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.
The UN’s International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances falls on Wednesday, August 30. It’s particularly ugly for the UAE this year because it marks over five months of its continuing detention of award-winning Emirati human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor.
In the early hours of March 20 2017, UAE security officials abducted Mansoor from his home. Mansoor’s family had no idea of his whereabouts until officials released a statement nine days later saying he was being held at Abu Dhabi’s central prison.
The fact that a person who has emphatically called for an end to arbitrary detention in the UAE has himself become a victim of enforced disappearance is another black mark on the UAE’s reputation. What’s more, of course, is that Mansoor’s experience is just the tip of the iceberg for what has become an epidemic of enforced disappearances and unlawful detention in the UAE.
The UAE has worked hard to build itself an image as a liberal, forward-thinking society, but its continuing practice of enforced disappearances gives it a reputation that’s exactly the opposite. It’s well past time for the UAE to release Ahmed Mansoor and the others its officials have abducted.
A British student currently serving a 9-year prison sentence in the UAE is appealing to the ruler of the emirate of Sharjah for a royal pardon , bringing attention yet again to UAE officials’ routine use of false confessions to secure convictions.
Ahmad Zeidan, now 23, was jailed for drug possession at the age of 19 after accepting a ride in a car in which police found 0.04 grams of cocaine. Zeidan states he was tortured into making a false confession.
It’s been clear for several years that UAE officials routinely rely on false confessions to unlawfully detain and convict innocent people. There’s the UK’s David Haigh, whom Dubai Police officers tortured while trying to force him to make a confession, and there are the American, Canadian, and Libyan businessmen UAE State Security officials tortured into falsely confessing to supporting terrorism. Then there’s me: I was forced to sign a false confession accepted without investigation and used by the UAE Supreme Court as the sole basis for my conviction.
Zeidan’s case is just one of the most recent instances of UAE officials using this method to stack the deck in their favor. A recent report by the nonprofit organization Reprieve (UK) found that 85% of prisoners for whom it had data at Dubai Central Prison said they were forced to sign documents in a language they did not understand. More than 75% of them said they had been physically abused in detention, and—like me—96% had been interrogated by police without seeing a lawyer.
Zeidan’s case highlights the risk people can face if they live in, or even just visit, the UAE. Innocent people are jailed indefinitely without regard to widely recognized human rights—including the right to defend themselves. Productive members of society are ripped from their jobs (or, in Zeidan’s case, from their education) and are held hostage from their families. They’re financially ruined by the costs of trying to fight a legal system that has unrecognizable rules, protects the state and not the individual, and faces very little pressure to change. Detainees have to bear the cost of paying local lawyers who have little power to represent their clients who, despite being in jail, must keep paying rent and other bills or risk having another criminal case brought against them for unpaid debts.
The UAE markets itself as a strong ally of the United States, and it uses its glamorous image to encourage Americans to move there for work or to visit as tourists. But if the UAE cannot guarantee travelers’ safety and liberty—and refuses to restore justice to mistreated individuals— the United States would be wise to take steps to protect its citizens. It’s time for the UAE to stop its abuses.