Jeddah Bids to Host World Sci Fi Convention

Saudi SFF author Yasser Bahjatt led a small campaign to bring the 80th World Science Fiction Convention, which is set to be held in 2022, to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia:

Voting is closed, and the winner of the two-city contest is set to be announced tomorrow; it will almost certainly be Chicago.

Bahjatt’s campaign — dubbed JeddiCon — was opposed by a formal letter put together by a group of science-fiction authors and fans, organized by Anna Smith Spark. From the letter:

It would break new ground for SFF Fandom, open up a new world to fans who may otherwise never have an opportunity to travel there, and show solidarity with creative communities within Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. It’s therefore with great sadness that we must face reality for what it is, that the Saudi regime is antithetical to everything SFF stands for.

In a statement to The GuardianBahjatt responded that he was “deeply concerned” by the letter.

We believe in their right to express concerns or even distaste for a WorldCon in Saudi Arabia, but demanding that we should not be allowed to even request hosting it is 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.

In the last decade, literary events honoring or hosted by Saudi Arabia have attracted a number of objections from authors and publishers. In 2015, the Turin International Book Fair dropped Saudi as its Guest of Honor after objections.

In 2011, when Book World Prague hosted Saudi Arabia as its guest of honor, UK translator Alice Guthrie wrote a condemnation in The Guardian, “How can a book fair make Saudi Arabia ‘guest of honour’?,” as did Prague-based American writer Michael Stein, in Publishing Perspectives. Saudi author Mohammed Hasan Alwan wrote a rebuttal in The Guardian: “Book World Prague was right to honour Saudi Arabia.“

The campaigns targeting Saudi literary events rarely focus on a particular demand, but rather note a wide range of issues, from women’s rights to queer rights to freedom of speech. In this case, also the safety of the conference-goers.

These are different from the comparatively narrow boycott campaigns targeting the International Writers’ Festival in Jerusalem and a boycott of a Qatari translation conference, which demanded the release of the poet Muhammad al-Ajami. He was later pardoned. There has also been a looser campaign targeting Emirates LitFest, which has alternately cited free-speech and climate-change issues.

The campaign against “JeddiCon” launched a discussion among science-fiction writers and fans, about which countries should be permitted to host a WorldCon. As @illegibscrib noted on Twitter, it wouldn’t be easy to come up with criteria for host countries: “If you can come up with a wording for a rule on how to fairly determine which #Worldcon bids to disqualify *which cannot be weaponized for arbitrary discrimination and which will not disqualify 95% of countries*, I will take it to next year’s Business Meeting for you.”

The issue of which countries should be able to hold a WorldCon was also discussed in 2019, in the context of US and Chinese bids. The 2020 Chicago was also not without detractors:

This year’s digital-heavy convention was hosted for the first time in New Zealand.