An attendee looks at computers showing the “Dubai Font,” the typeface developed by Microsoft for Dubai, during a conference to announce its launch. (Agence France-Presse)

Dubai has a grand announcement: The city now has its very own typographical font.

The new “Dubai Font” integrates the Arabic and Roman alphabets and will be available for use in 23 languages. The font will soon be used by the Dubai government in all official correspondence, Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum said at an event on Sunday.

For ever-ambitious Dubai, the font seems to be a relatively minor achievement. The United Arab Emirates' largest city has long been known for megaprojects, including the world's tallest building and the world's largest indoor ski resort. Last year, it announced plans to create a whole new city intriguingly built around “happiness.”

But praise for the “Dubai Font” was accompanied by something else: biting criticism of the UAE.

The complaints had nothing to do with the font's design. Instead, critics focused on the language used to promote the font, which focused on free expression. “Expression knows no boundaries or limits,” one video promoting the font said. “Expression is strength and freedom. It defines who you are.”

Social media users are being urged to promote the font with the hashtag, #expressyou.

Well, Dubai and the UAE are not known for free expression. As Liam Stack, a New York Times reporter who has covered the Middle East, put it: “There are quite a few boundaries and limits on expression in Dubai and across the United Arab Emirates, where the news media is censored to remove criticism of the government or the coalition of royal families that controls it.”

Reporting on the new font, the BBC noted that the United Arab Emirates “has been criticized for its restrictions on free speech.”

International nongovernmental organizations describe the UAE as a place where free expression can actually be dangerous. Freedom House ranks the UAE as “not free,” giving it the second-lowest score possible in both political rights and civil liberties. According to Amnesty International, Emirati authorities “arbitrarily restrict the rights to freedom of expression and association,” while critics face detention and perhaps even torture and other mistreatment, Human Rights Watch said in its 2017 annual report.

On Twitter, Human Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth and Andrew Stroehlein criticized the rollout of the “Dubai Font.”

Other users also joined in the criticism, with some pointing to examples of when free expression may have led to the detention of some UAE residents.

A more mundane criticism noted that although Dubai was described as the first city to have its own font, this was not true — other cities, including Amman in Jordan, have their own fonts. Instead, Dubai appears to be only the first city to have its own Microsoft font.

Supporters of the “Dubai Font” suggest that it is a great way to brand the city, marking it as being at the forefront of design and technology. However, the backlash also highlights the city's contradictions — and its dark side.

The Dubai Government Media Office did not respond to a request for comment.

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