The 2016 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (“EAFOL”) is drawing to a close. Sponsored by the Dubai government-owned Emirates Airline and the government’s Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, the festival regularly brings over 140 international writers and other guests to the city.
This year, EAFOL also brought some controversy: the Think Twice Campaign urged British writers and illustrators to pledge not to attend the festival this year or in the future because of the Dubai government’s suppression of free speech, its human-rights record, and Emirates Airline’s impact on climate change. A number of writers—including some who were scheduled to attend—signed the campaign’s pledge. Writer Matt Haig withdrew from the festival unilaterally while Chris Cleave affirmed his intent to participate.
As with the Dubai International Film Festival , EAFOL highlights a stunning contradiction. Namely, that the Dubai government is sponsoring an arts festival while simultaneously curtailing creative expression and the free exchange of ideas. As human-rights activist Nicholas McGeehan has pointed out , the festival hosted a lecture on George Orwell even though the UAE’s Ministry of Education and Youth apparently banned the teaching of Animal Farm in the country’s schools. It must also be pointed out that in the UAE, no one may operate a printing press without first obtaining a government license .
It’s deeply self-defeating for Dubai’s arts scene that while EAFOL imports a field of international writers, homegrown works about the experiences of Dubaians are banned. Copies of Dubai resident Craig Hawes’ UK-published short-story collection The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqueim, for example, were confiscated by the UAE’s National Media Council just before they were to go on sale in Dubai. The collection presented stories from the perspectives of fictional Dubaians including Filipina domestic workers, European partiers, and a gay couple.
Such incongruity only supports the Think Twice Campaign’s contention that the Dubai government intends EAFOL to be a public-relations exercise meant to gild Dubai’s image rather than a sincere effort to promote literature. Despite their good intentions, the festival’s supporters risk legitimizing the practice of censorship in the country.
Dubai’s profoundly multicultural society potentially offers a plethora of diverse voices and narratives that each present a valid portrait of Dubai culture. It is unfortunate and detrimental to any genuine homegrown literary scene that such voices are silenced when they don’t happen to fall in line with the government’s “official” Dubai narrative.
Thanks to a report by The Intercept, we now know that, in May 2013, the United Arab Emirates paid out a secret $10 million settlement to Khaled Hassen, an American businessman whom its officials had abducted and tortured while detaining him incommunicado from January 1984 to November 1985.
This means that, while I was being detained without charge after uploading a comedy video to YouTube, the UAE was paying the price for unlawfully detaining and mistreating another person. Despite being aware of the illegality of its abuses, the UAE chose to continue my unlawful detention for another eight months, releasing me only after my family and friends launched an international campaign to secure my release.
As The Intercept revealed, on Christmas Day 2013—eight months into my detention—Senator Amy Klobuchar urged UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba for my release by stating that “I continue to be shocked that he is still in jail [...] I believe your country has reached a place on the world stage where these things matter even if they were acceptable in the past.” Ambassador Al Otaiba’s response that “I assure you that’s precisely the case I am making and it does have merit” shows that UAE officials were very much aware that their actions were illegal .
And that was not the last time the UAE would admit fault. Soon after my release in January 2014—only after a show trial where judges used a false confession to find me “guilty” of “endangering the country’s national security”—UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum admitted that my mistreatment was a mistake .
So, even after settling with Hassen, the UAE continued to detain me—and several other individuals—unlawfully. The abduction and torture of American and Canadian businessmen in Dubai in 2014, for example, are fresh in memory, and there are surely still others currently enduring mistreatment in the UAE’s prisons despite having done nothing wrong. We deserve justice too.
The new Dubai Font that was launched with much fanfare by the Dubai government and Microsoft earlier this week was quickly shot down by people who pointed out that promotional slogans like “Expression has no boundaries or limits” were completely at odds with the UAE’s draconian restrictions against free expression. As Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas McGeehan and others have pointed out on Twitter , a look at the fine print (no pun attempted) very much bears that out: the Dubai government wants to retain control over what people say while using the font.
First, those terms assert that use of the font is governed by UAE law, and that “You hereby irrevocably submit to the jurisdiction of the Courts of the Emirate of Dubai.”