Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

What can NYUAD learn from Neha Vora about decolonizing US institutions in the Gulf?

Professor Neha Vora speaks to the NYU Abu Dhabi community about her ethnographic study of Education City in Qatar and what it means for NYUAD.

Nov 21, 2022

In 1998, 12 years before New York University Abu Dhabi accepted its first batch of students, Virginia Commonwealth University became the first member of Education City in Qatar. Fully funded by the government led Qatar Foundation, Education City has since grown to host eight universities, most of them being branch campuses of U.S. institutions. The Qatar Foundation describes it as “a unique model of academic and research excellence, pioneering a new approach to multidisciplinary, global education and enabling breakthroughs that benefit Qatar and the rest of the world.”
This rhetoric will sound familiar to the NYUAD community, as will the fact that much has been written about the project by those who have never set foot in Education City itself, some more thoughtful than others. Neha Vora, Professor of Anthropology at Lafayette College, sheds light on realities on the ground at Education City in her 2018 book Teach for Arabia: American Universities, Liberalism, and Transnational Qatar, based mostly on her ethnographic research at Education City from 2010 to 2014.
On Nov. 3, the Office of Inclusion and Equity (OIE) hosted Vora for a conversation centered around her book. Sheetal Majithia, Assistant Professor of Literature, and Dale Hudson, Associate Professor of Film and New Media, served as panelists.
Fatiah Touray, Senior Director of the OIE, introduced the event: “One of the things we’re particularly excited about is exploring the similarities and even some of the differences between Education City … and our own campus here at Saadiyat Island.”
Paradox of Liberalism and Performance of Diversity
Throughout the talk, Vora pointed to the paradox of liberalism as it plays out in Education City. Vora claims these campuses operate within the division of the world into the liberal (including the US) and the illiberal (including Qatar). Education City carries the liberal world’s mandate to civilize the illiberal world. Accordingly, the faculties and administrations at Education City build curricula and interact with students based on their notions of liberalism.
Liberalism at Education City is distinctly tied into essentialist ideas of culture and cultural differences. Take the institutions’ treatment of Qatari students, for instance. Faculty and administration, Vora says, reproduce essentialist ideas of Qatariness: that they are uniformly conservative, less qualified than non Qatari students, among others. Through cultural relativist ideas of respecting difference, Qatari students are treated as a group rather than as individuals and are pressured to represent Qatari culture as a whole and exhibit nationalist pride. Administrators would often interpret this as a sign of Qatari students’ innate “conservatism,” reinforcing a perceived dichotomy between Western liberalism and Qatari “culture.” Meanwhile, student affairs offices scramble to fix what they perceive as the problem of “Qatari self segregation.” The institutions reinforce differences by having students relate to each other through differences.
None of this would sound foreign at NYUAD, where some Emirati students have reported being treated as a group rather than individuals by both non-Emirati students and the administration. An article from The Gazelle highlights the diverse perspectives of Emirati and non-Emirati students on Emirati-non-Emirati integration, with critiques of issues ranging from the framing of segregation as a problem to be solved, the exaggeration of the extent of segregation, the internal diversity among Emiratis, and the blame being put on Emirati students for this supposed problem. Vora’s work challenges us to question the deeper roots of (perceived) segregation, the way NYUAD responds to the phenomenon, and the role that cultural relativism plays in maintaining it.
For citizens and non citizens, the “global citizenship” that Education City tries to foster is actually a particular orientation that masquerades as a universal ideal. “It's much more about this multicultural, neoliberal performance of diversity,” Vora said, “and not about actual equity and everybody feeling like they are equally the center of the campus.”
Furthermore, Vora argued: ”The elite from the Global South, the ones that go to the English medium schools and have this kind of international, cosmopolitan ethos about them — those folks became the ones that were performing the proper citizenship of what it means to be a student in those campuses.”
Decolonizing Scholarship
The parochial nature of this universal liberalism is no more evident than in the curriculum and faculty composition.
In Education City, “Whiteness was the center of the campus in terms of the kind of knowledge that was being centered by the faculty, and by who the faculty and administration tended to be,” Vora said. Faculty at Education City often teach knowledge produced in and based on the Western contexts, specifically U.S. contexts, as if that was the universal truth that everyone, including students in Qatar, needed to know.
Vora also spoke to the importance of being locally grounded in thinking about categories. “Underrepresented minorities in a context like the Gulf are South Asian and African faculty. We have to look at structures of inclusion and exclusion from a local perspective in order for us to have these conversations about what equity looks like,” Vora said. Hudson added that Filipino faculty are an underrepresented group at NYUAD faculty.
This resonated with Budoor Al Rahmah, Class of 2024. “I think Neha Vora’s discussion about underrepresented minorities in the Gulf was really critical,” Al Rahmah said. “I completely agree with her sentiment and would also appreciate seeing more faculty members from the region, both citizens and non citizens.”
“In many of my classes, the dominant names and readings on the syllabi are Western. And if they’re not Western, they’re almost always from elite Western institutions.” Al Rahmah further commented. “But at the same time, I recognize this isn’t specific to NYUAD and I could see the efforts being made.”
