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The tenth anniversary of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature kicks off in Dubai on March 3 and – like last year – I’m going to play the curmudgeon.

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature graphic.  © Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

This is not because I am against literature festivals, or this one in particular. Who wouldn’t want to attend the talks and book readings by the impressive assembly of writers, broadcasters, and journalists? Who could possibly disagree with the festival organizer’s statement that “through books, we open doors to our imaginations and a wider world of experiences”? 

My issue is that while the UAE government is sponsoring the festival, it continues its unrelenting campaign to throttle free expression and critical thought.

For example, on January 16 authorities detained Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati academic and vocal supporter of the government, for 10 days after he posted a tweet that read:

In the Emirates of tolerance, I wish we had as much freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and political liberties as we have freedom of belief, freedom of trade, individual freedom, and social liberties.

UAE jails are full of people who have criticized the government, and the list of nongovernmental organizations, activists, and academics banned from the country continues to grow. A Human Rights Watch report in November 2016 detailed how, since 2011, the UAE has been at the forefront of a “systematic and well-funded assault on free speech to subvert the potentially transformative impact of social media and internet technology.”

One of the key lectures at the festival each year is the Orwell Lecture, this year to be given by the former BBC broadcaster James Naughtie. The Intercept’s 2016 revelations that the UAE has “assembled an army of cyberwarriors” to spy on citizens suggest the country’s rulers interpreted Orwell’s dystopian satire 1984 not as a cautionary tale but as a blueprint for effective government.

“In our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics,” runs the Orwell quote on the festival’s website. The UAE authorities are making sure its citizens have fewer and fewer spaces to keep their lives private. 

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