'Hands Up Who Likes Reading?' Guto Harri reports from Hay Festival Abu Dhabi

“Hands up who likes reading.” 

I didn’t count all of them all but there weren’t many who didn’t raise an arm enthusiastically in a packed venue of 200.

“Hands up who likes writing.”

Another wave.

On stage is an Arab schoolgirl who published her first book last year, aged 13, cataloguing the “amazing women of Arabia” who inspire her.

Dana Ablooshi is describing her ambition to become an astronaut before setting up her own business. She’s already had training with NASA.

We’re all inspired, and with more than 2,000 children from around 70 schools bussed in for the opening day, it’s hard not to feel energised and up-beat about the future. 

Abu Dhabi is a quintessentially global community and in many ways the crossroads of the world. Native Emiratis are a small minority here and most of the world is represented in the rest of the population. 

Some will be surprised that a hereditary kingdom in the Gulf, practising a version of Sharia law, hosted the Pope last year and is building a large church and a synagogue alongside the next mosque. New York University has a campus here, as does La Sorbonne. The Louvre has a striking Gulf gallery and the Guggenheim will shortly follow. 

So culture is in the soil of this young, fast-tracked city state, and will no doubt bear fruit in due course. So, too, is mutual respect and tolerance – we hope. 

Tolerance is such a target for the authorities here that they have a ministry for it. Its officials have been genuinely enthusiastic about this festival and the Minister spoke passionately about shared human values that help strengthen communities.

But Hay and the hosts are pushing boundaries together with this partnership. The idea of a government department charged with promoting tolerance has an Orwellian feel and Stephen Fry, Hay Festival’s president, expressed the anxiety lurking in many souls in an open letter castigating the UAE for “promoting a platform for freedom of expression, while keeping behind bars Emirati citizens and residents who shared their own views and opinions”.

A week of discussion and debate – however frank – won’t change that overnight. But no conversations are off-limits here, and only a few hours into the Festival we’ve had muscular verbal and artistic reflections on the importance of human rights. The most profound, perhaps, came from the brilliant Oxford historian, Peter Frankopan. Acknowledging that the West took centuries to abandon appalling abuses, he advocated respect for universal values and human rights because “it tends to produce better outcomes”. 

Emiratis of my generation didn’t flinch. The younger crowd clearly thought that’s a no-brainer. Really glad Hay is here.