It is common knowledge within the Arab world’s political and intellectual circles that the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is one of the most important awards that any Arab writer, intellectual or author could dream of winning.
Since its launch in 2007, the award has been deemed a certificate of excellence, distinction and creativity, as well as a means for focused recognition. Moreover, it guarantees a wide audience for winners, particularly those who take a special interest in the intellectual and cultural movements in the Arab world.
I had the honour of winning the Sheikh Zayed Book Award last year. While being the recipient of this award may render my testimony biased, it won't stop me from highlighting its merits and contributions to both Arab culture and thought.
The award reflects the culture of reward in the United Arab Emirates. Otherwise said, anyone who works with dedication and commitment is bound to be rewarded both financially and morally as a form of recognition and incentive from the country.
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President Sheikh Khalifa, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, members of the Federal Supreme Council and the crown princes have been eager to personally present numerous awards to trigger the spirit of healthy competition in the workplace. This culture of reward is the driving force behind all of the nation’s continuing achievements.
The criteria of eligibility for the award is based on thorough evaluation, neutrality and integrity. The selection and assessment of candidates are carried out in full confidentiality by well-known Arab cultural figures who have dedicated their entire lives to knowledge and research. Dr Ali bin Tamim, a renowned Emirati intellectual, qualified researcher and a competent and creative administrator, currently serves as the award's secretary-general.
His predecessor was prominent Emirati journalist Rashid Al Araimi, who was credited with laying the basic foundations of the award and promoting and reinforcing its values, as well as spreading its message within the Arab world and beyond.
The award also bears the imprint of the late Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, who was a member of the board of trustees. Within just a few years, he succeeded in establishing major cultural monuments in Abu Dhabi.
The various categories of the award reflect the comprehensive vision behind the principles of its governing frameworks. The award is not only limited to writers, but also extends to publishing houses, recognising the integrated and multi-dimensional nature of the book industry and of competent publishers who believe that their messages play a pivotal role in advancing knowledge. The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the category of publishing and technology in 2008. That was a memorable day for both ECSSR employees and myself.
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The fact that the award also has a "young author" and a "children's literature" category reflects the award committee’s interest in the future, as it recognises promising talent and opens a big door for its finalists. The award also helps to address the severe shortage in Arab children’s books and encourages authors to produce literature and books tailored for children. The category of “contribution to the development of nations” shows deep appreciation for those who contribute to national prosperity. Add to that the categories of “translation” and “Arab culture in other languages” and it becomes clear that all the criteria reflect the country's compassionate and expansive character.
The existence of such categories highlights distinct imprints within the Emirati intellect. Indeed, these accomplishments reflect the Emirati mindset, which strongly believes in construction, development, the future and a comprehensive vision.
Yet the main feature of the award is flexibility, which enabled authorities to add two new categories, namely “literary and art criticism” and “Arab culture in other languages”. A mechanism for announcing long and short nomination lists has also been introduced, ensuring greater attraction and excitement.
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Still, the fact remains that the most important objective is to provide the public with an opportunity to delve into high-quality books on both the long and shortlists. While most nominees do not win the award, they undoubtedly benefit from more exposure to publicity and fame.
The committee strictly withholds awards if works do not meet standards within any of these categories. This serves as a reminder to cultural and intellectual circles that there is a serious shortage that should be addressed. It also reminds those at the helm of the need to club deficiencies in Arabic literature.
The award has many points of excellence that cannot be summarized in this brief article.
What I can say, however, is that this Emirati award has been awarded to very few Emirati authors and entities, proof that the award’s strict standards do not permit favouritism.
One award-winner from an Arab country said that the Sheikh Zayed Book Award provided him with the opportunity to finally concentrate on what he wanted to accomplish in the academic research field. As such, beyond the award’s immense financial reward, there is recompense for those who have spent their lives working in fields that are not well-paid. Indeed, freeing researchers and writers from financial pressure gives them the opportunity to be more productive.
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award is one of the UAE’s many gifts to the Arab world. It bears the uniquely creative Emirati imprint, an appreciation for thought, mind, knowledge and excellence and an ardent desire to extend the nation's good deeds to the region and the world.
Dr Jamal Al Suwaidi is the director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research
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