Have you ever been somewhere where things didn’t feel quite right? Perhaps you had a vague sense of unease or a growing discomfort about being there, like if you were at a party with the wrong crowd. I know this feeling very well.
I was employed at NYU Abu Dhabi from August 2011 until May 2012. I was working as a “Global Academic Fellow” as a freshly minted graduate of NYU in New York. My job title was a bit frothier than my actual responsibilities, which largely consisted of teaching assistant work in various capacities. I helped students become better writers, taught economics recitations, and generally tried to offer some insight from an older student perspective (all of the students at the time were freshmen and sophomores).
I truly enjoy teaching and have continued as a tutor now that I am back in the United States. But I won’t hide the fact that I took the job for reasons other than the job description. I saw a chance to get a great, short-term job (contracted for one school year) within my university. The benefits package was outstanding — plentiful vacation time, a good salary, and fully covered room and board. More than anything, I could live abroad for a year with an income that enabled me to explore a part of the world I hadn’t yet seen.
In the previous year, I had already been engaging with NYU Abu Dhabi, but in a much different way. As the editor of NYU Local, an independent student news publication, I had been critical of the university’s position in Abu Dhabi as the UAE government cracked down on free speech from prominent academics.
That crackdown continued while I was in Abu Dhabi and hasn’t slowed since I left. An American man was just sentenced to a year in prison for making a YouTube parody video.
NYUAD students had seen my writing, and when I was being interviewed for the job, I was warned about some students being a bit hostile towards me. I was also questioned about my interest in taking the job — was I trying to do some sort of exposé?
That was not the case. I had heard enough good things about the student body that I really did want to be involved. I was persauded by John Sexton’s points that NYU could act as a way to start to shift the attitudes of the gulf leaders, leading to more democratic ideals and increasing free speech.
Certainly, my experience on campus was little different from what I would have experienced back in New York. Discussion in classrooms was lively and uncensored. Students tended to avoid talking about the troubling politics of the region in the classes I was in, but we sure talked about it a lot amongst staff. Internet access was unrestricted (even if there was an unsettling knowledge that everything was being monitored by Tamkeen, a sort-of watchdog intermediary between the university and the government).
I watched porn, read global newspapers (not the censored fluff coming out of the National, the UAE’s local paper), and traveled freely.
But that sense of unease was there right from the start. I was among the elite in Abu Dhabi, not in the sense of being an oil billionaire like some of the Emiratis, but in the sense that I lived in a beautiful high rise studio apartment, had rights granted to me that weren’t bestowed on the vast majority of the local population, and earned a salary that enabled me not to think twice about buying $9 pints of beer at the hotel bars.
The students were, on the whole, great. I met intelligent young men and women from all over the world, got roasted playing soccer with them, and enjoyed teaching them. Many of the professors I worked with are still friends and the university seems poised to graduate some great kids this year.
But that dread lingered. How nice it was to enjoy the constant air conditioning and eat unlimited buffet food. But right outside the door there were literally thousands of Pakistanis, Nepalese, Indians, Filipinos, and other migrant workers slaving in hard, physical labor for a pittance. The disconnect between the wealthy Emiratis and Westerners and the working class was truly unlike anything I’ve seen.
The huge majority of the population in the UAE are these migrant laborers, building the vast skyscrapers, luxury villas, six star hotels, and other playgrounds for the wealthy. There’s nothing inherently wrong about the UAE’s love for opulence, but it is like living in a bifurcated city. On the streets, you see the workers, eating in their own restaurants. You never see Emiratis.
And those workers are the lucky ones, the ones with small businesses and time to spare. There are thousands more shuttled around outside of the public eye, living in labor camps and working long, difficult hours on construction projects on Saadiyat Island, the location of NYU’s soon-to-be permanent campus.
This place is devoid of real culture. The art? Imported. The music? Global pop stars performing lifelessly on tours.
Honestly, the local culture feels more authentic when you’re eating delicious Pakistani food in a hole in the wall restaurant at a fraction of the price of a “gourmet” restaurant.
I am surprised that the NYUAD students can comfortably live in that country for four years. I had to leave. The highlights of my 10 month appointment were in my travels outside of the UAE. Rock climbing on the Omani coast, partying in Beirut, exploring Istanbul.
