Report: UAE deported student who shouted ‘Free Palestine’ at NYU Abu Dhabi graduation

Students, activists pan university for allowing censorship; Arab monarchy does not permit protests, has clamped down on speech about Gaza war

FILE - People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing site near the New York University campus, Dec. 16, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
FILE - People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing site near the New York University campus, Dec. 16, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

The United Arab Emirates deported a student who wore a Palestinian-style keffiyeh scarf and shouted “Free Palestine!” as he crossed the stage to receive his diploma while graduating from New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus in May, according to a report by Washington Square News, an NYU student newspaper.

The reported deportation comes as the UAE navigates its response to the ongoing war between Israel and the Hamas terror group. Although it has offered aid to the Palestinians, the UAE, a federation of seven emirates that tightly controls speech and where political parties are illegal, has not allowed any mass demonstrations against the war of the sort that have swept the rest of the Arab world as well as much of the West.

The government’s protest policy has come into conflict with students at NYU Abu Dhabi, only about a fifth of whom originally hail from the Emirates. Students say activities over the war have been barred, and report repression at cultural events in the country’s capital, where those wearing the keffiyeh have been stopped from entering.

“I think the government and the laws of the country don’t necessarily align with wanting to create an environment that appeals to the West as well, if we’re talking about freedom of speech and so on,” said one student, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Responding to questions from AP, NYU Abu Dhabi said it has been “guaranteed academic authority” on campus but that “in none of our locations… are members of the NYU community immune from local law.”

In this file photo taken in 2021, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan looks on as he attends a signing ceremony with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Complex in Ankara. (Adem Altan/AFP)

“NYU has no authority over any nation’s immigration or law enforcement actions or decisions,” the school said. It added it advised students “clearly and repeatedly about expectations, obligations, and boundaries, including the protocols for the NYU Abu Dhabi graduation.”

The Emirati government did not respond to a request for comment.

Before the May 22 graduation ceremony, reportedly attended by UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, students had been told that “displaying the Palestinian flag anywhere on campus is not permitted,” another student said, similarly speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“This was strictly executed, even in residential buildings,” the student added.

In total, five students speaking on condition of anonymity described similar circumstances leading up to the graduation affecting those who earlier sought to bulk-buy keffiyehs as a fundraiser and organize vigils for the dead in Gaza.

Jacqueline Hennecke, an NYU Abu Dhabi alumna who graduated in May, told the AP that the university sent an email prior to graduation banning all “cultural attire” at the commencement — including scarves.

The student who disregarded the order and yelled “Free Palestine!” on stage ultimately found himself in police custody prior to his deportation, according to NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which supports free speech and academic freedom efforts.

The university “has been unable to protect students, staff and faculty from being taken into custody and interrogated at government security offices and has failed to prevent the deportation of one academic staff member and a graduate student,” a statement from the organization alleged.

The organization also claimed that staff and students from non-Western countries had been “detained, intimidated, and deported based on surveillance.” It did not elaborate.

File: A man wearing a keffiyeh looks at the US Capitol during a pro-Palestinian rally, on May 18, 2024, on the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

This is not the first time NYU Abu Dhabi has faced criticism when trying to bring the ideas of an American liberal arts education to the UAE, which has strict rules governing speech.

Human rights groups criticized the school for using migrant workers to build the campus. Workers allege they were forced to pay recruitment fees that were never reimbursed, made to live in overcrowded conditions and forced to work overtime.

Following those reports, NYU commissioned an investigation, which found a number of workers hadn’t been protected by the fair labor practices the school had said would be in place. The school promised reimbursement, though some workers later claimed they never received it.

The journalism department at New York University in 2017 told the school it was cutting its ties to NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus over two professors being denied work visas by the UAE, as well as the school’s handling of the situation.

But NYU Abu Dhabi’s actions come as the UAE maintains its diplomatic ties with Israel, which runs both a consulate in Dubai and an embassy out of Abu Dhabi.

Daily flights to Israel have also gone on, even as Western airlines have been slow to resume flights after canceling them at the start of the war.

When Dubai hosted the UN COP28 climate talks in November, the UAE had to allow pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the event’s UN-controlled “Blue Zone,” but security officials closely monitored the activities.

Additionally, at the recent Abu Dhabi Comedy Festival, an AP journalist saw security guards stop people from entering the event unless they removed their keffiyehs and handed them over. However, one woman shouted “Free Palestine!” during a set by American comedian Dave Chapelle, who called what was happening in Gaza a “genocide.”

Seagulls fly across Abu Dhabi’s corniche in the Emirati capital, on January 24, 2022. (Karim Sahib/AFP)

In stark contrast to the Abu Dhabi controversy, the university’s flagship campus in New York continues to face allegations of fostering antisemitism in the months since October 7.

On Monday, the school settled a lawsuit with three Jewish students accusing the school of violating civil rights law by allowing chants on campus such as “Gas the Jews” and “Hitler was right,” giving students and professors “carte blanche to harass and intimidate NYU’s Jewish population.”

On October 9, two days after the attack, NYU appointed Prof. Eve Tuck to establish a new Center for Indigenous Studies. On October 11, Tuck described the Hamas attack as “life and future affirming,” referring to its perpetrators as “Palestinian resistance.” The university did not censure Tuck, though it did issue a statement in November condemning Hamas.

The school’s New York campus was also the site of an unauthorized protest encampment, set up by students calling on the university to sever ties with Israel and divest from any companies connected to the country’s war effort. The encampment, like others across the United States, was the site of frequent inflammatory protests calling for “intifada” and “revolution.”

The encampment was ultimately removed by force in May, when police arrested 13 protesters, though NYU ultimately dropped its criminal charges against those detained.

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