Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Kramer and the UAE

I haven't been paying much attention to the Dubai Ports World debate, but did see Martin Kramer's post on the UAE from last weekend. Therein, he says:
"As a whole, the United Arab Emirates is much more of a mixed bag. In Abu Dhabi, the capital, they yearn to be political players in the Arab world, which has led them to buy off bad guys and offer money for Arab or Islamic studies to places like Harvard and Columbia. I don't look with equanimity upon gifts from governments that don't respect academic freedom at home. But the UAE's pushing ideas about the Middle East in classrooms seems a lot more problematic to me than its moving containers in Baltimore.

"Whatever happens to the port deal, it's important to strenghten the tie to Dubai. In time, and beneath the glitz, all sorts of interesting cultural interactions might take place. It will also be a very American-inflected exchange. Alexandria in its heyday revolved around Europe. Beirut tilted both to Europe and America. Dubai seems destined to vacillate culturally between New York and Las Vegas, for better or worse."

First of all, I'm flattered that funding Middle East Studies in the United States is now a way to become a political player in the Arab world. I'd always thought it was mainly about trying to improve the image of the Arab world in this country. However, I'm mainly curious why the UAE's giving gifts doesn't represent a valuable tie to the region, and is instead seen as a larger potential threat than port security.

This argument usually boils down to the idea that by funding Middle East centers, Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE guarantee certain forms of coverage. What's always missing is the evidence of this actually happening, such as a university deciding not to hire a scholar critical of Wahhabi Islam for fear of offending Saudi Arabia. (I find it ironic that the King Fahd Center at Arkansas is directed by a Sufism expert.) It's also interesting to look at this in light of the Title VI debate, where scholars are considered capable of duping the American government into thinking they're useful while at the same time willingly serving foreign paymasters.

Putting money into Middle East Studies does much more than just fund research. One plan here at Wisconsin is to create internships, most likely in the UAE, for interested business students. We also have several dozen students study abroad every year, and they often form their own impressions of the Middle East based on their experiences. If there is imbalance in the field, it stems in part from the fact that higher education in the humanities does in fact have strong liberal tendencies (other fields, such as business, may differ) and in part from the fact professors often see themselves, rightly or wrongly, as a corrective on popular misconceptions. It's nothing that convinces me we shouldn't do everything in our power to prepare our students to network in the exciting Dubai of Kramer's visions.


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