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Wednesday 7 March 2018

THE EMIRATES FESTIVAL OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: How do writers and publishers square their commitment to freedom of expression with sponsorship by a brutally repressive regime?

Some of the eminent writers currently appearing at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Top: Carol Ann Duffy DBE, Anthony Horowitz OBE, Eoin Colfer, Jacqueline Wilson DBE.
Bottom: Jenni Murray OBE, Lemn Sissay MBE, David Walliams OBE, Kate Adie OBE

Cognitive dissonance – the mental discomfort that results from a person performing an action that contradicts their ideals – seems to be reaching epidemic proportions at the moment. Whether it’s pro-EU politicians voting through Brexit bills or eco-conscious holidaymakers taking climate-wrecking long-haul flights, many of us seem to be behaving in ways that conflict with our deeply-held principles.

"While the festival presents itself as promoting freedom of expression and the exchange of ideas, its sponsors have gone to great lengths to ensure that this freedom does not extend beyond the festival’s glitzy bubble"
Among the potential sufferers in this epidemic are the many eminent UK writers currently appearing at 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 sole owners) and the festival’s patron, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is both the ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While the festival presents itself as promoting freedom of expression and the exchange of ideas, its sponsors have gone to great lengths to ensure that this freedom does not extend beyond the festival’s glitzy bubble and UAE residents wishing to remain at liberty must be extremely careful about which ideas they attempt to exchange. According to Amnesty International, more than a hundred peaceful critics of the Sheik’s government have been imprisoned since the festival was launched in 2009, most of whom remain in prison today.

The already dire state of freedom of expression in the UAE took a further nosedive nine days after the close of last year’s festival when Ahmed Mansoor, a courageous critic of Sheik Mohammed’s government described by Amnesty as "the last remaining Emirati human rights defender speaking out about human rights violations in the country,” was arrested during a midnight raid on his family home. Mansoor has since been held in an unknown location. Amnesty have said that they are “appalled and dismayed” by Mansoor's arrest and expressed concerns that he may be at risk of torture.

Human rights organisations explain the vital role played by UAE human rights defender
Ahmed Mansoor in this 2015 video made before his arrest.

Mansoor’s arrest was part of a further crackdown of freedom of expression in the three weeks following last year’s festival which also included the sentencing of Dr Nasser bin Ghaith to ten years in prison for the "crime" of criticising Sheik Mohammed’s government on Twitter. In a statement on Dr Nasser bin Ghaith’s sentencing, Amnesty’s Lynn Maalouf observed that “the authorities have left no room for doubt: those who dare to speak their minds freely in the UAE today risk grave punishment.”

"The authorities have left no room for doubt: those who dare to speak their minds freely in the UAE today risk grave punishment."
Amnesty International
Sheik Mohammed’s sociopathic obsession with suppressing freedom of speech among his subjects does not seem to have deterred many authors from accepting invitations to the lavish festival he sponsors. This year’s programme boasts an impressive roll call of writing talent, with current UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, former UK Children’s Laureate Dame Jacqueline Wilson and former Irish Children’s Laureate Eoin Colfer all making return appearances. UK journalists and broadcasters are also well represented by the Observer’s Associate Editor Robert McCrum and the BBC’s Jenni Murray OBE and Kate Adie OBE among others.

Penguin's pledge to champion freedom of expression.
I don’t know how many of the writers appearing at this year’s festival are members or supporters of organisations like English PEN, who campaign to defend writers around the world “whose human right to freedom of expression is at risk”, but this group must be among those at risk of enduring the most severe degree of cognitive dissonance. There must also be a staggeringly high risk of cognitive dissonance among the publishers listed among the festival’s secondary sponsors whose codes of conduct commit them to defending freedom of expression. These include Penguin, a “Silver Pen Partner” of English PEN, who claim to have “a long and proud history of championing free speech”.

Penguin’s website includes a corporate pledge to “champion freedom of expression” which it describes as “fundamental to our organisation” and several Penguin authors testify to how much “free speech matters” to them in the 2011 video below.