As much as I would have loved to spend another year traveling, I couldn’t justify another year in Abu Dhabi. That is not an indictment of the university or the students there. They are very bright and many — if not most — will go on to do some great things.
But can they shed the entitlement? I took a group of students on a UAE tour for Spring Break — we stayed in luxury resorts and ate amazing meals. All for free. (What’s funny is that I remember the more mundane parts of that trip more fondly, like having our bus get stuck in the desert sand and having to try to dig it out.)
Almost everything is free for the NYUAD students. Tuition, housing, food, travel. Many students take advantage of their trips home by stopping in exotic places for a quick vacation. The airfare is covered.
It is undeniably amazing that poor students from far flung countries can get the kind of education that they get at NYUAD for free. But, for many, is the culture doing more harm than good? What do you learn from getting everything handed to you and living in a country where you are literally given rights others don’t get?
It made me uncomfortable. It still does. Did I sell out? Were the gilded benefits of my job tamping down my earlier criticism of the Abu Dhabi campus?
I was moved to write this piece — the first writing I’ve done about my experience there since taking the job — because of this Guardian exposé. Read it for yourself. Migrant workers are living in truly terrible conditions as they work long hours in brutal weather for very little money.
I saw this all around me. The UAE government says they’re trying to fix this. They show promotional videos of some luxurious labor camps. But that is not the reality for many of the young men working in the country.
NYU has said they are independently monitoring the conditions of the workers. (Certainly, those I saw working directly with students (i.e. kitchen staff, janitors, etc.) at NYUAD were being treated fairly.) But what do I see right upon opening up the article? The journalist followed a bus back from the NYU job site and saw men packed ten to a room, cooking in a grimy kitchen. Couldn’t some of the many millions of dollars being poured into the NYUAD project be diverted to giving these people a proper salary and decent place to live?
Watch this video from the Guardian (can’t embed iframes here).
How can this be happening?
I am tired of hearing about “cultural relativism” and arguments about these workers choosing to come to Abu Dhabi. You don’t have to read far in the Guardian piece to see that workers are not always making decisions of their own volition.
This exploitation is FUNDAMENTALLY WRONG and it is truly upsetting to see NYU Abu Dhabi allowing this to happen on their campus. Is it really worth it? Does NYU so desperately need to become a “global leader” in education that they are willing to compromise on basic values in order to get a glitzy campus paid for by someone else?
I am, of course, implicated in this. I worked and lived there, and as much as I can try to tell myself otherwise, I participated in the debauchery of the wealthy elite. Fine dining, partying, globehopping. It was fun, I was comfortable, but I knew I had to get the hell out.
I am not the only one. I find it hard to imagine that NYU Abu Dhabi will have a lot of success at landing standing faculty. Many of the professors I worked with have already left. In the economics courses, some professors would come for just nine weeks (surely being paid lavishly for their time). It’s tough for students to connect to professors when they leave halfway through the semester.
It takes someone with a stronger stomach than me to live there for years. That’s not to say there aren’t great people doing great work in Abu Dhabi, but a lot of people are just floating along earning a lot of money and just looking the other way.
I am still very hopeful for the NYU campus there; I think the people working on the project are very interested in seeing students succeed. The campus is about to graduate its first Rhodes scholar, an impressive distinction for such a young university.
Perhaps over time the “values” of Western education can start to permeate in the UAE. But that sounds more like lip service rationalizing of having a campus there. This is a walled garden for elite students — a tiny Vatican in the center of a greedy, laissez faire country.
For Abu Dhabi, I think this is just another imported Western “brand” — they are also bringing in the Guggenheim and the Louvre. Is it about having great art and education? Or is it about one upping the rest of the gulf countries and becoming more “respected?”
The students vigorously defend their school, as I’m sure I would if I attended. But perhaps they, too, have that little bit of unease about being there and being showered with free everything.
Can the ones who are uncomfortable with the treatment of workers stand up and say something? In class, sure. But in the newspaper? In the public sphere? Can they protest the government or even their own university?
All I can tell you is that I wouldn’t have written this if I was still living in Abu Dhabi.
Note: This may be upsetting to former NYU and NYU Abu Dhabi associates and colleagues. I want to be clear that I think the work being put in by NYU staff, faculty, and students is excellent and worthy of praise. But there needs to be a higher standard of treatment for the laborers working on this project — I hope this helps make that a reality.