Cambridge University puts controversial UAE deal ‘on hold’

Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen Toope said revelations about the nation’s links with the Pegasus spyware project had caused the university to rethink

The University of Cambridge has cancelled a multi-million-pound partnership deal with the United Arab Emirates, citing recent revelations about the nation’s use of spyware.

The vice-chancellor Stephen Toope told student newspaper Varsity that the university had put its talks with the nation “on hold”. A statement released in August said the university was “reflecting” on the proposed deal after criticism from academics and a trade union.

The university first revealed in July that it was considering a deal with the UAE, which would focus on sustainability, education, and Islamic art and culture. It said the two parties had a “shared commitment to creating a more sustainable future by helping to solve some of the greatest challenges facing our planet”. The Guardian revealed that it had seen internal documents showing that the UAE proposed donating £312m to the university. An additional £90m would be offered in exchange for Cambridge staff time.

But just weeks after the announcement, the Guardian reported that the UAE was involved in the Pegasus spyware project and responsible for selecting the UK phone numbers of 400 people whose names appear on a leaked list of people of interest to the NSO Group, the Israeli company behind the spyware.

Toope told the university student newspaper on Thursday 14 October: “The revelations about Pegasus caused us to decide that it’s not the right time to be pursuing these kinds of really ambitious plans with the UAE.

“It’s always a question of fine balance: of course you have to assess the opportunity that’s being presented to make a difference in the world and the risks to [the] reputation of a whole series of important values for the university.

“There are existing relationships across the university on a departmental and individual academic level, but there are no conversations about a big project.

“It’s all on hold for now.”

The deal caused an uproar. The local UCU branch and the Cambridge Ethical Affairs Campaign were in opposition because of the nation’s record on rights for women and LGBTQ+ people, freedom of expression and the detainment and alleged torture of a UK academic accused of spying, Matthew Hedges.

In August, in response to the criticism, Cambridge said it “approached the United Arab Emirates as it does all potential partnerships: with an open mind, and rigorously weighing the opportunities to contribute to society – through collaborative research, education and innovation – against any challenges. These are always finely balanced assessments. We will be reflecting over the next few months before further evaluating our long-term options with our partners and with the University community.”

Toope also told Varsity: “Will we ever engage with these conversations in the future with a whole range of countries who don’t share our values? I’m sure we will, but I hope we’ll be doing it with our eyes wide open and with a rigorous assessment, which says that the need to collaborate is greater than the risks that we’re willing to undertake and how do we mitigate those risks. And, if we can’t mitigate them, we absolutely shouldn’t engage.”

Following the news, Cambridge UCU said: “What is at stake here is not just the issue of “reputational damage”, but the ethical question of whether accepting funding from state or corporate bodies which engage in practices which damage the environment and violate human rights is ever consonant with our ‘values’ as a community of learning.”

“Reputational damage and bad press should not be the overriding deciding factor when seeking funding or choosing business partners,” they added.

Cambridge was recently forced to defend itself from allegations it has been “infiltrated” by Chinese telecoms company Huawei.

Read more: Stephen Toope to step down as University of Cambridge vice-chancellor

Image via Flickr.

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