What They’re Reading: Books in Arabia’s Boomtown

Once a sleepy town on the Arabian Peninsula, Dubai is now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, with a $46 billion GDP and a population that's nearly doubled in 10 years. But amid fortune-making, horse-racing, and jet-setting, do the desert city's residents make time to read? FP spoke with Isobel Abulhoul, director and co-owner of Magrudy's, a Dubai-based bookstore chain, for her take on the city's literary scene.

Foreign Policy: What are people reading in Dubai?

Foreign Policy: What are people reading in Dubai?

Isobel Abulhoul: Because of where Dubai is geographically, readers are attracted to books such as Nabeel’s Song: A Family Story of Survival in Iraq, Jo Tatchell’s work on the exile of Iraqi poet Nabeel Yasin under Saddam Hussein. Also selling well is the English translation of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, a novel that tackles corruption and other political issues in Egypt. Rajaa Alsanea’s Banat al-Riyadh (The Girls of Riyadh), a book about four women in Saudi Arabia [and banned in that country], sold so well that we couldn’t keep up with demand.

FP: Are people reading books about Middle Eastern politics?

IA: Any current-affairs book that is critical of Israel or America is very popular. There’s a general feeling that the Iraq war has been an utter disaster, so Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, and Battle Ready, cowritten by retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, have been in demand.

FP: What books are you barred from selling?

IA: People in Dubai understand that there is censorship. Because the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an Islamic country, books that are anti-religion aren’t sold. For instance, we wouldn’t stock Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Any books about the Middle East that are politically sensitive will also be looked at very carefully. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s memoir was released, but only after being scrutinized, because about a page and a half of it was set in Dubai.

FP: Do criticisms of Dubai’s rapid development or labor conditions feature in local media?

IA: Not at all. There are no local writers, so the labor force in the UAE doesn’t have a voice. Everyone is busy rushing around, madly earning and spending money. There’s no one to catalogue the problems they face. It’s all swept under the carpet. There is a new daily newspaper called 7Days, and it prints letters that are more critical than anything that would run in the established papers. But because of censorship, there’s not the sort of criticism you’d find in the West. That still has to develop. Dubai is ready for it.

Henry M. Bowles is a U.S. Fulbright fellow in Kuwait.

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