Students, of course, are not passive receivers of liberal education. The student bodies at Education City have resisted the presentation of Western centric knowledge as universal and ahistorical. Vora spoke about the way the diverse student bodies at Education City have called for more diverse faculty and curricula. She gave a nod to similar calls at NYUAD, much of which has focused on faculty composition and foundational courses for social science majors.
At NYUAD, such efforts have resulted in modest progress, but change has been slow and unsatisfactory. Even courses that have responded to calls for decolonization tend to maintain the West as a point of reference.Vora expressed a similar sentiment: “When I see these kinds of syllabi where it's like, we're diversifying our syllabi, we're going to have a week on disability in a fifteen week ability centered way of thinking about gender and sexuality. That, to me, is not diversifying. Diversifying is sitting down as a classroom and talking about, what are the kinds of norms that we're still perpetuating? How do we think about challenging those? How are those norms violent? Who do they exclude?”
Vora argues that being truly decolonial requires a complete overturning of assumptions deeply embedded in academia. This issue is larger than any single institution. “This is how we've been professionalized,” Vora said. “We learn the cannon as PhD students; we are constantly being told you have to cite these people if you want to be published in my journal.” As a result, Vora warns that students will face uphill climbs as they navigate academia while trying to be decolonial: “Unfortunately, you're going to be doing twice the amount of work, and you're still going to be treated as if you don't know as much as the people who only get to cite Marx and Weber … I have to know the canon of knowledge in order for me to write with confidence—and get cited—about the kinds of arguments that I want to make, and I need to know scholarship by women of color, scholarship from postcolonial societies, things like that.”
The Status Quo University and Class
Decolonization, for Vora, faces great challenges as it goes up against not just US universities in the Gulf, but Western universities in general, that tend to maintain the status quo by absorbing and appropriating radical resistant movements — led primarily by students — into depoliticized ideas like diversity. “How do you manage to be someone who’s constantly challenging the institution while you are also a representative who is dependent on the institution for your livelihood?” Vora asked. “Fred Moten and Stefano Harney argue that the only ethical relationship to the university is what they call the fugitive relationship: steal resources and repurpose them for social justice needs.”
Noora Jabir, Class of 2024, found this idea particularly compelling. “This is the question that I always had on my mind from the very beginning. On one hand, I know that higher educational institutions, no matter how hard they try, will end up reinforcing social structures,” Jabir said. “There might be some people that end up getting in even if they didn't grow up with privilege, but I do think often, at least for me, when I compare myself to people who are also [in] my school and also applied to NYUAD but didn't get in, I knew it was privilege that set me apart from them and not really talent or skills. But thinking of it this way, a relationship where I’m trying to take these resources and do something different that this institution does not expect me to do.”
On the question of who gets to be in these universities in the first place, a 2016 study by Andrés Rodríguez-Cáceres, Class of 2016, looked at socioeconomic diversity among the NYUAD student population. Rodríguez-Cáceres found that, despite great diversity of national and religious backgrounds, NYUAD students represented the global elite: only one fifth of respondents placed themselves below the median in socioeconomic status in their home country, with almost two thirds of students having attended private high schools, more than four fifths with English language curricula, and 62 percent with international curricula.
Still, the situation at Saadiyat may be better relative to Education City. Vora — who interviewed a number of NYUAD students for her research — points to the generous financial aid at NYUAD as an advantage its student body might have in challenging the institution’s practices as it creates “an equality between students in terms of how many claims they can stake upon the institution.” “Students who are coming from working class backgrounds who never would have imagined being in a luxurious place like NYU Abu Dhabi,” Vora said, “were questioning some of the relationships not just between the institution and the students, but also different groups of students.”
Students have certainly not stayed silent about the way our class backgrounds interact with life at NYUAD, especially in the wake of the removal of the stipend.
However, the university has given little room to socioeconomic diversity in crafting its public image of diversity, and such voices seem to have found little reception with the administration, with a chronically understaffed Student Finance office. Furthermore, with signs of wavering in NYUAD’s promise of financial equity, it remains to be seen whether conversations around class will see much light in the future.
While problems persist, Education City and its siblings, Vora argues, present unique possibilities: “Students showcased a different kind of belonging to Qatar … This activism emerged from the contradictory experiences of studying at a U.S. university, where the promise of liberal education simultaneously revealed deep imperial inequalities and led to the formation of new subjectivities and politicizations. The efforts to organize in ways that move beyond identity and culture also reveal that students are forming solidarity around issues of local significance that transcend the deeply segregated national and ethnic spaces of Qatar and Education City.”
A recording of the conversation with Neha Vora can be found [here]( Her book, Teach for Arabia: American Universities, Liberalism, and Transnational Qatar, can be accessed through the NYUAD Library.
Sejin Park is a contributing writer. Email him at
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