What the UAE’s detention of a UK graduate student means for Middle East studies

22 October 2018, 0824 EDT

I feel like I should say something about the disappearance—and likely assassination—of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. This tragedy was enabled by America’s permissive stance towards Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US support for other horrific Saudi policies (like its bombing of Yemen). I’ve expressed concern on Twitter and in personal conversations, and have been writing about Yemen for years.

But to be honest, I don’t think I have anything new to say at this point. Most Duck readers will already know, and be upset, about this situation. Instead, I want to raise another concerning human rights abuse by one of our Persian Gulf allies: the detention of UK graduate student Matthew Hedges by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

A few months ago, reports spread of a UK man detained in the UAE on espionage charges; he was rumored to be an academic doing research in the country. These reports were later confirmed as the UAE announced it had charged Hedges with espionage for trying to obtain classified information and gain access to confidential archives. Hedges is a PhD student at the University of Durham, and was studying the UAE’s post-Arab Spring foreign policy. He has been held in rough conditions and there are concerns about his physical and mental health.

It is possible Hedges was working on behalf of a foreign government, although that’s highly unlikely. His wife denies this—she says he would have been a horrible spy—and it’s unclear who the UAE thinks he’s working for. It’s more likely that he was interviewing or trying to interview UAE government officials or well-connected foreign policy experts. This would involve gathering information on what the UAE has been doing in the region and why. He may also have asked his interview subjects for other contacts or sources of information. Some of these contacts may have grown suspicious and reported Hedges. Or it may be the case that even raising such topics in public is taboo and the authorities wanted to make it clear this was not ok.

This case has resonated with me, as it could easily be me in that jail cell. For my dissertation, which was the basis of my book, I researched Muslim states’ counterterrorism policies. I did field work in Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (although I only used the latter two). My family was nervous about me going, given the sensitive topics I’d be discussing with my contacts. I am currently working on a project that sounds similar to Hedges’, and have been looking into another trip to the region. I could easily have asked the “wrong” questions or pushed to get a contact to speak more on an issue and run afoul of authorities.

But this isn’t about me: Hedges’ rights are being violated, and he is not the first person to run into trouble in the UAE. The UK government says it is pressing the Emiratis for his release, and I hope they succeed. Others have also been detained on questionable or surprising charges. The UAE is certainly not the only Middle Eastern state where one can get in trouble with the law, but its popularity with international visitors and importance in regional politics has led to increasing scrutiny of its legal system.

Beyond this, the detention may have chilling effects on Middle East scholarship. We need to understand Persian Gulf states’ foreign policies, but it’s getting harder to do so. States like the UAE do not have publicly available government archives, making analysis of historical data difficult. They also don’t have the sort of robust news media that could provide insight into policymaking and public attitudes. This is the case for many states in the region, but it is easier to conduct fieldwork in other states (although the arrest and murder of foreign researchers in Egypt suggests even well-researched countries are not necessarily safe). If scholars face arrest for interviewing subjects in the UAE, it may become impossible to conduct the kind of intensive field work that, in the absence of archival or media data, is required for high-quality qualitative work.

This arrest may also undermine Middle East experts’ public engagement on these issues. At this point, the only way to really get inside info on these states’ policies is to have some connections to their regimes. That is unlikely to occur if someone has been a vocal critic of, for example, the UAE. So academics may hold back on full-throated criticism in the hopes that they can continue their work. I’m not necessarily condemning this move; it’s important to have insights into these regimes. But it does present a dilemma for junior scholars who can’t rely on their stature to overcome data limitations.

Again, the priority is making sure Hedges is released soon and future researchers are not detained on these charges. But a secondary concern is to figure out how to conduct high-quality research in the context of these constraints.

One option, of course, is just to avoid crucial but data-poor topics in favor of ones with rich sources for researchers to examine. There is a case to be made for sticking to areas we can study with rigor, but I worry about cutting ourselves off from substantively significant cases.

Alternately, there may be methodological fixes. Qualitative methodology provides some options for indirect inference—such as counterfactuals or George and Bennett’s “congruence method.” I drew on some of these in my book to analyze cases in which “insider” information is hard to come by. Quantitative methods may also be useful, as they can highlight important patterns across regional states.

At some point, however, it may be worth having a conversation on a set of standards for research in countries like the UAE that allow high-quality work to be done without putting scholars at risk.