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Authors denounce Saudi bid to host science fiction convention

Letter led by Anna Smith Spark and signed by dozens of other authors says the 'Saudi regime is antithetical' to everything science fiction stands for
The Red Sea Saudi city of Jeddah submitted a bid to host the 2022 WorldCon (AFP/File photo)

A group of writers,  led by renowned British author Anna Smith Spark, have protested against Saudi Arabia's bid to host the 2022 World Science Fiction Convention, citing the kingdom's human rights abuses and discriminatory laws.

In a letter to the World Science Fiction Society, which organises the convention, known as WorldCon, 80 science fiction authors said the "Saudi regime is antithetical to everything SFF [science fiction and fantasy] stands for".

The Red Sea Saudi city of Jeddah has submitted a bid to host the 2022 event, which will be held virtually in Wellington, New Zealand later this week and in Washington in 2021. The winners of the Hugo Awards for best science fiction works are announced annually at WorldCon.

The letter's authors raised concerns over the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the jailing of government's critics and women's rights activists, anti-LGBT laws and the murder of Washington Post and MEE journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"It cannot and must not be acceptable to stage an international event against this backdrop," they wrote. "Indeed, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi alone should be enough to render the concept of a literary convention in the country an absurdity."

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The authors also voiced solidarity with the Saudi people, stressing that they hope that a WorldCon in Saudi Arabia "will one day be possible". 

"On a personal level, we note that many of us would ourselves not be able to write or to live freely under Saudi law," the letter reads. 

"We refuse to attend an event if those staffing it cannot have the same basic freedoms. We express deep concern that many members of the SFF community would be excluded from attending an event because of their sexuality, nationality or religious beliefs."

Yasser Bahjatt, a Jeddah-based author helping organise the city's bid for the convention, told the Guardian that the push to prevent the kingdom from hosting the event was "absurd and unhealthy for the WorldCon in the long run". 

"The WorldCon already is limited in its spread as it is mainly focused on western culture countries, and as long as it is the WorldCon, it must accept all of the world," Bahjatt said.

Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has been trying to relax some of its ultraconservative restrictions in a self-proclaimed push for modernisation. In recent years, the kingdom has allowed movie theatres to open across the country, lifted a ban on women's right to drive and hosted concerts by international musicians.

But that drive has been accompanied by a brutal crackdown on dissent and reports of rampant human rights abuses at home as well as in Yemen, where Riyadh has been locked in a five-year conflict against the country's Houthi rebels.