Cultural Politics in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi

Frighteningly Giant Leaps

The new concept of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair is only a part of the new cultural policy in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Mona Naggar examines the high-flying cultural ambitions of the UAE's richest emirate

Logo Abu Dhabi Book Fair 2007
"Not just a mere 'book bazaar'" - the organisers of the Abu Dhabi book fair are starting to think big

​​The giant new congress hall in Abu Dhabi looks like an oblong, silvery gleaming UFO. Inside women, men, and children stroll between the stands, buying Arab, English, and German books. In the spacious children's corner, painting competitions are held and stories read aloud. At the farthest end of the hall is a discussion forum. Here round table talks are held with international guests on literary topics as well as on controversial issues such as tolerance and fundamentalism.

Professionals and exhibitors can participate in discussions on distribution strategies and marketing. In past years the congress was held in a large tent in the center of the city and was organized exclusively as a trade fair. Jumaa al-Qubaisi, director of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, is visibly proud of the change that the book exhibition has undergone within one year:

"We wanted to be completely different this year. We want to organize a professional book fair, no just a mere 'book bazaar,' but a fair that will attract publishers from around the world."

Contrite Arab publishers

These changes are the result of a close collaboration with the Frankfurt Book Fair. The responsible parties in Frankfurt, who have gathered many years of experience in diverse Arab book fairs, are convinced of the new location in the United Arab Emirates as the key to the Arab book market.

But many Arab publishers have not greeted the new organization with enthusiasm. Their criticism is directed primarily at the dramatic increase in the cost of stands.

The Abu Dhabi Book Fair is now the most expensive in the Arab world, although it is by far not the most lucrative in terms of sales. Since there are no functioning distribution structures in the Arab world, bookstores, public libraries, and readers rely on the book fairs held in various countries. And for most publishers the fairs are an indispensable source of income.

New cultural policy

The new concept of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair is only a part of the new cultural policy in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Since the death of the founder and regent of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Zayed in November 2004, numerous ambitious plans have been undertaken that will permanently change the image of the richest and largest emirate in the federation of the seven emirates.

The most well-known project, which is also creating quite a stir internationally, is the development of the island of Saadiyat. By the year 2018 the island will not only house hotels, yacht ports, and residential communities, but also several museum complexes, including the "Louvre Abu Dhabi." The new cultural package also includes a translation project, which will provide Arab readers yearly with another 300-400 titles from all categories.

The "Sheikh Zayed Book's Award" with a total value of nearly two million dollars, which was awarded this year for the first time, is awarded for various cultural achievements. And Abu Dhabi with its book fair is to become the publishing center of the Arab world.

Cultural competition in the Emirates

The ambitions of Abu Dhabi in the cultural sector are new. Until now Sharjah, one of the oil-poor emirates with Sheikh Sultan al-Qasimi as its leader, was considered to be the cultural center of the country. A few museums, theater festivals, the Sharjah Biennial and a book fair are its advertising signs.

Dubai has come up with an international film festival and is trying to establish itself as a platform for the international art trade. And now Abu Dhabi is joining the competition for cultural objects of prestige.

But the cultural ambition of the rich sultanates, sheikdoms, and kingdoms on the Persian Gulf should also be seen against the backdrop of the changes these countries have undergone in recent years. They no longer see themselves as culturally developing countries compared to the classical centers in the Arab world such as Beirut, Cairo or Baghdad. Government leaders have practically inexhaustible cash resources, have discovered culture as a means of promoting their image, and have permitted a relative openness in politics.

No public debate, no cultural education

So far, however, the media in the United Arab Emirates has not benefited from this openness. What the common people, the intellectuals and artists in the Emirates think about the at times breathtaking cultural projects is not debated in public.

Mohammed Ahmad Ibrahim is one of the most renowned artists in the United Arab Emirates. At the Sharjah Biennial, which opened at the beginning of April, he is represented with an installation. Ibrahim points to the absurd situation that art is not taught in schools in the Emirates:

"As a rule, the Emiratis are very poorly educated in the area of art. Only art events such as the biennial, for instance, introduce people to art. All the big projects are introduced from the top, and we can only hope that they will force the responsible parties to do some thinking that will bring about the creation of a real infrastructure in the near future."

Approaching things from the end

Film maker Masud Amrallah finds all cultural projects good and important, but even he misses the creation of a vital infrastructure in many areas: "We approach things from the end and make giant leaps. I find this frightening."

photo: Mona Naggar
Masud Amrallah, film maker: "I don't know if a single film will be made next year"

​​For many years now Amrallah and other film makers from the UAE have called for the founding of a film academy, but in vain. There is no state support for domestic film production: "This generation of film makers pays for everything out of their own pocket. When they someday give up in resignation, there will be no more films from the emirates. I don't know if a single film will be made next year."

But Amrallah also wants others to understand his young country, whose relationship to culture cannot be compared to that of societies which have undergone gradual development for centuries.

Decline of Arab intellectual life

It is still too early to pass judgment on the new concept of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and the results of the collaboration with the Frankfurt Book Fair. But one thing is certain: Many Arab publishers still need to be won over for the idea of creating a professional platform and for cutting back on the "book bazaar."

More persuasive work is needed. And whether Abu Dhabi will establish itself as a book and publishing center in the Arab world in the near future depends upon the development of the Arab book market and publishing industry, which not least of all are suffering from the decline of Arab intellectual life.

Mona Naggar

© 2007

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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