Publishing in the UAE: an insider’s perspective

September 2015

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

Bodour bint Sultan Al-Qasimi is a driving force in the development of the United Arab Emirates’ publishing industry and in promoting the development of Arabic children’s literature and reading. She is Founder and CEO of Kalimat Publishing, Founder and Patron of the UAE Board on Books for Young People, Founder and Patron of the Emirates Publishers Association, and Director of Knowledge Without Borders. Ms. Al-Qasimi, who in 2014 became the first Arab woman to serve on the Executive Committee of the International Publishers Association, shares her views about the opportunities and challenges associated with the UAE’s evolving publishing landscape.

How did you get involved in publishing?

“When I first ventured into publishing, I was optimistic about the future but
could not have foreseen the phenomenal rate of expansion of the
Arab publishing sector,” says Ms. Al-Qasimi (above).
(Photo: Kalimat Publishing)

My journey into publishing began with children’s books in 2007. At the time there were very few good quality Arabic children’s books – those that did exist were translations of foreign books and their print quality and illustrations were very poor. That is what prompted me to set up Kalimat Publishing, with the aim of producing high quality and enjoyable Arabic literature that would capture the imagination and interest of children.

How would you describe the UAE’s publishing landscape today?    

Publishing in the UAE is still in its infancy, but has significant potential to develop into a sector of strategic relevance domestically and across the region.

While there are no exact figures available, the estimated value of the UAE book market is around one billion AED (approx. USD272 million) and it is expected to experience further expansion with the rapid uptake of e-books.

With one of the most tech-savvy populations in the world –Internet and smartphone penetration at 92 percent and 72 percent respectively – the future of electronic publishing looks bright. I believe that while digital technology will enhance reading, there will continue to be a place for the printed book. Reading on paper will always remain enjoyable (and easier on the eyes than reading electronically). That said, to remain relevant, publishers need to keep up with technological advances and create sufficient rich and interactive content to meet the ever-changing needs of consumers.

When I first ventured into publishing, I was optimistic about the future but could not have foreseen the phenomenal rate of expansion of the Arab publishing sector. Book publishing in the Arab world is an exciting and stimulating undertaking and, as a dynamic emerging market, the UAE is already serving as a hub for publishers and books from across the globe.

But if the industry is to continue to thrive we need to maximize skills development. Teaching a new generation of gifted and passionate publishers and writers, whose new ideas and solutions will encourage a new generation of readers, is central to ensuring the sector’s future development.

What new initiatives are supporting the growth of publishing in the UAE?

The national drive to improve reading skills and levels of education among children is fueling interest in children’s books. We are seeing the growing popularity of a wide range of festivals, workshops and programs to promote all types of reading.

A number of recent initiatives support the sector’s growth and development. For example, the Etisalat Award for Arabic Literature is escalating interest in children’s books, in particular. The Award seeks to ensure that every child has the chance to become a reader and to have access to good books.

Launched in 2009, the Award is organized by the UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY) with the support of Etisalat. It is the biggest prize for Arab literature, granting one million AED annually to the best children’s publications in the region.

The Award also includes the very popular Warsha (Arabic for “workshop”) initiative, which aims to foster talent in the Arabic children’s and young adult book industry. Through a series of workshops on writing, illustration and book production, it seeks to boost the skills of a promising new generation of writers, illustrators and publishers.

The establishment of the Sharjah Book Authority, which is responsible for organizing cultural events such as the Sharjah International Book Fair and the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, has also boosted interest in publishing.

Sharjah has also created the world’s first free zone for publishing companies, to give a sharp boost to cultural activities and publications in the emirate and to create healthy competition for the creation of quality books.

What challenges is the sector facing?

Publishers everywhere need to walk the thin line between keeping up with technological developments, and maintaining a solid and secure business. Ultimately, publishers are economic entities and need to be financially successful in order to remain viable.

Beyond that, distribution of books in the region can be a logistical nightmare because each country has different laws and regulations. In this context, online distribution has a vital part to play and many publishers are already starting to adapt their rights agreements to automatically include digital rights. Other challenges include censorship, piracy, low purchasing power, political instability and illiteracy.

What impact is piracy having on the Arab book trade?

