I went to Dubai to speak at the fantastic Emirates Literature Festival last month. Just before it opened a number of authors announced that they were boycotting the festival because of the UAE’s human rights record.
There was also a thoughtful petition by Human Rights Watch and English Pen as well as the campaign to boycott. I agreed to sign the petition but I thought and still do think there are much better ways to encourage free speech than by boycotting a literary festival. Emirates festival is the largest literary festival in the Arabic speaking world and I think we should be doing all we can to encourage dialogue everywhere but surely especially in the middle east where there are differing perspectives we can all learn from. Chris Cleave puts it a lot better than I could here.
Anyway, during the lead up to the festival a number of activists were tweeting to me encouraging me to boycott etc etc and i struck up a conversation on twitter with Ahmed Mansoor, one of the UAE’s leading activists who was previously imprisoned. We ended up meeting for a coffee and I was so shocked by his story that i feel obliged to write about it here:
‘the only thing clear in this country is it’s opacity!’
Ahmed Mansoor is an Emirati writer and poet who has a masters in IT. He did his IT studies in the US and on his return he was involved in setting up a discussion website in the UAE uaehewar.net (hewar means dialogue). The discussion threads that emerged were topics like politics, human rights, news from international media which is banned domestically. The website became popular and the UAE government managed to shut it down and imprisoned some of those responsible. Ahmed became more and more politicised by the actions that were going on around him that he and other intellectuals/activists initiated a petition calling for political reform. Five of them were imprisoned. He was detained for 8 months and the government ran a smear campaign. They were tried by a closed court which sentenced Ahmed to 3 years in jail and the others to 2 years each. Amnesty deemed the trial grossly unfair and after an international outcry the ‘UAE 5’ were released.
However after his ordeal he had a criminal record and his employer were forced to dismiss him. His passport was also confiscated in a raid on his house and has never been returned, his email and phone were hacked, a new ‘cyber crime’ law was passed by the government (which has been deemed unconstitutional) which means he and others like him will never have ‘security clearance’ and without ‘security clearance’ he has no possibility of getting a job. Then, all of his money ($160,000) suddenly disappeared from his bank account. The nature of its disappearance implicates not only the government but also the bank. When Ahmed was reporting the disappearance of this, his life’s savings, his car tyres were first let down and then his car was stolen… all outside the main court/prosecution building in Abu Dhabi. He was also twice beaten up and received numerous death threats which has made it impossible for him to complete his law studies at university. (He had tried to return to university after he lost his job)
So Ahmed is currently without his life’s savings or a job or a way to leave, but he says many are facing much worse consequences than he has. There are hundreds of political prisoners currently in jail without charge. Often they just disappear. People are terrified to speak out and face a similar fate. As Ahmed says ‘extremism grows when hope for peaceful change evaporates’ and i cant help worrying with him about the wider consequences of such extreme crackdowns.
Despite these stories there was so much else I saw in Dubai that seemed hopeful about the UAE. The festival itself was incredibly inspiring. The astronaut Chris Hadfield gave an incredible talk aimed at inspiring children into science and exploring the unknown and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy made I call out to support womens day on the opening ceremony. I did school visits as part of the festival, all were very multicultural and open, one of the classes I taught had 110 children from an incredible 33 different countries, and the schools were some of the best equipped i have ever seen. One of my friends is an academic advisor working with institutions there and he raves about the enthusiasm of the young people and the set up that he works with. The country has developed at a faster pace than literally anywhere else in the world and has achieved an incredible amount in just a few decades. Hopefully the politics can be changed equally quickly.
Ahmed Mansoor won the Martin Ennals award in 2015
(Ennals was the first head of Amnesty International)
You can read about it on the BBC here