Prominent among them is Anthony Horowitz OBE, another of the big name UK authors making a return appearance at this year’s festival. Horowitz explains in the video that “freedom of speech is a fundamental human right,” and emphatically states that “censorship is sterile, it’s empty, it’s repressive!”. These fine sentiments are clearly not shared by the "loony" (Horrowitz's word for a censorious leader like Sheik Mohammed) who is footing the bill for Horrowitz's business class flights and luxury accommodation at the festival.

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."
George Orwell
A potential hotspot of cognitive dissonance within the festival programme is the annual George Orwell Lecture, where invited luminaries give a talk inspired by the great writer. Last year's George Orwell Lecture was given by distinguished BBC broadcaster James Naughtie. This lecture series claims to celebrate the politics, philosophy and beliefs of the same George Orwell who wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” I don’t know if Sheik Mohammed is an Orwell fan, but if he is, he seems to have misinterpreted Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s nightmarish vision of an oppressive surveillance state, as a guidebook on how to govern Dubai and the wider UAE. Human Rights Watch described the Sheik's government's introduction of censorious "cybercrime" laws in 2012 as having "effectively closed off the country’s only remaining forum for free speech". The UAE authorities have been widely criticized by human rights groups for deploying expensive surveillance software to spy on human rights activists. In 2016 the Sheik's government invested an unprecedented sum in an attempt to hack the iPhone of now-imprisoned human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor, forcing Apple to issue a security update and earning Mansoor the soubriquet of the 'Million Dollar Dissident'. Prior to his arrest, Mansoor had been communicating with human rights groups outside the UAE using Skype, but in January this year UAE authorities blocked the use of the video-calling app (having already blocked Facetime and the call features in WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber and Snapchat). When thousands of UAE residents signed an online petition on calling for Skype to be reinstated, the authorities blocked access to as well. The UAE’s Thought Police are nothing if not thorough.

The politics of festival patron and sponsor Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum make Donald Trump's look liberal. 

A current bête noire of many western writers attending the festival is US president Donald Trump. Since Trump was elected in 2016, left-leaning writers have been falling over each other to condemn his bullying, bigoted brand of politics. I suspect few of these writers would be willing to lend their names to a Trump Industries Festival of Literature sponsored by the US leader, no matter how great the opportunity for dialogue and cultural exchange with US citizens. It’s a testament to the UAE state's adeptness at PR that so many left-wing authors, poets, journalists and broadcasters are unable or unwilling to apply the same ethical judgment to a festival sponsored by Sheik Mohammed, a politician so right wing, he makes Donald Trump look like a liberal. While Trump can at least claim to be a democratically elected leader who represents the people he governs, the Sheik is an autocratic dictator who brutally suppresses all calls for democratic reform. While Trump’s government bars critical journalists from their press conferences, the Sheik’s has them abducted, imprisoned and tortured. And while Trump is curbing the rights of LGBT citizens, the Sheik criminalises them and bans trans visitors from entering Dubai and the wider UAE.

One area where Trump is openly modelling his policies on those of Sheik Mohammed is workers’ rights. When Trump sang the praises of Dubai Airport in 2016’s presidential debates, he neglected to mention the inhumane labour practices that enabled Sheik Mohammed’s government to build such grandiose structures so quickly and for so little money. Trump has a first-hand knowledge of these practices, having exploited them himself to build the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai, and his administration’s current attack on worker’s rights is intended to bring US workers' rights closer to those of Dubai’s.

“If the UAE’s labour exploitation was white-on-black instead of Arab-on-Asian, few UK writers would be comfortable enjoying the festival’s lavish hospitality.”
Dubai’s building and services industries are dependant on the existence of an underclass of Asian migrant workers, many of whom work in conditions that have been described as “very close to slavery”. A recent Guardian article by Nick Cohen likened the relationship between the UAE’s Arab elite and its migrant underclass to apartheid. If the UAE’s labour exploitation was white-on-black instead of Arab-on-Asian, few UK writers would be comfortable enjoying the festival’s lavish hospitality. Exploitation is exploitation, no matter which race is on top, but the differing demographics of the UAE's modern day slavery does not seem to trigger the post-colonial guilt of UK writers in the way that South Africa's did.

