Today’s blog is brought to you from Dubai, courtesy of Emirates Airlines, which is sponsoring the city’s annual Festival of Literature. As always when I’m in the Middle East, I’m instantly reminded why it is that Britons from TE Lawrence to the Prince of Wales to pretty much anyone who has ever worked in our Foreign Office tends to go weak at the knees over Arab culture: because when you’re on the receiving end of its hospitality, there are few finer experiences in the world.
This Literature Festival is a case in point. All morning I’ve been watching authors like Martin Amis, Conn Iggulden, Francis Wheen, Roger McGough, Alexander McCall Smith and the world’s goriest children’s author Darren Shan wandering round in a daze, some of it maybe due to the time zone shift (we had to get up for the opening at the equivalent at 4.30 am UK time) but most of it due to sheer amazement that in these dark recessionary times there is as a place in the world where writers still get treated like royalty. Global literature festivals are a penny a dozen these days. But I don’t think there are many gigs left where pretty much everything – including your wife or husband’s business class flight (if you’re an author; not my wife unfortunately) – is paid for. And yes of course it’s all front – designed to project an image to the world that says “Dubai financial crisis? What Dubai financial crisis?” But I don’t notice many of the guests complaining about it.
The only thing the festival hosts won’t stump up for is booze (shame because a beer here costs about £7). This reflects Dubai’s rather awkward relationship with its fellow Emirates (and the rest of the Middle East). On the one hand they like the way it proves to the world that Arabs CAN do modern business and aren’t just relicts from the Middle Ages who only got lucky because of oil; on the other, they feel that the place has sold itself down the river by at least partially accommodating the wicked licentiousness of the West. Even though you can only buy booze in hotels here, Dubai is by some way the most liberal of the United Arab Emirates.
You can still get arrested for canoodling on the beach, being found drunk, swearing or even making a rude hand gesture, but I totally see why so many expats are drawn here. Partly, it’s the fact that as a free port it’s all tax free (though rumours of the cheapness of goods here are greatly exaggerated), partly, it’s because like many of us would rather like Britain still to be – as if PC had never happened.
I noticed one small example of this at the festival’s (surprisingly good) opening, when about two hundred kids trooped on stage dressed up as their favourite children’s characters (Pippi Longstockings, Worst Witches, Harry Potters etc) and did a really high-quality song and dance number. It was quite an eye-opener for anyone used to the achingly PC standards which obtain in most British state primary schools these days: the kids who got the starring roles were ruthlessly chosen either because they had the best singing voice or because they were prettiest, rather than to create balance or make the ugly losers feel better about themselves. And crikey, was the show all the better for it!