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Art and Hypocrisy in the Gulf

Art and Hypocrisy in the Gulf.

On May 11, the Lebanese artist Walid Raad was turned away at the airport when he tried to enter the United Arab Emirates, where the government is making a big investment in art with the Saadiyat Island project. The project, in the capital, Abu Dhabi, will include branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim as well as a campus of New York University.

Mr. Raad, who teaches at Cooper Union in New York, says he heard an Emirates immigration officer say that he was being turned away for security reasons.

In May as well, the Mumbai-based artist Ashok Sukumaran was denied a visa to enter the United Arab Emirates for undefined “security reasons.”

Others recently denied entry to the country on the vague pretext of security reasons include Andrew Ross, a New York University professor who has been fiercely critical of labor abuses on Saadiyat Island, and the journalist Sean O’Driscoll, who last year co-wrote a New York Times article on

harsh labor conditions at the Abu Dhabi campus.

  • The exploitative labor system in the United Arab Emirates binds migrant workers to employers, who confiscate their passports as a matter of course, which makes it nearly impossible for the workers to escape abuse. Exorbitant recruitment fees and the prohibition of trade unions add to the toxic mix.
  • In 2010, the developers of Saadiyat Island promised special labor protections for the workers, but that has failed to stop all the abuses. The Times article last year found that workers had been beaten by police officers and arbitrarily deported when they went on strike to protest low pay. In February 2015, Human Rights Watch documented serious shortcomings in the enforcement of the labor codes.

    Mr. Raad and Mr. Sukumaran are both members of the Gulf Labor Coalition, which has been calling for a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The refusal to admit these artists, along with others pursuing creative and intellectual work, suggests that the United Arab Emirates and its development partners are unwilling to tolerate criticism and open debate.

    In January 2014, as the reporter left  the country after doing research on the treatment of the workers, the immigration authorities told to the author that he was permanently blacklisted and could never return. They refused to give a reason.

    On May 1, the Guggenheim described its Abu Dhabi project as “an opportunity for a dynamic cultural exchange and to chart a more inclusive and expansive view of art history.” John Sexton, who plans to retire as president of N.Y.U. next year, said something similar in 2007, when he described N.Y.U. and Abu Dhabi as “a good fit” and said that they shared “a belief that the evolving global dynamic will bring about the emergence of a set of world centers of intellectual, cultural and educational strength.” The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s website says it will be a place of “discovery, exchange and education” and describes it as “a product of the 18th century Enlightenment in Europe.”

    These are laudable sentiments, but in practice they amount to empty words.

    Banning artists and writers is nowhere close to the most repressive actions of the government.

    Domestic critics have been at risk of disappearance, torture and imprisonment. The human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Roken is just one of scores of Emiratis serving long-term prison sentences after unfair trials. Last November, Osama al-Najer was sentenced to three years in prison on charges that included “communicating with external organizations to provide misleading information.” Mr. Najer had been quoted in a Human Rights Watch news release on the alleged torture of political detainees.

    The government has continued to use a repressive 2012 cybercrime law to prosecute critics. In 2013, it even sentenced an American to 12 months in prison under the law, for his participation in a video parodying Dubai youth culture.

    In 2014, a court convicted two Emiratis, Khalifa Rabia and Othman al-Shehhi, of criticizing state security on Twitter, sentenced them to five years in prison and fined them over $98,000. The television channel 24.ae subsequently referred to Mr. Rabia’s use of hashtags like #UAE_freemen as evidence of his subversion.

    A 2014 counterterrorism law allows the courts to convict peaceful government critics as terrorists and sentence them to death. The crackdown has been so far-reaching that there are no longer any lawyers in the country actively defending dissidents.

    In this context of repression, it’s clear that whatever the Louvre, the Guggenheim and New York University might say, the reality is that they provide a sheen of high-end respectability to an autocratic state.

    Although N.Y.U., to its credit, recently announced it would compensate construction workers on its Abu Dhabi site who were excluded from its code of labor protection, none of the institutions have spoken out against the overall migrant labor system or the arbitrary deportations of hundreds of Saadiyat Island workers. Likewise, the institutions’ response as Abu Dhabi has turned away artists and intellectuals has been anemic at best.

    N.Y.U. expressed support for “the free movement of people and ideas” after Mr. Ross was denied entry but then punted on the specifics, saying it could not “know all the thinking that goes into any immigration authority’s decisions.” The Guggenheim offered a similarly feckless response after Mr. Raad was denied entry, saying that immigration issues were “outside our sphere of influence.”

    These institutions, and some art critics as well, have touted their move to Abu Dhabi as a turning point in cultural history. But right now, in a climate of increasing repression, it seems that art and culture are being put into the service of money and power, an unquestioning surrender to authority that contradicts these liberal institutions’ very ideals.

    Related information:

    United Arab Emirates: Trapped, Exploited, Abused