In AD, hard lines blur

Almost four years have passed since my first visit to the UAE, so it seems worth noting that the culturally diverse, rapidly evolving place I have come ...

Oct 26, 2013

Almost four years have passed since my first visit to the UAE, so it seems worth noting that the culturally diverse, rapidly evolving place I have come to call home still surprises me. I often find myself struggling to make sense of the legal, social and intellectual gray area in which NYU Abu Dhabi exists, and perhaps that is exactly the point.
Years before the first NYUAD students arrived, NYU and the UAE government had grand plans for what this university — and Abu Dhabi — might become, each entity coming to coexist as the two evolved and hopefully intertwined. Even if John Sexton and the entire team at NYU couldn’t quite fully visualize the student experience at NYUAD, I find it very difficult to think that the UAE government didn’t know exactly what it was doing when it reached out to NYU.
Surely it was known that at some point there would be conflict between the laws, practices and norms of a fledging, predominantly Islamic state and those of an evolving, notably liberal and Western university. Even if the GNU departed wildly from the NYU mold, the founders of this project on both sides must have foreseen at least some potential for the tension to which I speak. Most of the gaps within and beyond the Sama bubble — the tensions between academic freedom and aversion to political dissent, alcohol consumption and public (and not so public) displays of affection — are, by necessity, filled with institutional silences, silences I do not have the space or inclination to fill in here. And if I did, I could not, even with a level of experience that exceeds that of the average expat, confidently predict the experiences of any other resident in the UAE, NYUAD student or not. In the absence of clear rules, personal experience of the same liminal spaces varies dramatically.
Shortly before Eid break, I was fortunate enough to attend The Killers concert on the beach outside the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm in Dubai. Thousands of expats, in varying states of dress and consciousness, wandered into a concert not unlike those common to my first home, Australia. Among flowing drinks, teeming faces illuminated by lasers, giant cream Absolut TM balloons and a mosh-pit mess of glowsticks, besparkled hats and blinking red LED spectacles, I was blown away not just by one of my favorite bands but also by the size of the silence in which I was standing and arguably, at some level, endorsing.
Failing to flawlessly enforce the letter of the law is not a phenomenon unique to the UAE. Many a government and government official turn a blind eye to laws violated in such a way that all involved — and society at large — are better off, as I think they should. Leaving out academic discussions of the virtues of democracy or what it is that makes a law just, if laws stand in the way of the best interests of the people they govern, then personally, I am not as adamant as I might otherwise be about their enforcement. What is unique to the UAE, in my experience, is the scale of the blind spots — cataracts that have grown far too steadily to be accidental — even in the time I have attended NYUAD.
Why allow such spaces to exist, or more accurately, foster their existence? There must be some virtue of the gray space for the UAE, a virtue that offsets the sometimes sharp and publicized conflict between a formalistic regime divergent from the reality of the expat experience and the informal understanding of those very expats. More relevant to NYUAD students, what political role is the creation and success of NYUAD serving for the UAE? When I buy a ticket to The Killers, Rihanna or Jamiroquai, when I attend the F1 or visit one of the UAE’s less widely acknowledged attractions, what does my participation in the blurring of these lines mean?
I don’t believe these spaces are designed to hurt visitors, residents or citizens of the UAE, and the economic arguments for their existence — and the incentives for creating and protecting these gray areas — are obvious. But the role these gray spaces play culturally in the UAE, setting up norms that stand in stark opposition to formal laws, is unknown and perhaps unknowable. Why establish a tourist reputation that not only runs counter to but also demonstrates the losses involved in and the practical impossibility of enforcing one’s own laws? What kind of legal system is being developed here?
The frustrating, confusing and necessary blurred lines of the NYUAD experience are edging toward the fulfilment of their no doubt intended purpose. I am left wondering what that purpose might be.
Correction: This article has been updated to include its entire conclusion.
Joshua Shirley is a contributing writer. Email him at
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