New York University's campus in Abu Dhabi. 

When Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached a normalization agreement earlier this month, University of Haifa president Ron Robin immediately contacted his Emirati colleagues to set into motion a process where higher education could serve as a central vehicle for the growing relationship between the Israelis and Emiratis.

During his time as vice provost at New York University, Robin, an American history professor, was responsible for establishing its international campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, both of which he describes as “idea capitals.” Launched in 2010, the NYU Abu Dhabi campus was the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university.

A decade later, Robin finds himself poised to facilitate Israel-UAE higher education ties on the heels of the “Abraham Accord.” In the following interview, he provides his vision for future collaboration.

Q: Can you take us behind the scenes of the establishment of NYU Abu Dhabi?

A: NYU’s presence in Abu Dhabi is really the result of the meeting of the minds of two visionary people. One of them is the former president of NYU, John Sexton, who had a meeting with an individual very close to the heir apparent to the Emirati presidency, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ, today the central Emirati figure in the peace deal with Israel). He came to NYU, like many other countries in the Gulf region, seeking some sort of branch campus. The immediate result of this meeting was that they didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing. They actually thought of something somewhat more ambitious, and they went back to Mohammed bin Zayed and came up with this idea of establishing NYU Abu Dhabi as the first of what they hoped would be many “idea capitals.” The idea behind this was that NYU would lead the way in establishing a network of idea capitals, meaning hubs for knowledge and creativity and entrepreneurship. I was lucky enough to be pulled into a very small team of people who were given the responsibility of creating this incredible campus from scratch.

The core of the campus is a small liberal arts college of about 1,000 undergraduates. But around that is a huge research enterprise containing labs in life sciences, many people from the social sciences and humanities as well. It is first and foremost a research enterprise meant to bring the trappings of a research university to the region. It has very swiftly established itself as probably the strongest university in the Arab world today. Many of the students who graduate remain in the Emirates; they are the engines pushing forward Abu Dhabi. The Emirates have become the center of the Arab world. Dubai is the banking and financial center of the Arab world, and Abu Dhabi is absolutely the center of diplomacy and policy in the Middle East today.

Q: How does higher education collaboration fit into the broader vision for Israel-UAE ties?

A: It was critical in the agreement for NYU Abu Dhabi, and now the agreement between the UAE and Israel, that we learn from each other. This is not the West coming to enlighten the natives, so to speak. This is two different cultures, and they need to learn from each other. I think the Emirates can learn from us a spirit of enterprise and creativity. We don’t have the funds that they have; we don’t have the resources that they have. But we bring a culture of creativity, and I’m sure that’s what they’re looking for. When creativity meets resources, great things happen.

There’s an expression that no two countries which have McDonald’s have ever gone to war. And here, I can say that no two countries which have a Western-style of research in their universities will ever go to war today, I don’t see that happening. The impact of the research university is such that it draws people together; it has a global feature to it. There’s something ecumenical about a research university. It crosses cultures, and it spans and bridges differences.

I’m working to establish ties with universities in the Emirates because I believe very strongly that this ecumenical bond between people who do research under the auspices of a university, we can fast forward a robust relationship with the Emirates by establishing these ties. We’ll be cultivating ties with universities that I know well in the region, and we’ll work on fields in which we have something to contribute to the Emirates and the Emirates have something to contribute to us. One example is marine research. We have the same challenges in the Emirates as we have in Israel: fast-rising temperatures that affect marine culture and the marine ecosystem, a lifeline for both societies. In both societies, the sea is the source of potable water. The sea is the source of our energy. Finally, because of climate change and the dramatic drop in precipitation and rainfall, the seal is also the source of our protein.

Q: Do you envision a future University of Haifa campus in Abu Dhabi?

A: We’re looking for research and student exchange. I don’t see us building a campus like anything NYU has in the Emirates. I rather see this as an exchange of knowledge, whether it’s students or research, but not a full-blown campus at this particular point in time. I’m not sure that part of the world is ready for such a large Israeli presence. We’re beginning with baby steps. We do not want to impose ourselves. We want this to happen in an organic fashion.

Q: Could Israel-UAE collaboration in higher education help counter the BDS movement on American college campuses by providing a paradigm for Jewish-Muslim coexistence?

A: The BDS movement tries to focus or pretends to focus solely on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I do not see Abu Dhabi being here in our region as a passive partner. They will be part of any type of solution. I’m not sure that this will be have an immediate impact on BDS. It’s going to take time before the Palestinians and their supporters understand the importance of having an entity such as the Emirates in our region that can be very constructive and can be a great partner in figuring out a solution for the future. JN