Saudi publishing chief says it's a 'very exciting time' for kingdom's literary sector

Almost 1,000 publishing houses from 30 countries are participating in the Riyadh International Book Fair 2021

Riyadh International Book Fair 2021 (RIBF), which launched on October 1, marks a new chapter for Saudi Arabia's changing cultural landscape, as it hosts a diverse range of activities and programmes organised by the Ministry of Culture, and the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, for the first time, until Sunday.

This year’s book fair, the largest the kingdom has hosted, boasts almost 1,000 local, regional and international publishing houses participating from 30 countries around the world.

The fair is also hosting prominent cultural figures, dignitaries, writers and publishers in a series of talks, workshops and events alongside the exhibition at Riyadh front.

At the same time as in-person events, there is also a virtual exhibition to sell books, as well as a publishers’ conference in order to promote and develop the the country's publishing sector on a global scale.

The theme for this year's event, "New Destination, New Chapter", reflects Saudi Arabia's ambitions to elevate the kingdom's status as a literary and cultural hub both in the region and internationally, Mohammed Hasan Alwan, chief executive at Literature, Publishing, and Translation Commission at the Saudi Ministry of Culture, told The National.

He said "the cultural transformation" taking place in the kingdom right now is largely driven by the Saudi youth. "They are changing today’s cultural scene and shaping the future," he said.

Through RIBF, the ministry is supporting and facilitating homegrown talent to share their creativity with the world. "It is a very exciting time for the kingdom and the literary and publishing sector.

"At this year’s fair we want to encourage reading, highlight the importance of books and publishing, and showcase the investment opportunities across the sector in the kingdom. We’re also looking forward to the cultural exchange opportunities and raising awareness of the kingdom’s rich literary heritage through the fair’s programming," he said.

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We also incorporated other cultural elements, such as Saudi music, performance, and culinary arts
Mohammed Hasan Alwan, chief executive at Literature, Publishing, and Translation Commission at the Saudi Ministry of Culture

Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 is driving a once-in-a-generation cultural transformation with renewed growth across the sector. From poetry to dance, archaeology to the arts, culture is a key component of Saudi heritage and directly contributes towards the country's long-term goals, said Hassan.

"The literature and publishing industry is already an essential domestic industry and we are developing the sector which will in turn drive economic growth through job creation and inward investment."

This year, for the first time, RIBF is conducting a publisher’s conference to facilitate international partnerships. This is also the first time it has been hosted by the Ministry of Culture – the Literature, Publishing, and Translation Commission, which reflects their desire to expand its remit to reflect the full scope and dynamism of the cultural sector. "To do this, we also incorporated other cultural elements, such as Saudi music, performance and culinary arts," said Hassan.

This year, the fair was also curated in a way that it not only celebrates the country's literary heritage, but also that of Gulf neighbours' and other partners around the world.

The ongoing pandemic caused some delays in the planning, which meant the organisers needed to be more flexible. Hasan said: "I think all event organisers at this time are having to accommodate for some uncertainty, but it didn’t quell our determination, quite the opposite. The entire team has found it hugely rewarding and we are looking forward to replicating this year’s success at future editions of the book fair."

Another new addition this year is from Christie's Rare Collections, which is exhibiting a group of rare manuscripts. Dirk Boll, Christie's president of Europe, Middle East, Russia and India, attended the book fair and gave a talk on the art market in 2021 on October 2.

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The government sees culture as a vital part of its strategy going forward
Dirk Boll, Christie's president of Europe, Middle East, Russia and India

Boll also spoke to The National about his new book What’s Different This Time? Economic Crises and New Art Markets, which paints an honest picture of current times, human vulnerability and its impact on the art market.

"Thankfully and sadly most projections have become reality – the wish for in-person events balanced with a certain reluctance to travel, the shift to online business as well as a new interest in regional developments. Art fairs might see less visitors for quite a while, but have adapted by creating online viewing rooms. Whether this is a viable commercial model only time can tell," he said.

Boll called the changing cultural landscape in the kingdom "impressive and exciting", saying the increasing appetite and enthusiasm for art and culture in Saudi Arabia has been tangible during RIBF. "The government sees culture as a vital part of its strategy going forward and, as we have seen elsewhere, art brings people together and enriches lives."

He said he has been "deeply impressed" by the high visitors turnout to the fair so far. "Our booth was met with great interest, not only for the printed map of the Arabian Peninsula, but also the older manuscripts and illustrated books. Visitors took their time to study the works and to engage in deep discussions with the specialist team."

Speaking about the art scene in the kingdom, Boll said some of the most promising artists and galleries from the kingdom include Athr Gallery and Hafez Gallery, who have been instrumental in building a platform for artists both contemporary and modern from the kingdom.

"Leading artists like Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem have set the pace for the creative scene, their respective studio models have become like an incubator of creative talent, especially for the younger generations. These younger Saudi artists are receiving fresh light and much more exposure in regional and international fairs with promising markets attracting a younger collector base, that include Dana Awartani, Farah Behbehani, Ahaad Al Amoudi, Rashed Al Shashai and Daniah Al Saleh, among others."

This week, RIBF also announced it is bringing a Disney concert to Saudi Arabia for the first time.

Updated: October 11th 2021, 2:20 PM