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UAE: Cambridge University drops £400m deal over Pegasus spyware claims

United Arab Emirates' record partnership with Cambridge paused by university over Gulf monarchy's abuse of NSO Group spyware
Students at a Cambridge University college in Cambridge, eastern England, on 14 March 2018 (AFP)

The University of Cambridge has halted its record £400m collaboration with the United Arab Emirates, following allegations that the Gulf state used Pegasus spying software to hack the phones of journalists and human rights campaigners.

Outgoing vice-chancellor Stephen Toope told the Varsity student newspaper on Thursday that after the Pegasus spyware revelations the university had decided that “it’s not the right time to be pursuing these kinds of really ambitious plans with the UAE”.  

When the deal was announced last summer, the university called it a “pioneering collaboration” in the fields of sustainability, education, arts and culture.

“This is an exciting and unique opportunity for world-leading collaborations on efforts to transform economies and societies,” a university spokesperson said in July.

Internal documents obtained by the Guardian at the time showed that the UAE-Cambridge partnership would help the university face challenges created by “Covid, Brexit and a constrained funding environment”.

The documents showed that the UAE pledged £312m, with an additional £90m for Cambridge staff time. Vice-chancellor Toope was in full support of the partnership at the time, despite saying that he was aware of allegations of human rights abuses by the Gulf monarchy.

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The deal would have been the largest donation in the history of the university. 

But after the recent Pegasus spyware revelations Cambridge halted communications with the UAE, Toope said on Thursday.

The Pegasus software, sold by the Israeli NSO Group, has been reportedly used by governments around the world, including the UAE, to hack into the phones of journalists, human rights campaigners and others whom governments perceive as a threat. The UAE was linked to over 400 UK phone numbers from the 50,000-strong list leaked to journalism consortium Forbidden Stories. 

The NSO Group has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and said that it vets all its government clients before selling spyware to them. However, it claims that once it sells the product, it has no control over how the technology is used.

Last week, Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, came under pressure as a High Court judge in London found that he hacked the phone of his ex-wife and five of her associates, including a member of the House of Lords, using Pegasus spyware. 

A university spokesperson told MEE in a statement that it approached the UAE “with an open mind” and that it will reflect “over the next few months before further evaluating our long-term options with our partners and with the University community.

"The University conducts due diligence on all major projects," they added. 

Human rights violations

The Cambridge Student Union criticised the deal when it was announced, saying that the UAE has “a well-documented record of appalling human rights abuses, including extreme gender and sexuality-based discrimination and major infringements on freedom of speech”.

It added that any partnership with the UAE is “fundamentally incompatible with the University’s mission”.

The UAE has been a focus of human rights campaigns over alleged abuses, including serious violations of LGBTQ+ and women’s rights.  

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In 2018, British doctoral student Matthew Hedges was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in the UAE on charges of espionage. He was pardoned and released after spending eight months in prison.

“Cambridge knew the reputational risk and damage from discussions with the UAE and hence it tried to keep these discussions secret,” Hedges told Middle East Eye following the collapse of the deal on Friday.

“The public backlash was expected from the University’s establishment. However, due to public pressure this relationship could not progress," he added. 

When asked if there is a chance the university might resume talks about the deal, Toope said, “there will be no secret arrangements being made. I think we’re going to have to have a robust discussion at some point in the future. Or we may determine that it’s not worth raising again. I honestly don’t know.”