Calls for Dubai LitFest Boycott over free speech concerns
Dubai will hold its annual literary festival from March 1-9 this year under the sponsorship of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and UAE Prime Minister. A growing list of authors, intellectuals, and activists have called for a boycott of the event due to the UAE’s imprisonment of activist Ahmed Mansoor, and the country’s severe restrictions on free speech.
Radha Stirling, founder and CEO of Detained in Dubai issued the following statement:
"Today the Guardian published a letter directed to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE, calling for the release of reform activist Ahmed Mansoor, initiated by ICFUAE, and signed by myself and leading human rights figures such as Noam Chomsky and Stephen Fry.
In response to this letter, Mary Robinson, who has recently faced considerable criticism for acting as what many perceived to be a spokesperson for the Dubai royal family over the condition of Sheikha Latifa Al Maktoum; and after previously stating she would attend the event; joined several prominent authors who have opted to withdraw from the Dubai Literary Festival this year in protest over the case of Matthew Hedges.
A literary festival is, at its core, a celebration of free speech. It is an expression of a culture that honours the right to expression. This is not the culture of the United Arab Emirates, and free speech is not something the festival’s sponsor noticeably honours nor even allows; not in Dubai and not even within his own family.
In just the past year, the UAE’s contempt for free speech and human rights has been demonstrated in a string of high profile cases.
Sheikh Mohammed is currently facing a United Nations enquiry for the abduction and detention of his daughter, Sheikha Latifa Al Maktoum, who tried to escape her family and the abuse she allegedly suffered at her father’s hands since she was a minor. Her bid for freedom was aborted by a violent raid at sea by Sheikh Mohammed’s security forces.
Ahmed Mansoor is currently serving a 10 year prison sentence in the UAE, literally for expressing his opinion.
British academic Matthew Hedges was sentenced to life imprisonment simply for doing research in Dubai for his PhD; and he was only pardoned by the government after a major diplomatic effort.
Dubai’s cybercrime laws empower the government to jail people for their social media posts and even for private messages; with punishments for matters as trivial as disparaging comments about the weather.
This is not a culture that believes in the open exchange of ideas and freedom of expression.
We applaud those authors and journalists who have withdrawn from participating in the Dubai Literary Festival this year, including Mary Robinson, in protest of the imprisonment of Ahmed Mansoor. However, it is important for all people; writers, artists, academics, and yes, tourists; to recognise that the UAE is far from an open society, and restrictions on freedom and civil liberties are severe, and increasingly extreme.
Participating in a literary festival under the auspices of a government so overtly hostile to free speech is profoundly contradictory and we would encourage all who plan to attend to reconsider and join the growing boycott of the event."
Radha Stirling, is founder and CEO of UK based legal and human rights organisation Detained in Dubai, Expert Witness and respected analyst of Middle East Policy.