Dubai's welcome to world hits cultural hitch
DUBAI has spent billions of its oil money in an attempt to position itself as a new cultural and sporting hub for the Middle East and the world.
But in recent days, those efforts have stumbled and yesterday the country was forced into a significant concession. The reason for the hiccup? The refusal to grant a visa to the Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer, who was due to compete in the Dubai championships, simply because of her nationality.
A political row ensued, with Jewish groups and former players condemning the move, and many saying the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), the governing body, should not sanction the event and cancel it for 2010.
The concession came yesterday when Andy Ram, an Israeli doubles player, was granted a visa to play in the men's championships.
It was the threat of an international sporting boycott that led to the climbdown, according to the WTA chief, Larry Scott.
He said he had been assured all Israeli athletes would be given "a special permit" by the United Arab Emirates government to enter the country if they had qualified for a tournament.
"They had no idea of the international condemnation and the ripple effects, not just in the world of sport but beyond … that they were starting to feel, in the worlds of business, arts, culture," he said. "I had been in touch with heads of several other sports and people in the Olympic movement and there was shock and dismay over this decision and real concern as to what the implications would be.
"I know certain organisations called for a sporting boycott or suspension of all sporting activities in the UAE until this policy was changed. So there were potential ramifications for all other sports."
Next week, the first Emirates Airlines international festival of literature opens in Dubai. It is one of a growing list of cultural and sporting events sought by the oil-rich Gulf states.
The cultural events are meant to bring the best from the West, even as they promote Arab and Islamic writers and artists. This week, the festival faced an authors' boycott, lead by Margaret Atwood, over censorship.
Rows over freedom of speech, and the freedom of athletes to compete, have raised doubts over whether the Gulf states' rulers are capable of hosting these high-profile events. Do they provide proof they can open the door, or are their conservative values too fundamentally at odds with contemporary western culture?
Dubai already has serious problems matching its own traditional, male-dominated society to the mores of western tourists and expatriates. They were underlined by the "sex on the beach" case last year, when Michelle Palmer and Vince Actors' Gulf stay ended with a doubtless terrifying legal ordeal, which led to them being convicted and jailed for having sexual intercourse outside marriage and offending public decency.
While Palmer is back home, another British woman, Marnie Pearce, 40, a mother of two, is in jail after a conviction for adultery. She claims her Omani husband made the accusation after she confronted him over an alleged affair.
Last month, a more fundamental issue surrounding Dubai's approach to human rights raised its head. In its first literary festival, a book, The Gulf Between Us was at first seen as promising, given its Middle East setting. The organisers then discovered a minor character – a sheikh – was gay.
Isobel Abulhoul, the festival director, told the author, Geraldine Bedell, in a letter: "I do not want our festival remembered for the launch of a controversial book. If we launched the book and a journalist happened to read it, then you could imagine the political fall-out that could follow."
A controversial book, read and reported by journalists? Imagine the outrage if the Edinburgh International Book Festival did not include such books on its line-up. "I don't think you'd see Catherine Lockerbie refusing to have an author to Edinburgh on that kind of basis," said Bob McDevitt, the publisher of Hachette Scotland.
"They want to have this kind of western front, but are they are not prepared to accept western freedoms."
Bedell has said she felt "incredibly affectionate" towards the Gulf. But she felt blacklisting her book "calls into question the whole notion of whether the Emirates and other Gulf states really want to be part of the contemporary cultural world".
Things turned nastier for Dubai this week when Canadian author Atwood, a big draw on her Edinburgh visits, pulled out in protest over Bedell's exclusion. She wrote to Abulhoul that "as an international vice-president of Pen, an organisation concerned with the censorship of writers, I cannot be part of the festival this year."
The best-selling children's author Anthony Horowitz is "seriously considering'' pulling out, while others say they will be protesting to organisers.
On the tennis front, Dubai tried to explain the ban on Peer by raising security fears, and suggesting there could be riots aimed at an Israeli player given the recent violence in Gaza.
Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a London-based, pan-Arab newspaper, said Dubai was not the first country to politicise sporting events. "It started with Britain and the West with the South African regime. The whole of Europe, the international community, boycotted South Africa, and then the Olympic tournament in Moscow, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
"It is not actually Dubai who started this, so we should not blame Dubai. They also do it simply for security reasons and are entitled to do so. Imagine after the atrocities of Gaza what would happen if an Israeli player was there in a crowd."
He pointed to the Chelsea football team's cautious approach to an Israeli visit in the midst of suicide bombings there, and the English cricket team's response to the bombings in India.
Israel, he added, had severely restricted the movements of Palestinian players on their national football team, from Gaza.
Mr Atwan added: "We should encourage them (Dubai] to be ambitious because they are opening up and they are really trying to modernise their society. And it comes step by step – it's not switch on, switch off – it takes time. We shouldn't put them off."
Shadow falls on cultural hopes
THE United Arab Emirates have embarked on a massive build-up of their cultural and sporting profiles. But the sharp fall in the oil price and the slump in global real estate may cast a shadow over their ambitious plans.
The first Emirates Airline international festival of literature starts in Dubai on 26 February and claims to be the "first true literary festival in the Middle East".
Writers invited to attend include Wilbur Smith, Kate Adie, Philippa Gregory, Frank McCourt and the Orange prize-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Art Dubai is the Gulf art fair, now in its third year. In March more than 60 contemporary galleries from 30 countries will set up their stalls in the beach resort of Madinat Jumeirah. The fair hands out the Abraaj Capital Art Prize and stages a Global Art Forum.
Christie's now has an office in Dubai, and this April's sales will range from elaborate gemstones to about 150 lots of Arab, Iranian, Turkish and western art. Sotheby's, which has brought exhibitions of major items to the Gulf region, also launched its first international series of auctions in Doha, Qatar, this year.
Abu Dhabi is preparing for a new branch of France's Louvre museum scheduled to open in 2011, for which it is paying more than $1.3 billion (900 million). The Louvre Abu Dhabi will display thousands of works from some of France's best museums, such as the Louvre, the Georges Pompidou Centre, the Muse d'Orsay and Versailles.
The creation of a cultural district on the Saadiyat Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi has begun with the groundwork for a $400 million (280 million) branch of the Guggenheim Museum. The Frank Gehry-designed museum will display a collection of modernist and contemporary art and is scheduled for completion in 2011. The district will also include an arts centre that will house a concert hall, opera house and drama theatre and have a combined seating capacity for 6,300 people.
The Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships opens this week, but rows over Dubai's decision to block Israeli women's player Shahar Peer, ranked 45th in the world, saw the Tennis Channel pull out of broadcasting the tournament. While it is not the first time Dubai has barred Israeli players, the Wall Street Journal group dropped its sponsorship of the event. The newspaper said its philosophy was "free markets and free people".
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