Timeframe: The page-turning story of Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

The annual event features leading names from the cultural and publishing worlds

UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan with exhibitors and officials at the Islamic Book Fair in May 1981. Photo: Wam Archives
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After more than 40 years, The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair continues to inspire.

The annual literary and publishing industry gathering, which runs until Sunday at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, is back with another formidable line-up of speakers and events.

This year’s guest list ranges from bestselling historian Peter Frankopan and UK poet Lemn Sissay to Arab cultural pioneers such as Egyptian composer Omar Khairat and Iraqi poet Ali Jaafar Al Allaq.

When visiting the fair at Adnec, it is easy to forget the humble origins of the event.

Launched in 1981 as the Islamic Book Fair at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, the event was part of UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan's vision of developing the country's cultural sector.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at the Islamic Book Fair at Abu Dhabi's Cultural Foundation in May 1981. Photo: Wam Archives

According to Emirati film director Nasser Al Dhaheri, who attended the inaugural event as a child, it was a vibrant affair.

“Reflecting on it now you realise how small it was and it all took place in a small space,” he tells The National.

“But I remember there were books from different Arab countries and there was an area to congregate and meet.

“It felt like a wedding and a chance for families and friends to meet in this great atmosphere.”

According to state news agency Wam, the first book fair was attended by 50 publishers from Egypt and Lebanon, in addition to a number of local libraries.

This year's festival, in contrast, features more than 1,130 international publishers and is expected to attract more than 150,000 visitors.

The 2023 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair at Adnec. Pawan Singh / The National

That growth is the result of a studied and steady approach to crafting the fair.

After rebranding itself as “the first book fair in Abu Dhabi”, the event expanded to include more publishers and cultural institutions and returned in 1986 and 1988 before running on an annual basis from 1993.

Such was its growing appeal, the fair moved to the grounds of Adnec in 1994 before moving within the cavernous space upon its formal opening in 2005.

It didn't take long for the extra space to be filled with publishers and organisations, this time hailing from as far afield as Europe, Asia and South America.

ABU DHABI,  UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , April 24 – 2019 :- Left to Right – Zaki Nusseibah and John Kerry, former US Secretary of State speaking at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair held at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre in Abu Dhabi. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News/Online/Instagram. Story by Rupert

The new venue was also ideal to launch supporting initiatives, such as the annual prize-giving ceremony for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the International Congress for Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries.

The diligence reverberated across the international cultural sector as more big personalities chose Abu Dhabi to make their key regional appearance.

Some of the illustrious names to have taken the stage include the former US secretary of state John Kerry in 2019 to discuss his memoir Every Day is Extra.

Other big names to appear over the years included revered Lebanese-born French novelist Amin Maalouf, Syrian poet Adonis and former US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey.

With its numerous stages and countless books on sale, the dynamism of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair shows the seeds planted by the UAE’s visionary Founding Father continue to bear fruit.

Updated: May 26, 2023, 6:01 PM