Never underestimate the publishing opportunity in the Arab markets. Some of the largest book fairs on the planet will be taking place in the MENA region.

As September morphs into October, the Middle East is saying goodbye to the worst of the scorching summer heat, and thoughts turn to the 2023-24 Arab book fair season, with Saudi Arabia kicking off the big shows with the Riyadh International Book Fair.

Running September 28 through October 7, with a Professional Day set for October 4, Riyadh is one of several Arab book fairs where 1 million or more visitors routinely turn out for a book-buying bonanza.

Riyadh first hit the magical footfall count in 2019.

More than 200 events, including seminars, poetry evenings and workshops, form part of this year’s Riyadh IBF, organised by the Saudi Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission. In all, 1,800 publishers from 32 countries are participating.

Saudi self-publishers will have over 400 titles showcased, while for the first time, a poetry recitation competition will be held for children, encouraging  poetry writing and the art of recitation. 

Riyadh is the largest of four Saudi book fairs, with the second largest, Jeddah, coming up in December. Can Jeddah top a half million visitors this year? This from 20019:

The Saudi book fair season season winds down in the spring with the Eastern and Medina fairs.

Preceding Riyadh, relatively smaller regional events like Jordan’s Amman International Book Fair are already underway. Amman typically attracts 150,000 visitors.

And the Palestine International Book Fair has just wound up.

Oman’s Muscat International Book Fair will be along in the New Year, and hopefully Muscat ’24 will see a return to the million-visitor club for this tiny country of 5 million people, after two disappointing years when footfall fell as the Covid-19 and its legacy reduced attendance.

But just savour those numbers a moment. one million visitors to a book fair in Oman. That’s 20% of the population! For comparison, the London Book Fair, typically pulling in 30,000, would need to attract more than 13 million visitors to achieve the same population-percentage ratio.

Never underestimate the publishing opportunity in the Arab markets.

Because before Muscat, some of the largest book fairs on the planet will be taking place in the MENA region.

Along with Muscat and Riyadh, Iraq’s Baghdad International Book Fair can also pull in a million visitors in a good year

Algeria is probably not on the list most western publishers might conjure up when thinking of big international book fairs, but, pre-Covid, the Algiers International Book Fair regularly pulled in crowds of two million.

Attendance dropped precipitously as Algiers tried to revive itself as the worst of the coronavirus plague lifted, with a March event in 2022, but this year I’m hoping we’ll see Algiers return to glory as the 26th Algiers International Book Fair (#SILA23) prepares for 1,265 exhibitors from 47 countries during the October 25-November 4 2023 event.

Marking the tenth anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, SILA23 has the African continent as its Guest of Honour, and in this we see a big shift in focus to Algiers being an African rather than just Arab event. Check out themed sessions like “African Culture and Self-Affirmation in the 21st Century” and “Engagement in African Literature.”

Algerian publishing has long embraced digital’s potential, and earlier this year we saw YouScribe launch its digital books subscription service in the country.

So no surprise SILA23 will run with the theme “Books and digitisation.”

Note SILA23 also goes under the hashtag #SIEL26, from the French language 26th Salon International de l’Edition et du Livre.

Those new to TNPS may be thinking Algiers must be the biggest Arab book fair out there, but even at its best Algiers only comes in at third place.

Ahead of Algiers, both in footfall count and in calendar timing, is the UAE’s Sharjah International Book Fair, where any fewer than two million visitors would be considered a national disgrace.

Last year saw 2.17 million people pile through the gates despite the shadow of Covid still hanging over the world.

Sharjah’s public-facing event this year runs November 1-11 in its 42nd edition, with its three-day 15th Publishers Conference scheduled for October 29-31.

Back when TNPS launched in 2017, Sharjah was already a huge player in the regional Arab publishing arena, and beginning to get noticed more widely, and in the six years since, Sharjah has morphed into one of the most important publishing events on the planet.

For some context on just how important Sharjah is right now, check out this TNPS post from last week.

Yet Sharjah is not, by footfall, the largest book fair in the world. Two-million visitor fairs can be found in places as improbable as India and Iran, for example, and only one western event, Madrid, can compete at that level, taking the crown in 2023 with 3 million visitors, although 2 million is more usual.

Could Sharjah beat that next month? We’ll find out soon, but another Arab book fair is also in the running when it comes to the footfall crown. The Cairo International Book Fair usually kicks off in the last week of January, and in good years has pulled in anywhere from 3-4 million visitors, but Egypt’s economic crisis has sadly seen footfall falter recently. We’ll see what happens in the (Western calendar) New Year.

Normally at this time of year we would expect to see the Kuwait International Book Fair gearing up. Last November the event pulled in a crowd of 380,000, but so far this year I’m not seeing any notification about Kuwait ’23. If anyone knows what’s going on there, do get in contact.

Smaller Arab international book fairs abound, and I try cover them for TNPS, but inevitably my coverage is haphazard and in lacking detail (feel free to get in contact with information about these events, as we from these examples:

And then there’s Morocco, where for a long time the international book fair was held in Casablanca, attracting a half million visitors.

During the Covid interregnum the country’s biggest cultural event transferred to the capital, Rabat, where I assume it will also take place in 2024. This from 2023:

I’ve focussed here on the big pubic-facing events, but the biggest dedicated trade event in Arab publishing happens in the UAE’s Abu Dhabi. This from 2019:

Abu Dhabi’s pivotal role as a trade event may yet be eclipsed by Sharjah, as it expands its Professional Conference ambitions, but there’s more than enough room – and need – for both.

But let us wind down this essay where we started, with the Jordan and Saudi Arabia events, because the Guest of honour at both Riyadh and Amman this year is Qatar, so only fitting to leave you with this from the Doha International Book Fair.

Doha marked the end of the 2022-23 Arab book fair season as the summer heat mounted in June, pulling in 300,000 visitors in a country of fewer than 3 million people.

One final thought. Tomorrow, September 25, marks the 6th anniversary of TNPS. So let me complete this essay on the MENA Arab market publishing arena with a link to my first TNPS essay on the region, back in October 2017.