A billboard on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, advertises several of the museum projects as The World's Finest Masterpieces. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A billboard on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, advertises several of the museum projects as The World’s Finest Masterpieces. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

ABU DHABI, UAE — This week the New York Times reported that New York University (NYU) professor Andrew Ross was denied permission to visit the United Arab Emirates after publishing numerous articles critical of the labor conditions in the region. The news has stoked fears that the Emirate of Abu Dhabi will not respect a previous agreement between the university and the kingdom to allow foreign nationals, including Israelis, into Abu Dhabi to attend or work at NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).

Ross, who is an outspoken critic of the exploitation of migrant labor in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and other countries in the region, recently published an article in The Baffler claiming that during a previous trip he was under surveillance by Abu Dhabi authorities and “that a private investigator had been calling academic acquaintances to gather information about me.”

On March 14, the NYU professor traveled to New York’s JFK airport to board a flight to Dubai, only to learn that he could not enter the UAE “for security reasons.” His calls to US authorities in the UAE did not clarify the reasons for the travel prohibition.

“Other critics of human rights abuse among UAE’s migrant workforce have been barred entry or deported,” Ross told Hyperallergic over email. “It’s a growing list. What’s different about my case is that I’m an NYU professor, and my administration has insisted that it can guarantee full academic freedom to all faculty and students moving in and out of Abu Dhabi. So what kind of signal does this send to less secure faculty employed at NYU Abu Dhabi? And will the same fate one day befall artists invited to participate in exhibitions and events at the Guggenheim or Louvre in Abu Dhabi? It’s clear these institutions cannot guarantee, in any circumstance, that speech or expression will be protected, though they continue to make public assurances that their Abu Dhabi partners have agreed to do so.”

NYU spokesperson John Beckman said the university has not had issues with academic freedom on the NYUAD campus. We’ve had five years of running a campus in Abu Dhabi, and our faculty and students have experienced zero infringements on their academic freedom, even when conducting classes about sensitive topics.” Beckman said.

We approached a number of individuals at NYUAD for comment, but no one agreed to go on the record — though none of them cited any specific problems with academic freedom or censorship. One non-US employee of NYUAD we spoke to did claim that he or she was refused a travel visa to the United States in the recent past for an unspecified reason.

The Gulf Labor Working Group, of which Ross is a member, released a statement today addressed to the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, Richard Armstrong, and the deputy director and chief curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Nancy Spector, about the incident. The letter in its entirety reads:

A few days ago, NYU Professor and Gulf Labor member Andrew Ross was prevented from traveling to the UAE to conduct research on labor matters. We assume that you are well aware of this situation by now. We have yet to hear the Guggenheim’s public statement about this disturbing event. Gulf Labor urges the Guggenheim to issue an unambiguous statement condemning the action and urging the government of Abu Dhabi to live up to “upholding freedom of expression as it relates to art and other creative practices,” as Richard Armstrong has recently stated.

Moreover, and as Richard Armstrong also asserted, if the “Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be a beacon for artistic free expression” then it surely cannot stay silent in the face of official UAE government action of banning academics and others from entering the UAE. Such actions clearly dim if not extinguish the beacon of free expression the Guggenheim pledges to be.

Gulf Labor Working Group

Hyperallergic has reached out to the Guggenheim, whose own franchise on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island has been the subject of frequent criticism, for comment on the matter but received no response.

NYU has built numerous campuses around the world as it has worked to rebrand itself as a global university, including in countries known for censoring artists and intellectuals, like China. The university also has a campus in Tel Aviv, but does not have assurances from Israeli authorities to allow all students and faculty, including Palestinians, into the country.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.