The Hay Festival has said it will not return to Abu Dhabi while Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Emirates minister of tolerance, remains in his post, following an accusation of serious sexual assault by Caitlin McNamara, curator of the inaugural Hay Festival Abu Dhabi.
McNamara related her ordeal in the Sunday Times, giving a harrowing account of how she was invited to what she believed to be an evening work meeting with the sheikh, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, shortly before the festival in February, only to be driven to a remote private island villa where she was allegedly propositioned and sexually assaulted. Her distress was compounded by fear: "I was alone on this island in a concrete building with this powerful man in a country where every day you heard stories about people disappeared in the desert,” she told the ST.
The sheikh has denied all wrongdoing, with his UK law firm Schillings saying that he is "surprised and saddened" by the claims.
Caroline Michel, chair of the Hay board, issued a statement describing the event as "an appalling violation and a hideous abuse of trust and position". She said: "Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan made a mockery of his ministerial responsibilities and tragically undermined his government's attempt to work with Hay Festival to promote free speech and female empowerment."
Traumatised and fearing for her safety, McNamara left Abu Dhabi for Oman two days before the festival commenced. In the Sunday Times article, she described her unease at seeing Hay director Peter Florence with the sheikh on stage for the opening of the festival, despite wanting the event—which featured authors including Wole Soyinka and Bernardine Evaristo—to go ahead. She also felt "abandoned" by the festival on returning to London, the article stated.
With the aid of Baroness Helena Kennedy, leading London lawyers Carter Ruck have represented McNamara pro bono and have sent a legal opinion to the Crown Prosecution Service connected with the possibility of prosecuting Nahyan in this country under Universal Jurisdiction laws, according to the ST. "McNamara was told a decision was expected last month on whether they would go ahead but they are still waiting," the paper reported.
In a longer statement to The Bookseller, Michel said: "On learning of the attack, we did our best to navigate the complex issues of Caitlin’s privacy, safety and her wish for the festival to take place. It was not possible to communicate the incident to everyone, nor safe to do so while we lacked a clearer plan for seeking justice. So, for reasons of confidentiality, security and to buy Caitlin important decision-making time, the specific details of the attack were shared carefully within a very tight circle.
"Arrangements were immediately made for director Peter Florence to fly out and meet her. The day after her attack, emergency funds were transferred from the festival to Caitlin to cover the cost of her departure from the country and accommodation in a safe space for her and her sisters. We repeatedly reiterated our unwavering support for Caitlin, including our eagerness to get her counselling and legal advice, and encouraged her to take all the time she needed to decide on her next steps.
"Caitlin returned to London in March and plans were made for her counselling sessions to begin, her festival contract was extended to cover any leave required, and the festival’s unwavering support was reiterated by director Peter Florence and chair of the board Caroline Michel. When Caitlin decided that she wanted to pursue legal action, the Hay Festival board introduced her to Hay Festival vice-president Helena Kennedy who set about gathering a legal team for her case.
"Throughout the past eight months, the festival has been committed to supporting Caitlin’s recovery and fight for justice. She remains on the festival payroll.
"We continue to support Caitlin in seeking legal redress for this attack and we urge our friends and partners in the UAE to reflect on the behaviour of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan and send a clear signal to the world that such behaviour will not be tolerated. Hay Festival will not be returning to Abu Dhabi whilst he remains in position".
When asked why the festival took place at all following the attack, Michel told the ST. “It was Caitlin’s wish that this was seen through after the attack, in particular the education and outreach work that reached 3,900 pupils from 81 UAE schools. It also had the benefit of buying Caitlin important time in which she could weigh up the legal options with our support, which continues to this day.” The ST also pointed to an account McNamara had asked to be communicated to colleagues during the event, which was never forwarded by Hay. The festival said the specific details of the attack were shared carefully within a tight circle for reasons of confidentiality and security. It means authors and other guests who attended the event were not informed before or during their trip.
When asked when Hay communicated its decision to cut ties with Abu Dhabi, Michel told The Bookseller: "Since the attack, the Hay Festival board has been very clear that it would not return to Abu Dhabi whilst Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan remains in post. Our exchanges with the Ministry of Tolerance have been limited while awaiting the outcome of the legal avenues being explored by Caitlin. We have had no response from the Ministry of Tolerance since Caitlin published the details of her attack publicly."
Author Philip Ardagh said on social media yesterday: "I appeared at the festival just before lockdown. These [allegations] have only now come to light since Caitlin waived her anonymity in order to publicise and pursue her case. I was due to return to Abu Dhabi (with Elissa Elwick) a matter of weeks after the festival, had Covid-19 not intervened. Knowing what I know now, I am relieved that this was cancelled.
Ardagh said he had been "a regular guest at the Emirate Airlines International Book Festival in Dubai (also in the United Arab Emirates) over the years, for which authors have faced some criticism for attending, because I'm a firm believer that the way to encourage change is to attend such events and to work towards more openness and wider dialogue". However he had now written to the Dubai Festival to say he would not accept any future invitations there unless the matter was addressed.
"I can't begin to imagine what it was like for Peter Florence and the entire Hay team to continue with Hay Abu Dhabi under such terrible circumstances. I have enormous admiration for Caitlin waiving her anonymity and wish her every success in her pursuit of justice," he added.