When it comes to sharing and promoting Arab art and culture, Sharjah has been reaching out to the rest of world for decades. In 1998 the emirate founded the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture, and in 2006 Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, established the Sharjah Museums Project. This has since grown into a complex of 16 museums with collections illustrating Islamic civilisation, science, art and archaeology. Indeed, one-quarter of the UAE’s museums are located in Sharjah. The emirate also hosts the Sharjah International Book Fair and seeks to become a regional and global centre for publishing. This dovetails with a push to enhance the UAE’s literary culture, while positioning Sharjah as a leading advocate of the written word. Central to this is Sharjah Publishing City (SPC).
In November 2016 UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan issued a law to promote reading across the country. The law obliges early intervention in literacy, with the state required to provide new mothers with a “knowledge briefcase” of helpful books. The law also guarantees employees’ rights to read specialised books during working hours, and exempts books and other reading materials from value-added tax. “This progressive step attests to the deep understanding of the importance of books,” Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, chairperson of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), wrote in a November 2016 article for the International Publishers Association. “It cements publishing’s place at the heart of the UAE’s national development strategies for years to come.” In addition, government initiative Knowledge without Borders has provided 20,000 home libraries to families in Sharjah.
The authorities have ramped up the regulatory environment surrounding publishing. There have been updates to laws on online copyright infringement and an increased capacity to prosecute copyright violators. The new regulations also accelerate the circulation licensing process and align the UAE with international agreements governing copyright and intellectual property rights, such as the Berne Convention and the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. With its strong background in culture and the arts, Sharjah has embraced these moves and is building on them to become an international centre for book publishing.
Working towards this goal, in 2014 Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi launched the Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) and established SPC – a free zone to service global and local enterprises – in October 2017. Billed as the world’s first publishing free zone, SPC has objectives such as supporting the book industry by enabling the production and distribution of publications in the Arab world and beyond, cultivating a culture of reading and helping with literary creation.
SPC is set to service and supply the Arab book market, which it estimated to be worth $1bn per year. Indeed, the UAE alone, the market is valued at $233m, and SPC projects this to triple by 2030. Benefits for tenants of the city include 100% foreign ownership and no limit on the repatriation of funds, currency restrictions, corporate or personal income tax, or Customs tax. In addition, SPC offers immigration and residency assistance. At the inauguration, the SBA signed agreements with the Arab Writers Union to become an SPC tenant and the Emirates Writers Union (EWU) to provide English, French and Brazilian Portuguese translations of the works of 40 EWU authors. Since then, an additional 150 organisations have applied to operate in SPC.
The SBA has overseen the creation of a publishing ecosystem in the city, including creative space, printing facilities, paper procurement assistance, access to the region’s distribution companies, export promotion and logistics infrastructure. This is supported by opportunities for skills development provided by the Sharjah International Book Fair Professional Programme. There is also cultural infrastructure, with a digitised public library system, book fairs and reading festivals, awards and grants, and the presence of publishing industry bodies, such as the Emirates Publishers Association.
With the capacity to house up to 550 companies, SPC includes 300 furnished offices and 6000 sq metres of unfurnished space. There are also more than 20 conference rooms, shopping and service facilities, and a data centre, spread over 40,000 sq metres. SBA expects to add a print-on-demand press, able to print up to 1m books per day. At a site near both Sharjah International Airport and the Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Road – which connects Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi with the northern emirates – the city has convenient travel, shipping and logistics. Indeed, Sharjah’s land, air, and sea transport infrastructure make it an ideal distribution centre (see Transport chapter).To support SPC tenants and expedite the processes to establish and operate businesses, the city will have an office issuing business licences in one day and a public administration branch of the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners’ Affairs. In addition, the city will be open 24/7.
SPC’s inauguration coincided with the annual Sharjah International Book Fair, one of the largest in the world. More than 2.31m people attended in 2017, with 1681 publishing houses from 60 countries displaying as many as 1.5m titles, making an estimated $48.2m worth of book sales. In 2019 SPC’s momentum is expected to grow, when Sharjah will be UNESCO’s 19th World Book Capital, following Athens in 2018 and Conakry in 2017. The emirate was selected due to its community-focused programme that engages the large and diverse migrant population. Sharjah becomes the World Book Capital on April 23, 2019, on World Book and Copyright Day. The event will focus on inclusivity, heritage, outreach and children. Planned events include a conference on freedom of speech, a youth poetry contest, and Braille and tactile book workshops.
As in other countries, Sharjah’s publishers find themselves in a fast-changing world in which traditional book formats are rapidly being replaced by other media. Half of the MENA region’s population of around 470m is younger than 24 years old. The literacy rate among 15-24 year olds was 90.8% in 2016, while the internet penetration rate for this age group was 64.2%, according to the World Bank and the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, respectively. These figures do, however, vary between MENA nationals and expatriate workers. This well-read and digitally connected population increasingly consumes books and other media electronically, with Sharjah being no exception.
In addition to initiatives such as SPC, Sharjah Public Library (SPL) is launching its online digital version. The Digital Public Library initiative will be implemented in several phases, and access to it will be free. In addition, in December 2017 the SPL launched the Digital Library Collection, which provides 38,000 libraries and schools access to 1200 e-books and audiobooks.
With Sharjah so focused on publishing – and its efforts to promote creativity and intellectual output – initiatives under way are likely to further its standing as a cultural capital of the Arab and Islamic world.
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