Novelist Margaret Atwood has announced she will not attend the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai after organisers decided to ban the launch of a book with a gay character.

The author of The Handmaid’s Tale will not be among the more than 60 top authors who are attending the cultural event.

In a letter to organisers she wrote:

“I know you have put an enormous amount of work into it, I can imagine how many difficulties have had to be overcome, and I am very sad about the regrettable turn of events surrounding The Gulf Between Us.

“I was greatly looking forward to the Festival, and to the chance to meet readers there; but, as an International Vice President of PEN — an organisation concerned with the censorship of writers — I cannot be part of the Festival this year.”

While Dubai likes to present itself as a tolerant and Westernised Gulf state, homosexuality is banned. Punishments range from jail to deportation and the death penalty.

The majority of its 5.6 million residents are foreigners and in recent months EU citizens have been jailed for conducting gay and lesbian relationships.

Last year there was a crackdown on “immoral” activities that led to wave of deportations.

Festival organisers feared the country’s censors may have taken offence at Geraldine Bedell’s The Gulf Between Us.

Penguin had planned to launch the book, which is set in the Gulf region, at the literature festival. 

A minor character, a gay sheikh with an English boyfriend, led organisers to tell Ms Bedell to stay away.

Isobel Abulhoul, director of the fesitval, said: “I knew that her work could offend certain cultural sensitivities.

“I did not believe that it was in the festival’s long term interests to acquiesce to her publisher’s request to launch the book at the first festival of this nature in the Middle East.”

The festival website claims Dubai “is regarded as the most tolerant and progressive country in the region.”

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell accused the organisers of “collusion” with “Middle Eastern homophobia.”

“We should support liberal and progressive people throughout the Middle East who are striving for an open and free society,” he said.

“The banning of this book is a betrayal of their heroic efforts. It shows that Dubai still has a long way to go to secure freedom of expression.”

British authors due to attend the event later this month include Kate Adie, Anthony Horowitz, Wilbur Smith, Philippa Gregory, Louis de Bernieres and Victoria Hislop.