"It’s not the right time to be pursuing these kinds of really ambitious plans"Nick Fewings/UNSPLASH

The proposed £400m deal between the University of Cambridge and the United Arab Emirates is on hold, Varsity can reveal.

Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope told Varsity that the deal, which Varsity first reported in July, was put on hold due to revelations that the UAE was linked to the use of Pegasus spyware.

The Guardian revealed in July that the UAE was responsible for selecting over 400 UK phone numbers which appeared on a list of numbers known to government clients of the NSO group, which sells Pegasus spyware. The UAE had access to the spyware, which hacks and takes control of phones, allowing phone activity to be surveilled.

The UAE’s access to Pegasus has since been withdrawn, after it was revealed that Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed used the software to hack the phone of his ex-wife Princess Haya and her legal team during a family court hearing in the UK.

Toope told Varsity in an interview: “The revelations about Pegasus caused us to decide that it’s not the right time to be pursuing these kinds of really ambitious plans with the UAE.”

He added: “It’s always a question of fine balance: of course you have to assess the opportunity that’s being presented to make a difference in the world and the risks to reputation of a whole series of important values for the University.”

“There are existing relationships across the University on a departmental and individual academic level but there are no conversations about a big project. It’s all on hold for now”, Toope continued.


Mountain View

Documents reveal proposed £400 million collaboration between University of Cambridge and United Arab Emirates

The proposed deal initially sparked controversy due to ethical concerns about a relationship with the UAE, given the country’s history of human rights abuses, its lack of rights for women and LGBTQ+ people, the restrictions placed on freedom of expression and the treatment, detainment and torture of academics such as Mathew Hedges. The Cambridge branch of the UCU, as well as Cambridge Ethical Affairs Campaign, opposed the deal for these reasons.

The deal was intended to upgrade the education system in the UAE, and work on questions of climate and energy transition. It would have also focused on the exchange of Islamic and Western cultures.

“Will we ever engage with these conversations in the future with a whole range of countries who don’t share our values? I’m sure we will”, the Vice-Chancellor stated, “but I hope we’ll be doing it with our eyes wide open and with a rigorous assessment which says that the need to collaborate is greater than the risks that we’re willing to undertake and how do we mitigate those risks. And, if we can’t mitigate them, we absolutely shouldn’t engage.”

The University told Varsity: “The University of Cambridge has numerous partnerships with governments and organisations around the world. It approached the United Arab Emirates as it does all potential partnerships: with an open mind, and rigorously weighing the opportunities to contribute to society – through collaborative research, education and innovation – against any challenges.”

The statement continues: “These are always finely balanced assessments. We will be reflecting over the next few months before further evaluating our long term options with our partners and with the University community.”

A spokesperson for the Cambridge Ethical Affairs Campaign told Varsity that they welcome the news that the deal is on pause: "The campaign has been fighting this collaboration since its announcement, launching a petition over summer against it, on the basis of ongoing human rights abuses in the UAE and threats to academic freedom.  Nevertheless, it is regrettable that the university only cancelled the deal when revelations emerged about the UAE’s use of Pegasus Spy Software, and not because of the existing moral concerns harboured by staff and students."

They continued: "Prior to the Pegasus revelations, we already knew that the UAE government practiced arbitrary detention (particularly of its critics), had violated the human rights of British researchers, and repressed the rights of LGBTQIA+ people and women.  It reflects poorly on the moral character of the university that they would propose this collaboration whilst fully aware of these abuses."

They also expressed concerns that the University has not ruled out pursuing the deal in the future: "the Ethical Affairs campaign calls on the university to scrap this deal outright, not merely put it on hold, and commit to making no similar deals in future with other oppressive regimes.”

Cambridge UCU echoed similar concerns: "What is at stake here is not just the issue of “reputational damage”, but the ethical question of whether accepting funding from state or corporate bodies which engage in practices which damage the environment and violate human rights is ever consonant with our “values” as a community of learning."

They added: "Reputational damage and bad press should not be the overriding deciding factor when  seeking funding or choosing business partners."