The proposed UAE-Cambridge Innovation Institute (UAE-CII) would be a 10-year initiative between the University and several UAE partnersDavid Rodrigo

Content Note: This article contains discussion of torture

The University of Cambridge is in negotiations about a £400 million collaborative initiative with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Varsity can exclusively reveal.

According to documents seen by Varsity, the proposed UAE-Cambridge Innovation Institute (UAE-CII) would be a 10-year collaboration between the University of Cambridge and “several educational, governmental, and corporate partners in the United Arab Emirates”.

The documents outline an approximate budget of £400m over the proposed ten years, with £90m coming from in-kind contributions of academics’ and staff time. The foreign partners will contribute the remaining £312 million.

As well as the initial budget, the group will also seek additional funding from external sources, with the documents estimating that £25m will be received in this way over the 10-year period, though certainty about the final budget is yet to be established at this preliminary phase of the initiative.

Much of these funds will be dedicated to staff appointments, including the appointment of endowed chairs, endowed lectureships, 24 postdoctoral positions, 42 PhD fellowships, and management and coordination positions, amongst others.

The initiative is pending approval from the General Board, but according to a document circulated to the Faculty of Education, it has the full support of Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope.

Its focuses include primary and secondary education, Islamic art and culture, engineering and innovation. The aims of the collaborative Institute include advancing the UAE education system, expanding research into Islamic culture, and developing “a base of advanced engineering research which includes accelerating the transition away from carbon-based energy sources.”

The documents acknowledge that there are significant risks associated with the project, including “reputation”, a “values gap” between the UK and UAE, “the potential burden such a large partnership could place on parts of the University and attendant mission drift”, as well as “academic freedom and institutional autonomy”.

They also state: “We [the University] are also fully aware that there will be questions relating to matters of human rights and environmental sustainability and stewardship in the UAE, especially in light of recent University decisions relating to engagement with certain state actors in the region, and with petroleum-based energy producers.”

These risks could “damage the University’s ability to fulfil its mission”, which is “to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.”

The UAE has previously been criticised for issues of human rights, including those of foreign nationals such as Matthew Hedges, a Durham PhD student who was arrested in Abu Dhabi in 2018, accused of working for MI6. He was swiftly found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Hedges was pardoned several days later and allowed to return to the UK. However, he submitted a complaint via the UK Foreign Office, alleging that he was tortured while imprisoned. He claims that he was kept in handcuffs, questioned for hours at a time, and fed a cocktail of unknown drugs.

In 2017, Dr Nasser bin Ghaith was sentenced to 10 years in prison due to a series of tweets which the UAE claimed amounted to “false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the State.” He has stated that he suffered torture during incarceration, including beatings, sleep deprivation and a lack of access to family, lawyers and medical professionals.

The UAE also hit more local headlines in February of this year, as Princess Latifa of the UAE called for an investigation to help free her sister, Princess Shamsa, who was abducted from the city of Cambridge in 2000 on her father’s orders. Princess Latifa also alleged that her sister suffered torture after her abduction: “She was tortured by getting her feet caned.”

Varsity has discovered that the University is “fully aware of the UAE’s recent treatment of UK researchers and other visitors, which reflect a dramatically different cultural and legal context than that which may be familiar to our staff and students.” It states that “sufficient support” will be put in place to ensure “staff are prepared” for their work in the UAE.

The documents also raise environmental questions, as the UAE currently attains 99% of its energy from fossil fuels. The nation was the sixth highest carbon dioxide emitter per capita in 2009, ahead of both the US and China.

Though the documents cite the UAE’s poor track record in terms of environmental and sustainability matters, a University statement highlighted that the proposed collaboration has emerged “from a shared commitment to creating a more sustainable future by helping to solve some of the greatest challenges facing our planet.”

It added: “The University of Cambridge and the UAE share an ambition to fight climate change and create sustainable solutions that will help the global economy transition away from fossil fuels. We are excited about the prospect of our students and researchers benefiting from these new connections and perspectives.”

In October 2020, the University announced its intention to divest the Cambridge University Endowment Fund (CUEF) from fossil fuels. However, the UAE is a major exporter of both oil and gas, although it has set a target of producing 50% of its energy from solar and nuclear sources by 2050.

As well as these factors, the UAE have also been criticised for their laws regarding the rights of women, as well as the LGBTQ+ community. This includes the ability for a judge to decide whether a woman is permitted to leave the house to work, and in most cases, the woman’s guardian must approve of her job choice in order for her to be able to work.

To mitigate the repetitional risk, the University intends to develop a “phased approach” and claims that restricting the scope of the project to the “shared academic, social and environmental goals of the University and UAE” will “de-risk” the project.

According to the documents, it was intended that the Vice-Chancellor and Crown Prince of the UAE would meet in June of this year in order to formally announce their desire to pursue the initiative. Varsity are unable to confirm whether such a meeting took place.

Following this, project plans would be co-created by both parties, before the launch of the first of these projects in September 2021. Meanwhile, recruitment for the positions and academic roles created by the initiative will commence in September 2021.

The University plans for the collaboration to initially be virtual, before establishing a physical joint Institute in the UAE, which would be launched in September 2024.

Varsity has learned that the University has consistently consulted the Committee on Benefactions and External and Legal Affairs (CBELA) in order to assess the reputational and institutional risks detailed above. In addition, the University is prepared to “shut down broader areas of collaboration if an unbridgeable values gap emerges.”

Finally, the documents request that the General Board approve both formal discussion about individual projects under the initiatives, and the creation of an Institute or “physical footprint in the UAE.”

A University spokesperson told Varsity: “This is an exciting and unique opportunity for world-leading collaborations on efforts to transform economies and societies. The potential partnership will help prepare education systems for a radically changing labour market, promote greater global understanding through appreciation for Islamic art and culture, and develop innovative technological solutions to the challenges facing our planet, helping the transition away from fossil fuels.”

General secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), Jo Grady, described the proposal as “shameful”, commenting: "This is a clear case of a rich authoritarian state using its wealth in an attempt to launder its reputation. It would be shameful if the University of Cambridge were willing to be used in this way.

“It is one of the wealthiest institutions in the UK”, she added, “and does not need this money. UCU members in other institutions have raised concerns about LGBT+ rights in UAE, and this deal looks especially problematic in light of the legal action which British academic Matthew Hedges is currently pursuing over alleged false imprisonment and torture.”

This article was updated on 07/07 to include the UCU's statement.


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