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.
In the early hours of Monday, March 20, UAE human-rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was abducted from his home by UAE security officials. At this time, his whereabouts are unknown, and we fear that Ahmed is at risk of torture or other mistreatment.
Ahmed Mansoor is the 2015 laureate of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and he has been a prominent voice for human rights and progressive change in the UAE. In 2016, Ahmed was celebrated for bringing to light attempts by suspected UAE security officials to install sophisticated spyware on his iPhone.We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Ahmed Mansoor.
British citizen Malcolm Munroe has been hospitalized since he suffered a stroke in 2013. The construction company he owned in Dubai collapsed soon afterward. Munroe can only move his head, is fed through a tube, and is permanently connected to an oxygen tank, but a Dubai court handed him a three-year prison sentence for debts owed by his now-defunct company.
Unlike in developed countries, you can be sent to prison in the UAE just for being too broke to pay your personal debts—if you lost track of your bank balance and wrote a check that bounced, say, or if you’re late paying a medical bill. The United States, for example, ended the criminalization of bankruptcy and the use of debtors’ prisons in the 1800s, but more than two hundred years later, the UAE is still sticking to this archaic practice. It seriously undercuts the UAE’s self-image as a modern and forward-thinking country.
Munroe’s situation is a reminder that, with the UAE’s chronically outdated laws, you can go to jail there if you have done nothing wrong, or worse, even if you are the victim of an illness. As UAE businesses fail in the region’s current economic downturn, small-business owners are fleeing the country to avoid going to prison for their companies’ debts. Employees who have worked hard and done nothing wrong go unpaid for months and end up failing to pay their credit card bills and personal loans, and then face penalties ranging from travel bans to jail time as a result.
While I was imprisoned in the UAE, I encountered people who were jailed for failing to pay their debts and even those jailed for trying to quit their jobs . In one case, I met a man who had been detained for a year--without trial--after his business partner accused him of embezzlement. He was eventually acquitted, but immediately faced new charges relating to unpaid debt because his business had collapsed during the year he was imprisoned.
There was immense hope that a new UAE federal bankruptcy law might end the practice of jailing people over unpaid personal debt. But the law that became effective in late 2016 fails to protect individuals . Without such protections, many people working in the UAE are just one unfortunate circumstance away from being jailed.