Robert Gray: UNESCO Names Sharjah World Book Capital 2019

Earlier this week, UNESCO named Sharjah (UAE) the World Book Capital for 2019 "because of the very innovative, comprehensive and inclusive nature of the application, with a community-focused activity program containing creative proposals to engage the very large migrant population."

In her declaration, UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said, "I applaud the nomination of Sharjah as the World Book Capital as well as the efforts undertaken by the city in order to make reading available to as many people as possible, in particular the marginalized populations, as a motor for social inclusion, creativity and dialogue."

Under the slogan "Read--you are in Sharjah," the program focuses on themes of inclusivity, reading, heritage, outreach, publishing and children. The objective is to "foster a culture of reading in the United Arab Emirates and birth new initiatives to meet the challenge of literary creation in the area and in the rest of the Arab world."

UNESCO also noted that Sharjah, under the leadership of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, is launching Sharjah Publishing City, an ambitious initiative to develop "a space entirely dedicated to publishing and printing. It will be the first place of the kind in the region, specifically developed to meet the needs of companies and institutions operating in the publishing field. Its objective is to reinforce the book industry by encouraging the widespread production and dissemination of publications in the Arab world."

Sharjah International Book Fair, 2016

"The new title underscores Sharjah's deep cultural experience, its achievements, projects and vision at world level," said Ahmed Al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority and former director of the Sharjah International Book Fair.

During BookExpo, I had the opportunity to hear Al Ameri speak at a session called Reaching the Arab World: The New Gateway & Hub--The Sharjah Publishing City Initiative. Moderated by Simon and Schuster v-p Seth Russo, the panel also featured John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Content Group; and Steve Potash, CEO and founder of OverDrive. 

Describing SBC as "365 days of book fairs in one spot" as well as "a United Nations of publishing," Al Ameri noted that the location, on the main road between Sharjah and Dubai, places SPC in close proximity to both airports and seaports, offering the international book trade a central, focused location to provide a complete range of publishing services tax free. He also stressed the freedom to do business with "no interference from the government or any authority over what you can publish. It's a very healthy environment for a publisher, editor, translator, for printing, for distributing books to the region and outside the region."

A soft opening of SPC is planned for September, with the official launch in November. "It is the first publishing city in the world that is a free zone area," Al Ameri added. "It's been established now. It's ready.... It's going to change the whole publishing industry around the world."

In his opening remarks at the BookExpo session, Russo said he had participated in the last three Sharjah International Book Fairs "as part of their professional development program and [I] have had a chance to learn firsthand the rising prospects the region holds for publishers seeking new markets." This evolving dynamic, he continued, "is vividly found in the culturally progressive emirate of Sharjah, where the government has been in the vanguard of a number of highly successful public and private initiatives... to promote the strong publishing sector and the culture of reading. The Sharjah Publishing City is a natural next step in this commitment and will be of keen interest to the global publishing community eager to stake a claim in the development of the region whether it be for distribution, translation, licensing, sales or printing."

Sharjah International Book Fair, 2016

Al Ameri said that with SPC, "we are establishing a new market.... What we are doing is not only reaching the Arab world. We are reaching the African market, the Asian market and the rest of the world through Sharjah, which is becoming a hub for reading."

Ingram observed that "the attractiveness of the marketplace is the focus by the governments over there on literacy, on moving to a post-natural resource society, and putting a lot of money and effort behind education in particular.... The most attractive thing to me is the partnership and the relationship that I feel very fortunate to have started to develop with his highness, Sultan Al-Qasimi, as well as Ahmed and the Sharjah Book Authority. And quite frankly, to go into a new and different region I can't think of a better partner than I have in the ruler and his key people."

Potash expressed excitement "that now, for all the publishers we represent--almost every English language or Western publisher--the Sharjah Book Authority has created a channel.... thanks to Ahmed and the Book Authority, and his highness. They planted a flag and said if you want to reach hundreds of millions of readers, customers and those who want to learn from everything you're publishing... they have provided us a platform and a network, and this is what's so exciting about the Sharjah Publishing City. It's bringing together the resources to reach the whole region and dozens of countries."

Al Ameri agreed, noting that Sultan Al Qasimi "supports the industry.... He's passionate about books, passionate about reading. He established the Sharjah Book Fair. And Sharjah is considered in the UAE to be the hub for culture. When you come to Abu Dhabi, it's the political capital of the UAE. When you come to Dubai, it's the economic capital. But when you come to Sharjah, you see it as the cultural capital.... What we see in ourselves is that our growth is through knowledge, and we believe knowledge is the way to get through life... to improve humanity through reading."

--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)
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