Why is Sharjah Investing So Much in Its Book Fair?

In Discussion by Roger Tagholm

Dinner in a desert wadi is one of the attractions for invited international guests.

Dinner in a desert wadi is one of the attractions for invited international guests.

By Roger Tagholm

So the 33rd edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair is underway and once again authors and publishers and agents have been flown in – often business class – and put up in the Hilton and other five-star hotels, all courtesy of the Sharjah government at a cost that would put many publishers out of business and which makes the average advance look like small change.

The Gulf is famous for oil and excess. It begins at the airport in Dubai where advertisements for the ‘Elizabeth Taylor and Bulgari’ exhibition loom over the baggage carousels and seem to tick all the Gulf boxes. Open any local paper and there are stories about the new Al Ain mosque under construction in Abu Dhabi which will include ‘three helipads for VIPs’. An entire, carbon neutral eco city is also being built in Abu Dhabi, not to mention the development of its own Louvre and Guggenheim. Meanwhile, work continues on the World Cup stadia in Doha where it will be typically Gulf to buy-in the expertise to air-condition an open-air construction.

As ever, the hospitality in Sharjah could not be faulted, from camel rides out at a desert wadi to horse riding at the private arena owned by his His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, although admittedly, the latter was a one-off invitation only event for John Ingram, Chairman of Ingram, who flew to the emirate complete with his jodphurs and riding helmet.

It all begs the question: why? Why does Sharjah do all this? Why bother when you have money from natural gas and even more money courtesy of your UAE neighbour, Abu Dhabi, which has 95% of the country’s oil? The answer would seem to be two-fold. There is little doubt that both the His Highness and his daughter Sheikha Bodour, are both passionate about books and education. But this passion is also bound up with a ticking clock over those natural resources. In other words: what will the emirate do when the land has given its all?

Table decoration at the desert wadi

Unlike neighboring Dubai, Sharjah has not opened itself up to western tourism in any concerted way – the tourists one sees tend to be Russians, and only in fairly limited numbers. True, it had a presence at the World Travel Market in London last week and it is taking small steps to boost tourism, such as launching www.sharjahmydestination.ae which offers information on the emirate in both English and Arabic. But there is still no major player here like Virgin.

So, in common with Qatar, which has a 2030 vision aimed at ensuring a secure future for all its people, built on human capital rather than its finite hydrocarbon resources, Sharjah is also preparing for the years ahead. It may feel as if this need is a way off yet, but some say the natural gas reserves have only decades to run.

The economist and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman often talks about the ‘resource curse,” defining it as: ‘The way a dependence on natural resources always skews a country’s politics and investment and educational priorities, so that everything revolves around who controls the oil tap and who gets how much from it—not how to compete, innovate, and produce real products for real markets.’

Some might feel Sharjah has suffered from this in the past, that is hasn’t felt the need to innovate. If it has, it would seem to be making concerted efforts to address it now, and is certainly spending money on educational initiatives. This year’s inaugural Library Conference, a joint venture between the Sharjah International Book Fair and the American Library Association is a good example. This conference is running alongside the SIBF this week, finishing on Thursday (November 13) and sees a number of US librarians sharing best practices with their Arab world counterparts.

So innovation seems to be what it is trying at the moment, with the ever expanding SIBF itself being a part of that. It seems to be an emirate that is reaching out to the world, while endeavoring to remain true to its Islamic roots – and as the fair’s guest of honor Dan Brown noted this week, it is a region that places a great emphasis on learning.

His Highness told the author on a tour of the American University in Sharjah: “Democracy and enlightenment cannot be achieved by force, but through education which is the key to the nation’s development.”

About the Author

Roger Tagholm

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Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).