One of this week’s most intriguing hot-button topics was German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ announcement that he is retracting his acceptance of the award given to him by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the “Cultural Personality of the Year” within the scope of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. In a statement made through his publisher Suhrkamp Verlag, Habermas (91), who is known as the “greatest living German philosopher,” pointed to the country’s reputation in human rights and its political system as a reason for his rejection of the award. Hence, the UAE administration’s plan to bolster its global image through Habermas failed miserably, and it came up on world’s agenda within a context that it didn’t see coming. The committee that chose Habermad as cultural personality of the year, for its part, stated in response: "The Sheikh Zayed Book Award expresses its regret for Mr. Jurgen Habermas’ decision to retract his acceptance of the award but respects it. The award embodies the values of tolerance, knowledge and creativity while building bridges between cultures and will continue to fulfill this mission."
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award has been given on behalf of the UAE’s founding father Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004) since the year 2004. Even though it’s primarily awarded to “Arab writers, intellectuals, publishers as well as young talent whose writings and translations of humanities have scholarly and objectively enriched Arab cultural, literary and social life," the biggest award goes to the “Cultural Personality of the Year.” The organization, which has earned the title of the “the world’s most generous literary award” by paying the top ranker close to $300,000, is actually carrying out the PR strategies of the UAE worldwide. The top (and undisclosed) criteria sought after in those deemed worthy enough to receive the award is the level of “propriety in relation to UAE policy.”
The first figure to be crowned with the “Cultural Personality of the Year” distinction in 2007 was famous British translator Denys Johnson-Davies (1922-2017), who translated modern Arabic classics into English. It was awarded to former Moroccan Foreign Minister Muhammed Benisa in 2008; Spanish Arab culture expert Prof. Dr. Pedro Martinez Montavez in 2009; in 2010 to Sheikh Halid bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, the then ruler of Sharjah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE, who was killed in his palace in a coup attempt in 1972; to UNESCO in 2012; to Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Tayyib in 2013; to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2014; and to the Emir of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid in 2015. In other years, besides well-known names such as Amin Maalouf (2016), there are also figures who received the award for reasons unfathomable. When we take a look at the figures crowned across a slew of categories, it can comfortably be ascertained that the Sheikh Zayed Book Award implements an extremely political strategy.
Hence, Jürgen Habermas’ rejection of an award that carries political connotations by criticizing the country’s very political system denotes talking in the language that the Abu Dhabi administration understands.
During the rule of Sheikh Zayed (1971-2004), the UAE was a state prominent for its mediator, negotiator and calming role in the Gulf and Arab world. In many regional and global crises, it was possible to see sheikh Zayed or his representatives engaging in shuttle diplomacy. When his son Sheikh Khalifa had to step down due to health problem after his death, the Emirati throne was left to Sheikh Zayed’s younger son Muhammed. Known as “MbZ” in the Western press, Sheikh Muhammed is known for his aggressive policies. Leading the anti-Turkey camp in the Arab world, MbZ also dragged the UAE into military adventures that are too big for its boots. Today, it is no surprise to stumble on traces of Mbz’s fingerprints from Libya to Yemen, and from the Balkans to the depths of Africa.
Contrary to these belligerent policies, presenting the UAE has a “haven of tolerance and reconciliation” is another one of MbZ’s goals. Within this framework, so-called "dialogue" forums are being established jointly with the Vatican; garish titles in the country’s cabinet such as "minister of tolerance," "minister of happiness", "minister of food security" etc. are being formed. However, every single one of these initiatives are being choked in a world of controversy. For example, British musician Caitlin McNamara complained to English authorities that UAE Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan had sexually assaulted her after she was invited to the country for a festival. The debate is still ongoing, and a case being filed against Sheikh Nahyan is on the agenda.
Isn’t it very much like in the famous story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?