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.
When the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened on November 11, the UAE government called it a museum “ that will broadcast tolerance and acceptance .” But Abu Dhabi authorities had already shattered that image two days earlier by detaining two Swiss journalists who were covering the museum’s opening.
Reporter Serge Endelin and cameraman Jon Bjorgvinsson were detained November 9 while filming at an outdoor market. They were held incommunicado for more than 50 hours, during which they were interrogated for up to 9 hours at a time and blindfolded as they were shuttled from one location to another. According to Swiss broadcaster RTS, Abu Dhabi officials wanted to know why Endelin and Bjorgvinsson were working in the marketplace and seemed angry that Pakistani workers had been filmed. Officials allowed the journalists to return to Switzerland but made them leave their equipment and footage behind.
The irony of opening such a museum in a country where there is no freedom of expression is very clear. The detention of the Swiss journalists only further underscores the contrast between the modern image the UAE is trying to build and the reality of the country’s dismal human-rights record.
The detention of the journalists should give those planning on visiting the UAE pause for thought, but if you’re set on going, stay tuned for some tips on how to make sure you won’t be staying longer than you expect...
Reports of travelers being locked up while on holiday in—or simply passing through—the UAE continue to regularly make news. Because the UAE has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a modern business and tourist destination, this continuous news drip makes local officials and lawyers defensive. Instead of fixing the problem, they have decided to explain that this isn’t the UAE’s fault. In at least one recent news article published by state-controlled media, officials have claimed that the real problem is that travelers are jailed because they don’t know the country’s laws.
But this spate of arbitrary detentions has nothing to do with travelers who don’t have a handbook of UAE laws. The problem is that, first, the UAE’s laws are unclear and unpredictably enforced and, second, people can be detained without warning for some harmless act and then be denied the right to defend themselves.
The case of Jamie Harron illustrates this point to a farcical degree. While on a two-day stopover in Dubai this July, Harron, 27, from Scotland, visited a bar. According to Harron, he touched a man’s hip while preventing a drink from spilling. That man took offense and called the police. Harron was detained and charged with drinking alcohol and “public indecency” solely on the basis of the man’s complaint. Harron, who was granted bail after five days in jail, has lost his job and has racked up over £30,000 ($40,000) in legal bills. The judge handed him a 30-day jail sentence for the charge of drinking alcohol. He’s now waiting for a judgment on the “public indecency” charge on October 22.
Here’s the problem: it wouldn’t have mattered if Harron knew the law because the UAE's alcohol laws are not consistently enforced. Though Dubai markets itself as a great place to drink, and thousands of tourists do so in the city’s many bars, it’s illegal for tourists to consume alcohol . The catcher is that the law is only enforced some of the time, and there’s no telling when or who will be targeted.
Knowing the law wouldn’t have helped Harron avoid a charge of “public indecency” for touching the man’s hip, either. The vagueness of UAE laws means that anyone can find any action “offensive” and have you detained just by complaining to the police. Recently, individuals have been prosecuted for a handshake , posting a picture of a fox on Facebook, or taking pictures of a local racetrack or even just taking pictures of the sunset . In the UAE, someone could find the way you walk, the way you breathe, or the way you laugh “offensive” and have you locked up with just his word against yours.
Once detained, you will be unable defend yourself because there’s no due process. Police and prosecutors are free to fabricate evidence against you, and you can be denied access to an attorney (who can’t do much to help you anyway) while judges go along with it all.
Once you’ve been locked up, you then also fall victim to the chaos of UAE courts. Judges fail to show up for work, so after spending a whole day sitting in the courtroom waiting for the judge to appear, your case will be postponed again and again over a period of months while you languish in a cell. Jamie Harron was lucky enough to get bail, but his conviction for drinking alcohol was made “in absentia” because it didn’t occur to any court official to inform him of the date of his trial.
That the spate of detentions is due to arbitrary enforcement of the law and not ignorance becomes very clear when you take into account the fact that people with connections to influential officials like UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba can flout the country’s laws with impunity while ordinary guys like Jamie Harron get hit hard. Until the UAE has a justice system that is predictable, accountable, and transparent, “knowing the law” will not save you from the nightmare of being thrown in jail for any reason or no reason at all.