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This time last year Zoe Toft and I were busy running the Think Twice Campaign, which highlighted ethical concerns about the sponsorship of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. The festival's main sponsors are Emirates Airline and the Dubai Government (who are the airline’s owners). The festival’s patron, Sheik Mohammed, is both the ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). One of the aims of the campaign was to highlight the many human rights violations taking place under the Sheik’s regime.
Zoe and I knew that the campaign would be contentious. Many authors and illustrators we admired and respected had appeared at the festival in the past or were due to appear in 2016. And the festival has a reputation for being exceptionally well-organised by a friendly and hospitable team. We were uncomfortable with putting ourselves at odds with these respectable groups, but our concern was that their respectability was being used to whitewash the reputations of extremely unethical sponsors. Actor Mark Rylance expressed a similar concern last year when he announced that he would not work for the Royal Shakespeare Company while they were sponsored by BP. We were not attacking the people appearing at or running the festival any more than Rylance was attacking the people appearing at or running the RSC. Our target was the festival’s sponsors.
We recognised that not everyone that shared our concerns would want to boycott the festival and at the top of Think Twice's FAQ page we suggested that authors and illustrators who still wished to appear at the festival might use their appearance to raise awareness of some of the issues highlighted by the campaign. Writer and philosopher AC Grayling and children’s author Chris Haughton did exactly that by meeting with UAE human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor during their stay in Dubai. Grayling addressed the UAE’s poor record on free expression during his public talks and Haughton blogged about his meeting with Mansoor on his return.
This year the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) are encouraging UK authors and illustrators appearing at next month’s festival to follow A C Grayling and Chris Haughton’s example and "speak out clearly in favour of human rights, free speech and democracy in the UAE".
Although Zoe and I have now wound up the Think Twice Campaign, we would also like to encourage the festival's authors and illustrators to consider speaking out on behalf of the following three groups whose human rights are being systematically abused by the festival’s sponsors.
1: The migrant workers enduring conditions “very close to slavery”
.@benjohnanderson met migrant workers building some of Dubai's biggest developments. This is his debrief #VICEonHBOhttps://t.co/tMGkrxqQw2— VICE (@VICE) April 23, 2016
Anderson's documentary focuses on the construction industry, but he mentions that similar labour abuses apply to migrants working as cleaners, cooks and housemaids in Dubai. In the Human Rights Watch video below Women’s Rights Researcher Rothna Begum explains how the UAE government “facilitates and fosters the abuse and exploitation of domestic workers” who are explicitly excluded from the country's labour laws.
As you enjoy the hospitality of Dubai’s impressive airports, hotels, conference centres and schools, please be aware that many of these buildings are built, maintained and serviced by people who are treated as an “underclass” by the festival’s sponsors and do what you can to draw attention to their plight.
2: The LGBT people criminalised in, or barred from entering, Dubai
When it was announced that Jennifer Anniston was to become the new face of Emirates Airline in 2015, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) urged the actor to think twice about associating herself with the airline in view of their “serious concerns about the way the Gulf carriers treat and manage their flight crews, particularly women and gay men.”
Emirates Airline’s reputation for discriminating against gay employees (and, on some occasions, gay passengers) is unsurprising given the anti-gay stance of the government that owns it. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Dubai and punishable by harsh, discriminatory laws which promote homophobia.
If you care about LGBT rights, please do what you can to encourage the festival’s sponsors to be more accepting and inclusive towards LGBT people.
3: The UAE citizens imprisoned and tortured by the festival’s sponsors for peacefully campaigning for more democracy and human rights in the UAE
Ahmed Mansoor is just one of many UAE human rights and democracy campaigners who have been persecuted for speaking out against Sheik Mohammed’s government. More than 100 peaceful activists and critics of the UAE government have been imprisoned on broad and vague national security-related charges since 2011. Most of them remain in prison today, including Dubai citizen Dr Mohammed al-Roken whose case is highlighted in the Amnesty International video below.
If you have the freedom to speak freely at the festival, please consider speaking out on behalf of those whose voices are being suppressed by the festival’s sponsors.
If you’re willing to raise awareness of the issues highlighted above, you could mention them in the social media or blog coverage you produce regarding the festival. You might even consider raising some issues during your appearance at the festival itself. And, if you’d like to offer your support to local human rights activists during your visit to Dubai, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or Zoe on email@example.com and we can put you in touch with people who can help you to arrange this.
If you’re not comfortable raising awareness of these issues, then please think twice about posting photos or making comments on social media or blogs that could be interpreted as promoting or endorsing either Emirates Airline or the Dubai Government. For example, if you share APFA’s concerns about Emirates Airline’s discrimination towards women and gay men, you could avoid mentioning the airline or including photos of their logo/branding in your tweets/Facebook posts.
International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE's Open Letter to Authors Appearing at the Festival
Human Rights Watch World Report 2017: United Arab Emirates
Human Rights Watch Report – “I Already Bought You” Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Arab Emirates’
Amnesty International Report 2016/17: United Arab Emirates
Amnesty International Report- “There is No Freedom Here”: Silencing dissent in the United Arab Emirates
Detained in Dubai - Homosexuality in the UAE
UPDATE: 30 March 2017
Disappointingly, the ICFUAE are not aware of any UK authors who highlighted their concerns for human rights in their coverage of the 2017 Festival. Immediately after the close of the 2017 festival, the UAE government launched a further crackdown on freedom of expression and human rights in the country. As part of this crackdown the UAE's last remaining human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor (quoted above) was arrested. 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.”
For more details of the ICFUAE's 2017 Festival campaign and the subsequent UAE crackdown, read this post: http://scribblestreetnews.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/why-last-few-days-have-left-me-feeling.html