I’ve recently returned from Dubai where, as always, I greatly enjoyed the Emirates Literary Festival. There was controversy this year, with Antony Beevor turning down his invitation to attend because of UAE’s human rights record. Sir Antony had attended the festival a few years ago – I have photos of him on a camel in the desert – but the recent imprisonment of British academic Matthew Hedges on supposed spying charges had received significant media coverage towards the end of last year and was very fresh in people’s minds.
It is always difficult to know how best to combat human rights abuses by other nations: one of the reasons why we set up the Festival a dozen years ago was to expose those living in Dubai to a wider range of opinions and ideas than they were used to and to stimulate discussion of such ideas. In the first Festival in March 2009 we had an excellent panel discussion on censorship in which a senior Emirati minister participated, and the UAE government has never tried to influence the Festival: on the contrary it has been very supportive. My personal opinion is that you achieve more to change old entrenched attitudes by engaging from within than pontificating from without.
On the way to Dubai we stopped over for a few days in Istanbul, an extraordinary city. The Hagia Sophia was, when it was built 1500 years ago, possibly the largest building in the world, and is still hugely impressive. Our visit set me thinking: five hundred years ago Istanbul was one of the greatest cities in the world, heart of a huge empire. Now it is an irrelevance on the fringe of Europe. 150 years ago London was one of the greatest cities in the world, heart of a huge empire. After the Brexit fiasco is resolved it will also become an irrelevance on the fringe of Europe. Sic transit Gloria mundi, or something.