At the biggest book fair in the world - held in Frankfurt on October 10 - three consultants spelt out the future of the UAE's literary scene. The country, they said, is poised to play the role for the books industry that it already plays in so many other industries: as "a crossroads, a mediator", but infrastructure must be put in place to ensure this happens.
Rüdiger Wischenbart, Ahmed Al Amri and Nasser Jarrous shared the results of a report released late last month and supported by the Emirates Publishing Association and Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) called Book Publishing in the United Arab Emirates. It shows that almost all the books on shelves in the UAE are published elsewhere and suggests that opportunities to nurture local authors, publishers, literary agents and translators - as well as to help local youngsters fall in love with literature - must be grasped to turn the country into the sort of place where Faber and Penguin might one day have regional offices.
In many ways, as the report makes clear, this is already happening. Three annual events - the Sharjah International Book Fair, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and the Emirates Festival of Literature - have become international names. Translation grants have been set up in recent years by the SIBF and by Abu Dhabi's cultural agency. The Sheikh Zayed Book Award has been celebrating local writers, translators and critics for six years and in the past three, a children's book festival and children's library have been set up in Sharjah. The UAE books industry is now estimated to be worth US$260 million (Dh955m) - three times as much per capita as Brazil, although smaller than a European country such as Austria - and new legislation is being developed to protect the copyright of digital books.
Although only 35 per cent of that industry is in Arabic, that sector is growing and the saturation of smartphones and tablets in the UAE is offering exciting new opportunities in the field of e-books. Shadi Hasan, the managing director of the Dubai-based start-up Rufoof, which sells e-books in Arabic, says that "as a Muslim Arab", he can't imagine setting up his headquarters anywhere but Dubai, where there is a "healthy environment to innovate".
Dubai's tax-free media zone is open to publishers and is home to many newspapers and magazines, but literary companies have stayed away. The SIBF's plans for a special book-publishing free zone in Sharjah have stalled, but Wischenbart says that it is exactly what is needed. "I think you must create heaven," he says. "Imagine that you have in such a free zone a dozen big and small international and Arabic publishing companies in one building in Dubai or Sharjah or Abu Dhabi. Over lunch they will start talking to each other; they will know who is publishing the other. That can create momentum."
There are problems though. An unpublished study cited in the new report finds that young people in the UAE are much less enthusiastic than those in China, India and South Korea when it comes to reading and learning - something that Wischenbart attributes to the youngsters in those countries having a stronger drive to secure a good career and feeling more in charge of their own lives. Add to this the fact that broadcast and print media tend to neglect books and the lack of literary agents in the country, and the result is that it's not easy for an emerging author in the UAE to break out.
The lack of infrastructure isn't surprising, as publishing in the UAE only really started a decade ago, but it's essential, the report concludes, if the country wants to become a major player on the world publishing stage.
Censorship isn't addressed in the report and only a few paragraphs are devoted to the threat of piracy - it says the UAE is "not seen as a major harbour". That was a missed opportunity, according to M Lynx Qualey, the Cairo-based author of the influential blog Arabic Literature (in English).
She says: "The report's main weakness is that it thinks too little about how the literary landscape is changing. Piracy is not just something to be fended off." Those who read pirated books, she says, "aren't stealing gold or jewels - they're claiming knowledge and art" and that "there needs to be a better way than pricing this knowledge out of the range of most readers and then treating them as enemies".