‘The Emir of NYU’ Builds Abu Dhabi
Campus with Petrodollars and
Exploited South Asian Labor


New York University’s newly-built Abu Dhabi Campus (left) and some of the 6,000 migrant workers who built it (right). Migrant workers were put up in tiny rooms, as many as 15 men to a room, by contractors who hired them. One of New York University’s labor values states that contractors should not house more than four people in a bedroom. These workers earn as little as $272 a month. (Pictures, by Sergey Ponomarev, are reproduced courtesy The New York Times.)

New York University’s recently completed Abu Dhabi campus is a product of petrodollars and exploited South Asian labor. The inhuman condition in which workers from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh lived while building in the Emirate a state-of-the-art campus for NYU has been the subject of many an exposé in the media. The latest one appeared in the May 19, 2014, edition of The New York Times, under the title “Workers at N.Y.U.’s Abu Dhabi Site Faced Harsh Conditions.”
The Times story, by Ariel Kaminer and Sean O’Driscoll, is based on interviews with dozens of workers who endured the “harsh conditions” detailed in it. It is also based on what the two reporters witnessed themselves at some of the labor camps in which the workers lived. At one such camp – “squalid quarters,” they call it – “the bedrooms are so crowded that the men must sleep three to a stack – one on the upper bunk, one on the lower bunk and one below the lower bunk, separated from the floor by only a thin pad for a mattress. In the space between the beds, the men pile cauliflower, onions and 75-pound sacks of Basmati rice to cook after working all day and washing the construction dirt from their clothes. Tangles of exposed wiring hang down from the ceiling, and cockroaches climb the walls.”
In some apartments, the Times report says, there were 15 men to a room. According to the university, “there should be no more than four.”
Over 6,000 men working at various construction sites for NYU Abu Dhabi, like millions of other South Asian laborers in the Middle East, are there just to make enough money to support their families back home. The Times spoke to one who “is helping support five brothers. Another supports four children, ages 6 to 14. Others have toddlers they have never met.”
For the purpose of the May 19 story, The Times had also reached some workers, who had already been deported back to their home countries by the Abu Dhabi government. The reason why they were deported was that they had gone on a strike when their living and working conditions became unbearable. In Abu Dhabi and most Middle Eastern countries, it is illegal for workers to strike. The Times report goes on to say:
"Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list of labor values [issued by the university in 2009] says that contractors are supposed to pay back all such fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime should be voluntary.
“The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in spite of promises to the contrary. ...”
This is what happened, according to the Times story, to those who struck work: “The strike had entered its second day when construction workers at Labor Camp 42 got word that their bosses from the BK Gulf [the firm which had hired the workers living at this camp] had come to negotiate. Mohammed Amir Waheed Sirkar, an electrician from Bangladesh, scrambled down the stairs to meet them. But when he got to the courtyard, he saw the truth: It wasn’t the bosses who had come. It was the police.
“They pounded on doors, breaking some down, and hauled dozens of men to prison. Mr. Sirkar was taken to a Dubai police station, where officers interrogated him. After a while, new officers arrived. That’s when things got rough.
“‘They beat me up,’ he said through an Urdu interpreter, ‘asking me to confess I was involved in starting the strike.’ Others were slapped, kicked, or beaten with shoes, a special indignity in Arab culture.
“After nine days in jail, Mr. Sirkar was deported, as were hundreds of other workers.”
The Times story did shake up the higher-ups at NYU, in New York. Hours after it was published, they got to work on damage control, says another story in The Times, this one by Andrew Ross Sorkin, published on May 27, 2014. According to this story, Martin Lipton, the chairman of NYU’s board of trustees, sent an email to some members of the board, saying that he was unaware of the labor abuses at the Abu Dhabi site. The email also said that an independent investigation would soon be undertaken, according to Mr. Sorkin’s story, based on what he heard from the “people who were briefed on the message.” Most members of NYU’s board of trustees, like its chairman, are among the movers and shakers of Wall Street. So the caption to Sorkin’s story, “N.Y.U. Crisis in Abu Dhabi Stretches to Wall Street,” is very appropriate.
There is another important reason why The Times gave that caption. The authorities at NYU have been trying to distance themselves from the scandal, saying that the workers who were abused were not employed by the university but by private contractors who built the campus. Mr. Sorkin’s story exposed the hollowness of that argument. The overall contractor of the Abu Dhabi project, the Sorkin story says, was Mubadala Development Company. All subcontractors who built the various units of the campus were answerable to this company. The CEO and managing director of Mubadala is Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak. And Al Mubarak is a member of the board of trustees of NYU. He had also played a key role in persuading the university to start a full-fledged campus in Abu Dhabi.
When the chairman of NYU’s board of trustees says that he was unaware of the abuse of workers who built the Abu Dhabi campus, we may give him the benefit of the doubt. Not when John Sexton, the president of NYU, does it. As all supporters and opponents of the Abu Dhabi project know, no one was more adamant about going ahead with the project than John Sexton. In fact, they all say, NYU Abu Dhabi is Sexton’s “brainchild.” Right from the time the idea for it was conceived, he has followed its progress every step of the way. That’s why the statement he issued, in response to The Times’s revelations about the ill-treatment of workers at his pet project came as a surprise to those who were remotely connected with the project. The statement, among other things, said that the ill-treatment, “if true as reported, [is] troubling and unacceptable.”
The “if true” qualification to what was meant to be an apology gives the impression that Mr. Sexton doesn’t find the Times story all that convincing. His statement also suggests that he came to know about the harsh conditions the workers endured only after The Times reported them. On which planet has “the Emir of NYU” been living?

