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Dispatches: UAE - Yes to Film Festivals, No to Free Expression

The UAE rulers’ faith in the primacy of image, allied to their disregard for fundamental human rights, is a combination that inevitably throws up the odd paradox. And so it is that as Dubai prepares to host an international film festival on Friday, five young local filmmakers are languishing in detention over their short film that gently pokes fun at youth culture in the emirate. Officials have held the young men, one a US citizen, since April, and charged them with endangering national security under the UAE’s cybercrime law on the basis of a 19-minute video that they made and uploaded to YouTube in October 2012. “Deadly Satwa G-s” parodies the faux-gangsta posturing of a group of young, wealthy Emiratis. But satire - even the gentle variety - can land you in jail in the UAE just as quickly as the public expression of political views.

Those attending Dubai’s film festival, including some Hollywood celebrities, would be wise to note that the UAE’s 2012 cybercrime decree enables officials to imprison anyone who expresses critical views about the country or its rulers, and that the UAE has imprisoned advocates of free speech.

One might see a glaring contradiction between the UAE’s full-on assault on freedom of expression and Dubai’s hosting of an international film festival and the Expo 2020 World Fair under the slogan “connecting minds, creating the future.” But from the UAE’s standpoint, there’s no need for consistency. Events such as these help the UAE to project the image of an enlightened Gulf state, which in Dubai’s case is vital to its prosperity. With small and dwindling hydrocarbon reserves, Dubai has to be seen as progressive and stable to attract the tourism and the business on which its economic model is based. And who needs human rights when Hollywood is coming to town?


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