Why it’s time for the UK book community to speak out against Dubai Festival of Literature's unethical sponsors
After last month’s blog about the unethical sponsorship of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature I was not intending to return to the topic this year. But after the events of the last few days, culminating in the arrest on Sunday of UAE human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor, I feel obliged to do so.
February’s blog was written in support of the International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates’ festival campaign. Rather than encourage authors to boycott the festival, as last year’s Think Twice Campaign (which I co-organised) had done, the ICFUAE campaign encouraged UK authors attending this year’s festival to use their appearance as an opportunity to speak out in favour of human rights, free speech and democracy in the UAE.
The ICFUAE published an open letter addressed to the UK authors appearing at the festival pointing out that, while UK citizens are accustomed to speaking freely and criticising their government, UAE citizens are routinely persecuted by the festival’s sponsors for exercising these same rights. The letter encouraged authors to highlight the need for greater human rights and freedom of expression in the UAE when tweeting, blogging or posting about the festival on social media. The ICFUAE tweeted authors directly to draw their attention to the letter and English PEN and The Society of Authors also shared the letter widely on Twitter.
Disappointingly, the ICFUAE tell me that they are not aware of any UK authors who highlighted their concerns for human rights in their festival coverage. The author coverage that I have seen has generally presented a glamorous, rose-tinted view of the UAE, emphasising the opportunities for cultural exchange that the festival offers. I don't doubt the positive effects of this exchange, or that the festival does good work in other areas, but I don’t accept that this good work justifies authors ignoring the overwhelming number of human rights violations carried out by the festival's sponsors.
One of the authors who blogged about this year’s festival is children’s author Philip Reeve. I’m a big fan of Reeve’s books, so I was particularly disappointed to read the following paragraph on his blog referring to last year’s Think Twice Campaign.
I entirely reject Reeve’s suggestion that the Think Twice Campaign did not have any significant positive effect. The aim of many boycotts is to raise public awareness of an overlooked issue and, by doing so, encourage change. I don't think that it's "absurd" to suggest that the Artists Against Apartheid group who pledged not to perform at Sun City in South Africa, helped to focus the world’s attention on South African apartheid and that this attention helped to encourage the South African government to abolish the apartheid system. The principal aim of the Think Twice Campaign was to raise awareness of the plethora of human rights violations carried out by the festival’s sponsors. Reeve may have been aware that Emirates Airline are an institutionally homophobic company, owned by an oppressive government that presides over a modern-day slave state, but the feedback received by the Think Twice Campaign made it clear that many people were not.
The UAE human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor has said that “the root cause of so much of the violence in the region is despair. Human rights are being violated on a daily basis and nobody in the outside world seems to care.” I’d like to think that, as far as the UK is concerned, the problem is not so much a lack of care as a lack of awareness. The small gang of wealthy autocratic rulers that form the UAE government has become very proficient at projecting the image of a liberal, progressive country to an overseas audience. They employ a two-pronged strategy, investing copious amounts of sponsorship money in high-profile international sporting and cultural institutions that present the UAE in a favourable light, while persecuting, imprisoning and torturing UAE residents who dare to present a less-than glowing view of the country. The cases of Australian illustrator Jodi Magi and US aviation consultant Shez Cassim show that even foreign citizens can fall victim to the UAE’s sociopathic obsession with whitewashing its image.
This two-pronged strategy has been particularly conspicuous in the two weeks since the close of this year’s festival. As returning UK authors posted blogs about their glamorous adventures in Dubai, the UAE government has been quietly tightening its stranglehold on freedom of expression within the country.
On 15 March, just five days after the close of the festival, a UAE court sentenced Jordanian journalist and poet Tayseer al-Najjar to three years in prison and a $136,000 fine for the crime of “insulting the state’s symbols” in his Facebook posts. Tayseer had been held without access to a lawyer for more than a year before being brought to trial.
Three days later, on 18 March, as human rights campaigners were preparing to celebrate the release of UAE activist Osama al-Najjar after a three year prison sentence, the UAE government announced that Osama would remain behind bars. Osama had been imprisoned for tweeting his concerns about the ill-treatment of his father, Hussain Ali al-Najjar al-Hammadi, one of many prisoners of conscience convicted in what Amnesty International describe as a “grossly unfair mass trial” of 94 government critics in 2013.
Last Sunday, 19 March, UAE authorities launched a midnight raid on human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor, carrying out a lengthy room by room search of his home, including his children’s bedroom, and arresting Ahmed. His family has yet to be informed of his whereabouts.
Ahmed had been one of the last human rights campaigners to remain at liberty in the UAE. His arrest was the latest development in a sustained state-sponsored persecution campaign that has seen him fired from his job and his bank account robbed of $140,000. He has received numerous death threats, been beaten repeatedly and the UAE authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths in their attempts to hack his phone.
After imprisoning Ahmed for eight months in 2011 for the crime of “insulting officials”, the UAE government confiscated his passport, forcing him to remain in the country. Despite everything he has been through, Ahmed has continued to speak out against human rights violations within the UAE and in 2015 a jury of ten global human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, awarded him the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in recognition of his courageous work.
Amnesty International have said that they are “appalled and dismayed” by Ahmed’s arrest and expressed “fears that he may be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment while in custody.”
The UK book community has a history of standing up for others. In recent years, fundraising campaigns for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan and the Syrian conflict have made me feel proud to be a member of that community. But, in the last few days, the way that so many UK authors and illustrators have turned a blind eye to human rights violations in the UAE has made me feel ashamed to be a part of that community.
I would have thought that authors and illustrators would be one group of people that would recognise freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. Freedom of expression is being brutally suppressed RIGHT NOW in the UAE. Tayseer al-Najjar, Osama al-Najjar and Ahmed Mansoor are not characters in a book – they are real people with real families, enduring real suffering for daring to speak out against a tyrannical government.
Whatever you think of the Emirates Festival, if you are an author or an illustrator and you genuinely care about freedom of expression and human rights in the UAE, please use whatever channels you can to speak out and demand the release of Ahmed Mansoor and the other prisoners of conscience being unjustly held by the UAE government.
Go on! Please make me feel proud again.
Whether you are an author, an illustrator or anyone else, here are a few ways you might make your voice heard.
Amnesty International have produced a pdf outlining the details of Ahmed case with contact details for the UAE government which you can download here:
You can call for Ahmed's release on social media using the hashtag #FreeAhmed.
You can tweet the UAE's Vice President and Prime Minister Sheik Mohammed on @HHShkMohd
You can write to the UK's UAE Embassy at:
His Excellency Mr Abdulrahman Ghanem Almutaiwee
Embassy of the United Arab Emirates
30 Princes Gate
You can write to your local MP.
If you don't know who your MP is, you can find out their name and contact details at https://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/
You can download a Word document containing a template email to send to your MP here:
The ICFUAE have also provided a template letter here:
And, if you live near London or Manchester you can take part in one of these vigils to demand Ahmed's release:
London ICFUAE Vigil6.00 pm Monday 27th March, UAE Embassy
Manchester Amnesty Group Vigil6.30 pm Monday 27th March at Manchester Town Hall