An Interview With the NYU Professor Banned From the United Arab Emirates

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Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia

While trying to board a flight to Abu Dhabi on Saturday, NYU professor and labor expert Andrew Ross discovered that he was banned from the country for “security reasons.” Though he’s certainly not the first professor whose views have gotten him barred from the United Arab Emirates, he is the first NYU professor to be banned — an especially sticky situation considering NYU has operated a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi since 2010.

We spoke with Ross over the phone about the surprising ban, what caused it, and what NYU authorities are — and aren’t — doing to remedy it.

First off: How did you find out you were barred from the United Arab Emirates?
I was trying to check in on an Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi at JFK on Saturday night and clearly my name or my passport triggered an alert in their security system. They called the UAE authorities, who confirmed I was barred from entering into the country for “security reasons.”

What was your reaction to that?
I was very disappointed because I was traveling to the UAE to do some research during my spring break. I wasn’t totally surprised by this, because I have a profile as an advocate for workers’ rights in the UAE and that’s a very sensitive topic in the UAE. And others — especially in the human-rights sector who work in this field — have also been banned from the country. The difference is I’m an NYU professor and they’re not.

What work were you planning to do while there?
My work there involves field research. I’m a labor studies scholar, so I would be interviewing workers.

Has NYU done anything to help remedy the situation?
Nothing so far. Not a peep. This surprises a lot of people, because I did write to the president on Sunday morning and also the vice chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi, and there’s been a firestorm of media about this incident, but neither of them have responded to me — not even a gesture of sympathy.

Why do you think that is?
I have no idea whatsoever. They should do something about it. They should be working their utmost to have the ban lifted because otherwise there’s a huge question mark over NYU’s presence in Abu Dhabi. The UAE authorities shouldn’t be in the position of choosing which NYU professors they can admit and those they will not admit. That’s an untenable situation.

You wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last year that spotlighted human-rights abuses of migrant workers in the kafala sponsorship system. Can you talk a little bit about what that system entails?
It’s basically the system that’s used by all the Gulf states for recruiting migrant workers, mostly from south Asia. The effect of the sponsorship system is really to trap the workers in a system of debt bondage, because they usually arrive in the country with an average of $2,000 worth of debt from recruitment fees, which is an enormous amount of money for these people. And they’re tied to their sponsor, which is usually their employer but can be a private citizen. So they’re in a very vulnerable position with no rights. Most of them are being paid less than they were promised when they were being recruited. If they complain about their circumstance, they’re likely to be arrested and deported, which usually happens.

Did migrant workers facing potential human-rights abuses help build the NYU Abu Dhabi campus itself?
Yes, that was documented by several independent investigators, including a very high-profile New York Times story last year. The co-author of that study was actually deported from the UAE.

Do you think it was your Times op-ed that brought you to the attention of UAE authorities?
Yes, probably initially. But I’ve also published other reports on my research and I’m a fairly outspoken advocate for worker rights in the UAE. I have attracted state surveillance. I was followed, tracked, trailed in March of last year when I was doing my research. I also learned a private investigator has been trying to gather information about me from academic acquaintances in the last month or so. [The ban] didn’t totally surprise me for those reasons.

What kind of compromises do you think NYU has had to make to have a functioning campus in Abu Dhabi? Do you think they’re worth it?
I was never consulted on the original decision. No faculty were consulted. This was a unilateral decision on the part of President Sexton, and he’s come under a lot of fire for making that decision. But once the decision was made and the university is up and running, the position of myself and others is that NYU has responsibilities there and one of the responsibilities is to try to generate solutions to the terrible situation that migrant workers labor under in that country. Otherwise, what are we doing there?

What has been NYU’s reaction to you critiquing the labor practices that built its Abu Dhabi campus?
We’ve been working on this issue for several years from within the university. There’s a faculty-student group called the Coalition for Fair Labor, and from the very beginning, we’ve been pushing the administration to adopt fair labor standards for the construction. We thought we had some success with that, but most of what was established looked good on paper, but it simply wasn’t enforced very well and so there certainly were workers whose rights were abused and violated in the course of [the campus’s] construction. It’s our responsibility to keep up pressure on the administration, to see to it that workers are not violated.

What’s your next step, especially now that you can’t travel to Abu Dhabi?
I would like to continue my work, and the ball is clearly in President Sexton’s court. He should do what he can to lift the ban and get a public assurance from the UAE authorities that nothing like this could ever happen to an NYU faculty or student ever again. This is a basic issue of academic freedom.