ABU DHABI // Former US president Bill Clinton has praised New York University Abu Dhabi for publicly tackling allegations about the welfare of labourers building its new campus on Saadiyat Island.
Addressing an audience of students and officials at Sunday’s inaugural graduation ceremony, he said the university had done the right thing by immediately responding to the claims and setting out a commitment to investigate.
He added that NYU would “take appropriate, remedial action to deal with it properly”, if the charges proved founded.
“We don’t live in a perfect world and we can do better,” Mr Clinton said. “None of us can afford to live in denial. I am betting NYU will stand good on its word.
“The best thing to do when someone raises something is not to deny it but to embrace it.
“We all know that the treatment of migrant labour all across the world has not been free of difficulty, not just here or in the region but everywhere in the world, for a long time.
“We all know there has been widespread acceptance of unequal treatment of people whose identity is considered less worthy of attention than others, in whatever locality that is.”
Mr Clinton spoke of NYUAD’s attempts to change this by setting out, in association with the local Government, a code of conduct under which labourers should work and live.
This includes measures such as placing a monitor to oversee the behaviour of contractors, and stopping practices such as taking away a labourer’s passport.
“There is no question that NYU and its partners have achieved a remarkable safety record in the building of this campus and one that surpasses similar projects in Europe and elsewhere,” Mr Clinton said.
“This is an important issue, not just here but around the world. America has worked for decades to improve its policies on migrant labour and the whole idea of raising the relevance of labour in general is something to debate all over the advanced world.”
He urged the graduates to make this a priority for the future, telling them “I urge you to say this is my alma mater.”
Mr Clinton said he regretted that coverage of the university’s first graduation ceremony in Abu Dhabi – which was also attended by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the chief executive of Mubadala and trustee of the university – had been dominated by the allegations rather than the graduates and their accomplishments.
Shamma Al Mazrui, 21, one of five Emiratis who were graduating, described the ceremony as a “moment of pride and relief”.
“We worked hard, overcame challenges and in ways quite distinctive in the world of higher education, we bridged differences of culture, race and religion to come together and forge a unified bond that we will always be bound by, by our ability to focus on what unifies us rather than how we differ.”
John Sexton, the university’s president, recalled the “audacious path” he and the university set out on to set up its Abu Dhabi campus, and he spoke of his pride at seeing the students graduate.
“Seven years later, we are here,” he said. “It’s a powerful affirmation that our dreams weren’t misled or in vain. It took more than dreaming to get us to this day.”
In his speech to the graduates from almost 50 countries, many of whom have secured jobs with the likes of Google or will go on to postgraduate study at prestigious universities such as Oxford and Columbia, Mr Sexton said: “Do not fear failure.
“It’s the mark of ambition, the mark of courage. You showed that ambition by coming here in the first place.”