Jaber al Lamki, executive director of media and strategic communications for the United Arab Emirates, discusses the Matthew Hedges case during a news conference in Abu Dhabi on Monday. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Matthew Hedges, a political science graduate student from Durham University, returned to Britain this week after more than six months in prison. Hedges was arrested on May 5 at the airport in Dubai during a research trip, and five months later was accused by the UAE public prosecutor of spying for Britain. Last week, he was sentenced to life in prison, shocking the academic community and sparking a diplomatic crisis with the British government. A presidential pardon finally released him from prison.

The issues raised by his arrest and sentencing remain urgently important, however. The risks of research in countries across the Middle East have changed in recent years, in ways that may not be visible to academics who did their research in an earlier era. The murder of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni in Egypt and Hedges’s detention in the UAE are only the most prominent recent cases of escalating threats against academic research. Turkey has arrested thousands of its own academics as part of a broader crackdown on civil society. Iran holds several Western academics in its prisons on vague charges of espionage. Saudi Arabia has arrested many prominent civil society activists, including noted academics such as Hatoon al-Fassi.

In this context, many academics now question the feasibility of doing politically sensitive research in many countries in the Middle East. The current environment in the region is one in which the red lines governing what can be studied, and how, have become ambiguous and murky. For all the valuable efforts being undertaken to better prepare students for such risks, the harsh reality is that the students cannot meaningfully assess risk or protect themselves in ambiguous environments shaped by capricious and suspicious regimes.

But avoiding research in these countries carries profound costs. Most academics who do political science research on the Middle East believe deeply in the importance of deep research on the ground. The best research, of any methodology, will be based on extended stays, cultural familiarity, language expertise, and extensive interview and documentary work. Research on the ground is the best way to develop new ideas, to see political issues through local eyes and to avoid dependence on misleading data sets and out-of-date assumptions. Such research also builds warm networks of academic collaboration and solidarity, which are as vital to building the capacity of local academia as to informing the research of foreign scholars.  

Can, and should, cases such as those of Hedges and Regeni deter political scientists from research in the Middle East? How would such a trend affect the practice of political science in the Middle East?

Matthew Hedges and research safety in the UAE

The case against Hedges generated widespread fear and outrage across the political science community. Hedges was reportedly arrested after his questions about UAE foreign policy and arms acquisitions after the Arab Spring aroused the suspicion of one of his interviewees. Such research topics, while of obvious potential sensitivity in the autocratic and tightly controlled UAE, fall well within the mainstream of political science.

His arrest, harsh detention and life sentence came as a particular shock because the UAE, for all of its well-documented repression of human rights and civil society activists, was seen as safer than the typical offenders in the region. The UAE had cultivated a reputation as a partner for Western academic institutions, hosting branch campuses such as NYU Abu Dhabi and generously supporting universities and think tanks financially. It seemed to place a high value on serving as a venue for academic and policy conferences. It typically relied more on visa denials, deportation and self-censorship by Western institutions hoping for funding to prevent critical research.

Hedges may well have remained in prison for life were it not for the highly public campaign to secure his release. The British Embassy reportedly did little on his behalf for five months as quiet diplomacy failed to secure his release. His imprisonment became a hot political issue in the British media after his wife went public, ultimately sparking a serious crisis in British-UAE relations. Major academic professional associations released strong statements of concern, including the Middle East Studies Association and the American Political Science Association. So did leading human rights advocacy organizations. More than 100 leading academics signed an open letter in support. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office eventually became deeply involved in negotiations to secure his release. One lesson is that such a public campaign can have real impact under certain conditions. But another is that not every academic in peril will enjoy such a high level of sustained public and private support or become enough of an issue to imperil a close alliance.

The UAE responded to this public pressure with an aggressive defense of the charges. The UAE reportedly wanted Britain to admit that Hedges was a spy as a condition for his release, but the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office continued to deny the allegations. One disturbing element of the case was that UAE academics did not come to the defense of a junior colleague or of the right to conduct politically sensitive research. That the case against Hedges reportedly began with one of his interview subjects reporting him and the role played by a leading UAE political scientist in advocating the government’s case against him sent a chilling signal about the future safety of researchers in the UAE.

The threat to researchers in Egypt

The Hedges case came on the heels of the even more shocking murder of Italian graduate student Guilio Regeni. Regeni was forcibly disappeared and murdered two years ago while conducting research on labor activism in Egypt. His fate sent tremors through the academic community, triggering an earlier tidal wave of students, faculty and institutions questioning whether it was still possible to do political science research in Egypt and deliberating over how to ensure safety. His death accelerated a widespread but informal trend toward preventing student travel and research to Egypt, which had begun following the July 2013 military coup.  

Regeni was only the most visible of the casualties. Egypt’s prisons hold tens of thousands of political prisoners, including a wide variety of civil society activists, journalists and academics. Currently, without the publicity attached to Hedges, one Egyptian political science graduate student from a U.S. institution, Walid Salem of the University of Washington, has been imprisoned for more than six months after being arrested, like Hedges, over interviews concerning the politics of the Egyptian judiciary.  

Is research in the Middle East still possible?

The cases of Hedges, Regeni and Salem have highlighted the uncertainty about the red lines governing research in Arab autocracies. Research that may have seemed perfectly normal and acceptable a few years ago now can trigger extreme official sanctions. Even avoiding such research and sticking to safe topics or language study may not be enough. In July, a Lebanese tourist was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for posting a complaint about sexual harassment on her Facebook page. What student can be expected to be cautious enough online to avoid such scrutiny?

Such cases, along with the obvious difficulty of doing research in war-torn countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, have brought to the fore the question of the ability to safely carry out the sort of research that has long been the core of Middle East political science. The Middle East Studies Association warned that the Hedges sentencing “will send shockwaves throughout the academic community and compel universities to reassess the UAE as a safe place for scholarly research.” Numerous British institutions barred travel by staff and students to the UAE in response to the Hedges case, and many Western academic institutions have informally banned research and study in Egypt. Such measures seem appropriate given the new levels of risk but threaten to radically impoverish the academic study of the region and sever vital connections between Western and Middle Eastern academics.  

One answer is to take enhanced steps to anticipate and mitigate risk. Another is sustained public campaigns and diplomatic pressure to raise the costs for regional governments to engage in such abuses of academic researchers. But there are limits to such efforts. The red lines are too unclear, the punishments too draconian and harsh, and the protections afforded by Western embassies too weak. This may lead to the proliferation of research on “safe” topics in “safe” countries, to research relying on secondhand sources or to the outsourcing of risk to local scholars. None of these bodes well for political science or for better understanding of the Middle East.