The Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature Slammed by Authors and Human Rights Campaigners
The UAE government has suffered heavy criticism last week during the Emirates Festival of Literature as authors, campaigners, and organisations highlighted the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom of expression in a country where these rights are routinely denied by government authorities. The event, which came to an end yesterday, was wholly sponsored by the Emirates Airlines, owned by the Dubai government, and the UAE government itself. The ICFUAE claimed that this reality heavily clashed with the description of the festival as “the Middle East's largest celebration of the written and spoken word”.
Speaking at the Orwell inaugural lecture at the festival, former BBC broadcaster, James Naughtie, highlighted the importance of an independent press and freedom of speech in today's world in what some inferred was a veiled criticism of UAE government, though no reference was made to them directly. The irony of the 'Orwell lecture' was not lost by Human Rights Watch's Middle East researcher, Nicholas Mcgeehan, who accused the UAE authorities of “interpreting Orwell's dystopian satire 1984 not as a cautionary tale but as a blueprint for effective government”. The importance of freedom of expression was later emphasised by UAE ambassador to Russia Omar Saif Ghobash.
Organisations, bloggers, and people joined the ICFUAE's campaign for freedom of expression, which asked authors to speak out for human rights in the UAE. Before the festival, the organisation sent an open letter to UK authors and illustrators attending the festival encouraging them to use their platform to speak out about human rights violations and the lack of freedom of expression afforded to citizens inside the UAE. ICFUAE drew attention to the fact whilst UK citizens are accustomed to writing and speaking and criticising their government as they see fit, UAE citizens are routinely prosecuted for exercising these same rights. In 2016 alone, around 300 people were detained by UAE authorities for merely voicing opinions on social media.
The Twitter thread of the festival's official hashtag, #DubaiLitFest, was soon filled with messages calling on freedom of speech and the release of prisoners of conscience, such as Jordanian journalist Tayseer Al-Najjar, who is due to receive his sentence tomorrow after being charged of criticising the foreign policies of allies of the UAE, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Israel. English PEN, Index on Censorship, Human Rights Watch and Manchester Amnesty are of the few of the names that appear on the thread.
The Emirati Airlines Festival of Literature is just one of many cultural events taking place in the Emirates this year. 2017 is set to be a year of creative collaboration between the United Kingdom and the UAE which sees the British Council partnering with the UAE authorities in putting on a series of events which span film, art, theatre and literature. Campaigners and critics will no doubt continue to highlight the evident contradictions and hypocrisies of celebrating creativity and critical thought on the one hand, whilst actively suppressing it on the other, and will maintain that these events risk concealing the lack of freedoms and rights currently afforded by the UAE authorities to its citizens within its borders.
For ICFUAE's open letter to UK authors please see http://icfuae.org.uk/campaigns/dear-uk-authors-open-letter-why-you-should-speak-out-ahead-emirates-festival-literature
For HRW's Nicholas Mcgeehan's article please see https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/28/big-brothers-book-festival
For ICFUAE's Twitter campaign please see https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/53869-speak-out-for-human-rights?locale=en