In Abu Dhabi, a literature festival marred by accusations of sexual assault

Sheikh Nahyan Ben Mubarak Al-Nahyan, Emirati Minister for Tolerance, in Abu Dhabi, in January 2019.


In its Sunday October 18 edition, the Sunday Times dropped a small bomb which must have caused some tremors in the palaces of the Gulf. The London weekly devoted its front page to accusations of sexual assault leveled by a British national, former resident of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), against a prominent member of the Al-Nahyan family, the dynasty at the helm of this petromonarchy.

The facts go back to February. Caitlin McNamara, 32, was working at the time to organize a literature festival in Abu Dhabi, inspired by the Hay Festival, an institution on the British cultural scene. Big names from the world of letters and ideas are expected in the principality, such as the Nigerian Nobel Prize (1986) Wole Soyinka, the Scottish historian William Dalrymple, the Syrian poet Adonis and the Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi. Lebanese rock group Mashrou’Leila, whose leader is openly gay, must even be part of it.

On the program, four days of debates, meetings and shows supposed to celebrate the power of words and its corollary, freedom of expression.

The event is part of the efforts of the UAE, a despotic and police regime, to give itself the image of an enlightened monarchy. It is sponsored by the Emirati Ministry of Tolerance, the ambiguous leitmotif of this state, champion of moderate Islam and the coexistence of religions, but allergic to any internal political criticism.

A man “to whom no one says no”

On Valentine’s Day, February 14, ten days before the festival opens, portfolio holder Sheikh Nahyan Ben Mubarak Al-Nahyan, 69, invited Caitlin McNamara to dinner. The young woman expects a working meal, similar to the meetings she has already attended with this high-ranking dignitary, who has devoted most of her career to the development of the local university system. A highly respected man in UAE, “To which no one says no, who is like a God”, she says in the very detailed article of Sunday Times.

But to her surprise, the expatriate is taken to a private island, to the villa of the sheikh, with whom she finds herself face to face. The continuation of Caitlin McNamara’s story was denied by the UAE minister. Through a London law firm, the person said to himself “Saddened and surprised” by the allegations of his former subordinate, “Which occur eight months after the alleged incident”. Sitting in his living room, lined with portraits of monarchs, the Pope and the Rolling Stones, Sheikh Nahyan would have served wine to the thirty-something, before offering her a watch “ full of gold and diamonds ”.

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