When Universities Go Abroad: NYU in Abu Dhabi

Scores of American universities have opened campuses abroad, New York University, where I teach, among them. (Others include Georgetown in Qatar, Yale in Singapore, Columbia in Jordan, and Duke in China.) Criticism and debate surround these developments, but have been limited mainly to financial and enrollment viability and to abstract questions of ethical and political correctness. I think the issues need to be contextualized with specifics. I taught at NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for seven weeks in September–October 2011, and the experience revealed that, while each foreign campus has unique characteristics, NYU’s in Abu Dhabi is an outlier among them.

When I arrived in August 2011, I expected to be in an Arab city, but found instead a South Asian one. Census estimates put the percentage of Emiratis at 10 percent to 17 percent of its population of one-and-a-half million. The rest are non-citizen workers, primarily from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines. NYU’s temporary campus is a rented, high-rise building and a nearby small classroom building, located in center city in the midst of inexpensive South Asian tailors, laundries, groceries, clothing stores, money-changers, banks, and transmitters of remittances to workers’ homelands. Emiratis and other Arabs appear on the streets occasionally in their white dishdashas and sandals, the women in full black hijab, some of them even covering their faces. But mostly one sees western dress, saris, and shalwar kameez. You almost never hear Arabic; you communicate in English, and the working class speaks mainly Urdu. NYU students and staff move freely around these neighborhoods, and the more adventurous ones traverse the city, wearing whatever they want.

NYU’s expansion, abroad in Abu Dhabi and locally in New York City, is part of President John Sexton’s vision of a “global university.” His strategy seems intended to take advantage of a globalization in which the United States, suffering from deindustrialization, can still export one commodity: education, because U.S. university degrees have greater value abroad than the dollar. Host countries have often initiated requests for American campuses, offering funds and real estate in exchange for a U.S. brand-name university. But NYU-Abu Dhabi is unique, because it is entirely funded by Abu Dhabi’s hereditary ruler, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan; because very few of its students are from Abu Dhabi or the other emirates of the UAE; and because the vast majority of residents of Abu Dhabi are guest workers. So to consider the values underlying NYU’s new endeavor, it helps to know a little about the country itself.

Abu Dhabi (AD) is the largest and the richest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.* It is a very new country, established in 1971 out of the “trucial states,” formed by a nineteenth-century truce between Britain and the local...

The Last Great Strike - UC Press [Advertisement]

Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.


The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.