“The Emir of NYU” is the title of a feature that appeared in the April 13, 2008, issue of New York magazine. The feature, by Zvika Krieger, did warn that the Abu Dhabi campus, which by then had become an obsession with Mr. Sexton, was going to be built on the sweat and tears of migrant workers. It pointed out that Abu Dhabi had “come under fierce criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch for its mistreatment of foreign laborers, mostly Pakistani and Indian, who have shouldered much of the country’s breakneck development. With few labor laws in place, there is little NYU can do to assure that its new campus will not be built by this workforce.”
Several senior faculty members of NYU criticized the plan, right from its incipient stage. Some did it openly, but most of them anonymously for fear of retribution from their boss. According to the faculty critics, the New York article says, “the Abu Dhabi project embodies the worst of John Sexton’s indulgences and the short-sightedness of his glory-seeking ambitions. Mary Nolan, a history professor who has been teaching at the university for almost 30 years, describes the Abu Dhabi project as ‘a quintessentially Sexton operation. He thinks he has some sort of a missionary calling, but he operates in a very autocratic manner. ...’”
Prof. Nolan’s charge that Sexton “thinks he has some sort of a missionary calling” is not an ill-founded one. Mr. Sexton himself boasted to New York that the four thirteen-hour flights he took to Abu Dhabi, over two years, to personally broker the deal with the crown prince of the emirate were a “spiritual experience.”
The New York article goes on to say: “He believes he connected to the prince metaphysically: ‘The crown prince told me that he felt it in my handshake, in my eyes, in my aura at that first meeting.’ And perhaps most significant to Sexton, when they prepared to part ways, the prince said, ‘What, no hug?’ (Sexton is famous for hugging most everyone in sight.) ‘I knew right then and there,’ Sexton remembers fondly, ‘that we had found our partner.’”
The partner, in terms of the deal, would finance the entire NYU Abu Dhabi and a good deal of NYU New York. Toward the latter, a $50 million “gift” would be given right away, to be followed by several similar gifts. “We will go through an annual budgeting process,” the New York article quotes Sexton as saying, “but the crown prince is committed to helping NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU in Washington Square to become one of the world’s ten great universities by 2020.”
Many of Sexton’s faculty colleagues had a different take on the deal. “NYU is behaving exactly like a corporation that is entering its mergers-and-acquisitions phase,” New York quotes Andrew Ross, who specializes in labor and globalization, as saying. “To a lot of the faculty, it just feels cheap, like we’re just another brand being bought in a worldwide shopping spree, like Gucci.”
No criticisms and no warnings would dissuade Mr. Sexton from pursuing his plan, whose ultimate goal, according to him, was to convert NYU into “the world’s first global university in the world’s first truly global city.”

Abu Dhabi is awash in petrodollars. Thanks to its wealth, this richest city-state in the world has been able to buy technology from the West and cheap labor from the East. The opulence which its citizens enjoy and the vulgar ostentation in which some of them live are attributable entirely to these two factors. By the way, its citizens make up only 20 percent of the 2.5 million people who live there.
Yes, Abu Dhabi has everything money can buy. But when it comes to culture, all that money can buy are its trappings. Nouveaux riches try to present themselves as cultured by collecting trappings of culture. Abu Dhabi’s latter-day efforts to clone Western cultural icons, like the Louvre Museum of Paris and the Guggenheim Museum of New York, stems from its desire to get accepted as a cultured nation.
But the real culture is something that cannot be bought with money. It has to evolve from within. What makes a society cultured is the cultivation of the minds of the individuals who constitute that society. Admittedly, it doesn’t happen overnight. The deplorable way Abu Dhabi has been treating the workers who built its prosperity, which in turn has enabled it to build at least some trappings of culture, shows that it has a long way to go before it gets accepted as cultured.
Abu Dhabi’s behaving like a nouveau riche is understandable. What is not understandable is that the president of a prestigious American University got carried away by an upstart nation's display of wealth. Read the very first paragraph of the New York magazine’s article we discussed above:
“John Sexton’s office, which sits on the top floor of NYU’s Bobst Library and boasts an impressive view north to Washington Square Park, has recently begun to resemble a shrine to Abu Dhabi. The university president has installed a massive Oriental rug, a gift from the crown prince, on one entire wall. On another hangs a framed portrait of the sunglasses-clad founder of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. In the center of the room is a large framed photograph of an Emirati woman, hand covered in a henna tattoo, gazing provocatively from behind a sequined veil.”
Was the NYU president taken in by the Emirati woman’s provocative gaze, too?

NYU president John Sexton with Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the CEO of Mubadala Development Company that built NYU's Abu Dhabi campus. (The picture is reproduced courtesy New York/NYU photo bureau.)
(Published on June 2, 2014)
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