when global travel resumes, it is safe to bet that fewer and fewer academics from the West will visit Iran, given the perception that it is too dangerous for researchers. The same goes for Egypt and the UAE, where the stories of Regeni and Hedges have given some universities and other academic institutions qualms about supporting their students’ research in those countries.

New realities in the Middle East that make scholarly research increasingly dangerous will hinder a global understanding of the region. It is simply not possible for academics to truly understand the complexities of a region without spending significant time doing fieldwork in those countries. But if western scholars cannot safely visit certain parts of the Middle East, it is difficult to see how academics can ethically and safely conduct field research in this part of the world. Unfortunately, there are no quick answers to the questions of how to overcome this challenge.

The Way Forward to Restore Academic Freedom

To work towards academic freedom, academic institutions and universities should first be more active in addressing cases in which academics’ safety and freedom of research are at risk. Moreover, they need to defend scholars who have been targeted in these gruesome experiences and provide to them all types of legal and counseling aid.

Second, international organizations, mainly human rights organizations, need to be more involved in immediate advocacy for researchers. They should be pressuring governments in the Gulf region as well as all governments where scholars have been jailed since these arrests are aimed at silencing freedom of speech and expression.

Third, since the arrests of these scholars is yet another part of targeting freedom of speech, the press and media should be active in bringing attention to these cases in order to put more pressure on the Gulf states to release academics and end this behavior.

Finally, academics and scholars need to stand up for academic rights. This could happen to any academic who studies the Gulf region, and it is unacceptable. We should raise awareness to these risks that scholars such as Kylie Moore-Gilbert and others are facing through social media engagement, publications, and organizing events to engage academic institutions, media, and public opinion.

The continuation of scholarly research in the Middle East is necessary, especially since authorities will continue trying to limit education and academic information, surveys, and constructive criticism. These practices have to stop now before it becomes integrated as part of the Gulf region’s politics. As with many oppressive policies, moving past this requires pressure and collective efforts to end this tragedy. Otherwise, academic freedom will be just another victim of repressive governments in the Middle East.

Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.

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