While the UAE’s copyright legislation is in line with international standards, the absence of a standard approach to copyright across the region is a real challenge, making enforcement very difficult and piracy quite common.

In the UAE, the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance, in collaboration with the Ministry of Economy, is playing a key role in combating piracy. Its comprehensive anti-piracy program includes a range of public awareness activities, as well as aggressive lobbying and legal action against IP offenders.

Authorities across the region recognize the negative impact of piracy on creative industries and the economy. This is fueling a drive to raise IP awareness and to act against IP offenders.

What prompted you to establish the UAE Board on Books for Young People?

The Sharjah International Book Fair organized by the Sharjah Book
Authority, is one of a number of initiatives that are fueling interest in
the UAE’s publishing sector. (photo: Kalimat Publishing)

UAEBBY was established to promote a reading culture among the children and young people of the UAE. Its mission, among other things, is to give children in the UAE, especially those in remote areas, access to books of high literary and artistic quality.

The Board encourages the publication and distribution of children’s books in the UAE; provides aspiring and published authors, illustrators and publishing houses in the UAE with networking, exchange and capacity-building opportunities; and promotes international understanding through children’s books.

And the Horouf Educational Publishing imprint?

Horouf Educational Publishing is part of the Kalimat Group.  It aims to provide innovative learning solutions to support teaching in the Arabic language to preschool and primary school students. In particular, it aims to improve children’s Arabic language capabilities through the provision of specially designed educational materials in Arabic.

What is the goal of the Knowledge Without Borders initiative?

Knowledge Without Borders aims to increase knowledge among local communities, and to maintain an authentic Islamic and Arabic identity and language. It essentially supports the creation of a knowledge-based society by fostering a reading culture in the UAE. The initiative provides each emirati household in Sharjah with a library of 50 books. So far, over 20,000 households have benefited from the project.

Under the initiative, small libraries have also been established in government departments and institutions, mobile libraries have been set up in hospitals, and a library bus visits different neighbourhoods and public areas in Sharjah.

Knowledge Without Borders has also recently initiated a drive to have libraries of Arabic books placed on Air Arabia flights. This is a first in the Arab world!

Why was it important to establish the Emirates Publishers Association?

Establishing the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) was essential, not only to present a unified front for UAE publishers at regional and international events and exhibitions, but also to improve the publishing industry in the UAE.

One of the EPA’s core principles is to protect the intellectual property (IP) rights of publishers, authors and illustrators, and to help prevent losses from IP infringement. To this end, the EPA has launched several public IP awareness campaigns and is also working to establish a Reproduction Rights Organization (RRO) and a writers’ association to help protect the rights of all creators and reduce piracy.

The EPA serves its members by providing training and support, and by improving publishing-related conditions and laws. For example, it offers new publishers a one-year mentoring program to boost their professional skills and expand their experience. One of its core functions is to promote and support translations from and into Arabic.

This year, the EPA is also jointly hosting the 3rd Arab Publishers Conference (APAC 2015), which is a great achievement and underscores the leading role the EPA is taking in the region.

The national drive to improve reading skills and levels of education among children is fueling interest in children’s books. (Photo: Kalimat Publishing)

How would you like to see the regulatory framework evolve in the UAE?

The UAE has a comprehensive and fair regulatory framework, and the rights of authors, illustrators and other creators are respected. After all, the industry plays a key role in promoting culture and the flow of knowledge and information. But in an ever-changing publishing landscape, more can always be done to ensure that copyright and IP rights are protected. With digital publishing, borders are all but disappearing. In this context, international collaboration will be very important in establishing, adopting and upholding standards and policies that apply across the publishing landscape.

And how would you like to see the UAE’s publishing sector evolve?

While no one can predict the future, the global publishing landscape is changing radically. For the foreseeable future, the emergence of digital technologies, threats to copyright and IP, the need to establish new distribution channels and changing consumer behavior will all continue to preoccupy publishers and force them to rethink their business structures and strategies.

I would like to see the continued expansion of opportunities for new authors and illustrators to create high-quality original works, and for publishers to produce quality books in Arabic and even to translate them into other languages.

Last but not least, what are you reading at the moment?

The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa, which is a beautiful and very powerful tale of heartache, endurance, humanity, kinship, and love.

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