Safety conditions for researchers conducting fieldwork in the United Arab Emirates are deteriorating, the Middle East Studies Association’s Board of Directors said in a statement Thursday.
The statement cites the case of Matthew Hedges, a doctoral student at Britain’s Durham University, who was arrested in May while conducting fieldwork on the U.A.E.’s security strategy and charged in October with espionage. He was recently released on bail pending trial and is not allowed to leave the U.A.E.
The statement also cites the sentencing in May of a human rights activist, Ahmad Mansoor, to 10 years in prison for his social media postings.
“Over the course of the past months, it has become unmistakably clear that the environment for the conduct of research in several countries of the [Middle East and North Africa] has changed, and in some cases, quite drastically,” says the statement from MESA’s board. “Where fieldwork continues to be possible, local and foreign researchers are often subjected to surveillance; they may be especially vulnerable if they attempt to conduct their research independently -- without formal permission and/or a local partner; even supposedly ‘well-connected’ scholars are not safe; and certain topics of research are ‘off limits.’ These appear to be new rules for the conduct of research, even though there have been no official announcements of them by governing authorities. While few scholars would venture into Libya, Syria, Yemen, or parts of Iraq today to engage in fieldwork, and the challenges of conducting (especially social scientific) research in Egypt have already been highlighted by MESA … the potential difficulties facing scholars wishing to conduct research in the United Arab Emirates are less well-known to academics and the general public. The U.A.E. has received less attention, in part, because of close ties with the U.S. government. In view of recent development in the U.A.E., and given our responsibilities both to our colleagues and as advisors and mentors to graduate students, we the elected representatives of MESA wish to alert our membership to the intensification of threats to researchers and resident colleagues in the U.A.E.”
The U.A.E. Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.