North Africa, West Asia

Qatar’s University of Fear

Professors were in some respects treated as badly as the hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers comprising the majority of the small state’s population.

Roger Hardy
16 December 2019
David Cameron on a tour of Qatar University with Sheikha Al Missnad, Qatar University President, 2011.
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Tim Ireland/PA. All rights reserved.

Qatar’s most prestigious university stands accused of fostering a climate of fear in which academics are afraid to speak out about persistent abuses.

Grievances came out into the open in February of this year, when a professor at Qatar University resigned and sent an open letter to colleagues and students alleging corruption and cronyism in the university, and in particular the College of Arts and Sciences.

The letter, by Dr Haydar Badawi, a US citizen of Sudanese origin, found its way onto Arabic Twitter, a platform to which Qataris are addicted. Many of those responding endorsed his view that corruption at the university was endemic. Among the issues Badawi raised in the letter (which is still on Twitter) was the way in which faculty members were subjected to harsh and unfair treatment as a result of their contractual terms and conditions.

“The university has turned into a nursery of injustice and oppression,” Badawi wrote. “It has become a place for the violation of rights. I have many stories of tragedies which my colleagues in the college or in my department or other departments talk about.”

Badawi objected, among other things to contracting procedures under which professors’ terms could be terminated on the flimsiest of pretexts.

From conciliation to confrontation

Qatar University, founded in 1977, has more than 20,000 students and over 1,000 faculty members, both Qatari and non-Qatari.

After the appearance of Haydar Badawi’s letter, the authorities were at first conciliatory. He was summoned to a meeting where officials promised that his concerns – including his criticism of the non-renewal of the contracts of two faculty members at the Department of Mass Communication – would be addressed.

The then dean of the College of Arts, Dr Rashid Al Kuwari, the target of harsh criticism by Dr Badawi, held a meeting with the faculty of the department and pledged to review his decisions on the non-renewal of contracts and to investigate complaints.

Among those whose contracts were not renewed was Professor Leon Barkho, on leave of absence from Jönköping University in Sweden. A former Reuters correspondent and AP staff writer, Dr Barkho is editor of the Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies and an authority on journalism and communication.

But in April, Dr Badawi was sacked with immediate effect, his university email account was shut down, and he was banned from teaching or even entering the university campus. Faculty and students were shocked to discover that the authorities had deployed police vehicles close to the department, apparently to prevent Badawi from entering the building and to discourage any sign of dissent his sacking might provoke.

On seeing the police vehicles, many faculty members vacated the building in fear.

A pattern of intimidation

Haydar Badawi’s case is not an isolated one. Dr Barkho experienced what he describes as “six horrific months” at the university before his eventual return to Sweden. “I had never experienced such fear in my life. They thought I was behind the criticism by Dr Badawi. The dean told me I would pay a heavy price because Dr Badawi’s letter had included a paragraph in my defence – and because I had not come to him to dissociate myself from the critique of his leadership.”

Dr Barkho says he met the dean three times and insisted he had nothing to do with the wave of criticism on Twitter. But the dean was adamant in blaming Dr Barkho, who says officials made his life hell during the remainder of his stay at the university. On returning to Sweden, he sent a farewell letter to faculty and university members setting out a number of issues that concerned him. The letter was posted on Arabic Twitter (it is still there) and generated scores of comments and retweets, all of them critical of the university. The authorities immediately blocked his account and removed from the system any trace of his letter. In his letter Dr Barkho argued that – notwithstanding their pay and perks – faculty members were in some respects treated just as badly as the hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers who comprise the majority of the small state’s population.

Most faculty members are Arabs who come from other parts of the Middle East or who live in the West. For many of them, employment is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, with monthly pay for professors in the range of $10,000 tax-free. But they discover that the slightest dissent or disagreement with senior officials at the university – all of whom are Qataris – will lead to their dismissal.

It is not only non-Qatari faculty members who have cause for complaint: there is widespread dissatisfaction with conditions at the university among Qatari students and faculty. Leon Barkho says that while most of his non-Qatari colleagues stopped communicating with him after the appearance of his letter, he received a lot of support from Qatari faculty and Qatari students through calls, emails and comments on Twitter.

Barkho believes Qatar University has successfully kept the lid on these abuses, describing it as a “secretive academic community which thrives through generous salary and perks and financial handouts, and not through academic rigour”.

After the reaction caused by his letter, he was reached by a university official offering a settlement and an investigation of his complaints. But after months elapsed, he concluded the university was only interested in buying time.

Notes

The two letters on Arabic twitter can be found at:

https://mobile.twitter.com/ikhulooood/status/1165904450034253825

https://mobile.twitter.com/alshahwanihaya/status/1095040354976481285

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