It's one of those inevitable and awkward moments that so well exposes the hypocrisy of Western progressive academic institutions aligning themselves closely with autocratic gulf sheikhdoms.
While speaking to graduates at NYU Abu Dhabi on Sunday, former US Secretary of State John Kerry opined that "true civil discourse" is under threat around the world, yet in an irony that appeared lost on him the whole event was censored by NYU, possibly under orders from United Arab Emirates authorities.
The Associated Press reports that at the last minute "the school blocked journalists from filming" even though NYU Abu Dhabi had invited multiple journalists, including the AP, to film and report on Kerry's full speech. Despite New York University president Andrew Hamilton also decrying “disturbing trends of anti-intellectualism and anti-factualism” at the event, the press was blocked from filming and was warned that NYU Abu Dhabi would have full editorial control over all content.
According to the AP:
NYU Abu Dhabi invited reporters to cover Kerry’s speech, then just before the ceremony said journalists from The Associated Press and others could not film his full remarks. They said the school would offer video that it would editorially control after the event.
The AP's commentary further ascribes the censorship to UAE's sensitivity over Kerry's possibly criticizing President Trump's decision to pull the US out of the Iran nuclear deal — considered the foremost policy achievement of Obama's legacy. Though Kerry and other Obama-era cabinet members have elsewhere aggressively denounced Trump's move, it appears Kerry was careful to censor his own remarks at the graduation ceremony.
Kerry shared the stage with Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash — who had long represented the UAE in campaigning against the Iran nuclear deal — thus it appears Kerry meekly acquiesced to NYU Abu Dhabi's unwillingness to rock to boat. The AP itself bluntly acknowledged it as likely a "courtesy to his hosts in the capital of the United Arab Emirates."
The AP journalist who was granted access noted that "while obliquely criticizing President Donald Trump, Kerry did not mention the 2015 Iran nuclear deal he secured with other world powers" and the former Secretary of State never actually named Trump, but noted "our politics has become almost all accusatory and all bombastic."
And in an apparent reference to both Trump's 'America first' platform on which he campaigned and perhaps indirectly to Trump's pullout of the Iran deal, Kerry said, “We won’t win, any of us, ultimately, by retreating within our borders, by focusing on our own nations only, or by going it alone.”
The UAE is a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state firmly in Saudi Arabia's corner when it comes to viewing Iranian influence as the greatest threat facing the region. Not only is the UAE a major component supplying ground forces in the form of mainly army officers to fight the Saudi-led war in Yemen (which the Saudi alliance blames Iran for fueling), but has sought to diplomatically and economically isolate Qatar for supposedly 'aiding Iranian terrorism' (among other charges).
The university issued an official statement addressing the blatant act of censorship, saying it was solely the school's decision; however the AP's limited coverage offers this gem: "This is not the first time NYU Abu Dhabi has faced criticism when trying to balance the ideas of an American liberal arts education in the UAE, which has strict rules governing speech despite being a staunch American ally in the Mideast" — a tacit admission by the AP that NYU is conforming to UAE state censors.
In light of this, the statements we do have of Kerry's address to the graduates are truly rich given the irony of the situation: “True civil discourse is also under threat all around the planet, eroding rights alongside trust,” Kerry said. And further: “Given what’s going on today, I’m glad to be invited anywhere folks.” He explained that the U.S. “needs to build partnerships and cannot turn its back on the world.”
More "partnerships" like oil-and-gas-rich oppressive gulf monarchies with "strict rules governing speech"?... You don't say!
NYU Abu Dhabi had previously come under fire by international human rights groups for underpaying a migrant work force the UAE imported for the purpose of constructing the campus under reportedly harsh conditions. New York University's journalism department cut ties with NYU Abu Dhabi in protest in 2017 — a move that doesn't represent the rest of the institution.
Kerry quite possibly gave the perfect summation of why he appeared at the event in the first place, knowing limits would be placed on what could be said: "I’m glad to be invited anywhere folks," he acknowledged in pathetic resignation.