The UAE has set itself up as the gatekeeper of literature for the Gulf region. The Dubai-based Emirates Airline Festival is the biggest literature festival in the Arab world and the annual international book fair in the neighbouring emirate of Sharjah is also the largest in the region. Both the festival and the book fair are heavily reliant on high-profile UK authors to fill out their programmes.

This reliance on UK talent presents the UK literary community with a real opportunity to promote freedom of expression and respect for human rights within the Gulf. The UK literary community has far more leverage in the UAE than it does in most countries where freedom of expression is currently under attack, such as Turkey or Egypt.

"By acting as window dressing for the UAE’s showcase literary events, respectable UK writers are helping to give the impression that their government sponsors are also respectable."
As the situation stands, instead of helping to curb censorship and other human rights abuses in the UAE, many eminent UK writers are helping to whitewash over them. By acting as window dressing for the UAE’s state-sponsored showcase literary events, respectable UK writers are helping to give the impression that their government sponsors are also respectable.

Sheik Mohammed’s gang of autocratic leaders is not the only government that would prefer the festival's writers to keep quiet about their sponsors’ poor human rights record. The UK government is currently prioritising trade over human rights in the UAE and has announced plans to double bilateral trade between the two countries to £25bn in the next two years. Arms sales are especially lucrative; despite its size, the UAE is currently the world's fourth largest buyer of arms. The participation of eminent UK writers in UAE state-sponsored events like the festival help to cement relations between the UK and the UAE. And, of course, the chief reason that UK publishers with “a long and proud history of championing free speech” are prepared to endure such high levels of cognitive dissonance at events like the Emirates Airline Festival and Sharjah Book Fair is that there is a great deal of money to be made from book sales in the region as well.

The road ahead looks rocky. As the UK leaves the European Union, Great Britain PLC will be obliged to look further afield for lucrative trading partners and that inevitably means more cosying up with repressive states like the UAE. I fear we are going to have to endure a lot more Emirates-Festival-style cognitive dissonance as a consequence.

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  1. Well said, Jonathan. I particularly like your point that if it was black workers being exploited people would be more uncomfortable about going. But I know so many otherwise liberal, intelligent people who go to the festival, or on holiday or for other non-family reasons.

    1. Thanks, Anne. It's always nice to hear from a fellow author who does not think I am a party-pooping, sanctimonious killjoy! :)

  2. Jonathan, I don't think you're a party-pooping sanctimonious killjoy. I think you make an extremely important point. I hope that the tide is turning on this and that more people choose not to attend and to talk about why (I'm sure that many authors have turned it down for human rights reasons -and it would be great to hear from them). I do think that it's something we need to support each other on, and then we can encourage each other to turn down things that fly in the face of human rights. I still do things I'm not proud of (I use Amazon and actually listed all my excuses in this comment for why before deleting them) so I'm aware of being labelled a hypocrite for this. But I think it would be a very good thing if we could support each other in saying no -and vocally, to help others do it, too- to these kinds of events.

    1. Thanks, Clare. As I commented on Facebook, supportive public comments from fellow authors such as yourself mean a great deal to me.

      I think if the festival had just started this year it would be a lot easier to get authors to speak out against its human rights abusing sponsors. The problem is that, after running for 10 years, the festival has accrued a ‘critical mass’ of respectability from all of the highly respectable UK authors that have come to be associated with it. New children’s authors invited to the festival look at who has appeared there in previous years and think “If six Children’s Laureates have agreed to go, it must be OK!”

      Other high-profile authors who may be refusing to go for ethical reasons are reluctant to voice their concerns for fear of embarrassing/alienating their fellow authors who do accept. We approached several big-name authors who hadn’t gone to the festival in the run up to the Think Twice boycott campaign to ask if they would support the campaign publicly. Only Laurence Anholt agreed to do so (I already had a high opinion of Laurence - now I consider him to be a saint!). Most did not even reply. There are couple of big name authors who are very vocal on ethical issues who signed the cultural boycott of Israel, but declined to support our festival boycott campaign. While I think there are some sound arguments against boycotting the whole of Israel because of the actions of its government, I think the ethical case for boycotting a government-sponsored event like the Emirates Festival is far more clear cut.