• Table of contents

    • [+]Preliminaries (3)
    • [+]Introduction (4)
    • [+]Latin America (13)
    • [+]Sub-Saharan Africa (9)
    • [—]Arab World (11)
    • [+]Russia (11)
    • [+]India (11)
    • [+]China (9)
    • [+]Conclusions (6)
    • [+]Appendix (1)

Arab World

Arab World

Digital technology as an opportunity

As we suggested when analyzing the situation in sub-Saharan Africa, the fundamental challenges of publishing in the Arab world – in this case, inefficient analogue distribution and censorship – can be overcome or at least mitigated thanks to the incorporation of electronic technology.

With regard to distribution problems, it is obvious that digital offers a potentially unlimited supply. As Sofiane Hadjadj points out, once files have been produced and uploaded to the platform, they are available to any user in the world with just one click of the mouse. Of course, there are the problems of payment and promotion, etc, but – as Hadjadj adds –, that is another matter. The most important thing is that the book is available.[1]

When it comes to the obstacle of censorship, numerous publishers trust that digital technology will provide the tools to overcome it. Unlimited and easily accessed electronic supply contrasts with the restrictions of the printed book, which has to adapt to bureaucratic designs.[2] Thus, digital versions will always be more flexible than the paper book or magazine, although it is true that governments have also learned how to intervene in the Web: for instance, download platforms can be blocked or publishers’ sites hacked. Following the demonstrations that took place in Egypt in January 2011, there has been no end of false Facebook accounts, aggressive posts and comments that pollute forums, and so on.[3] But in any case, blogs and other means of digital expression have gained so much momentum in the Arab world that it will be no easy task to effectively censor them en masse. A recent study by the Berkman Center, Harvard University reveals that the regional blogosphere is awash with discussions on domestic politics and religion: the power of digital technology has thus enabled two of the three great taboos of paper publishing to free themselves from the chains imposed by analogue censorship.[4]

Ramy Habeeb, for his part, believes that the quickest way to quell the attempts at censorship would be to promote the development of thriving and economically viable digital ventures:

I think what you need to do to combat censorship is to build a market. And by building the market, by making this industry a thriving, powerful industry, they’ll fight the censors themselves. But by having foreign bodies getting angry, wagging their finger, “shame on you”… it’s ineffective. Build the market, make the book profitable and then you will see censorship being dealt with by local market forces.[5]

For all the above reasons, digital technology may represent a great opportunity for publishing in the Arab world. However, traditional publishers don’t always find it easy to take advantage of the new opportunities. The publishers from Yemen, Egypt, Algeria and Lebanon that responded to our survey all point to three main obstacles that hinder the restructuring of the sector:

1) lack of training on digital matters;

2) deficiencies in technological infrastructure;

3) lack of public sector support.

One of the survey respondents even suggests that migration to digital could damage the current network of bookstores, which makes the horizon appear not just inscrutable but also frightening. And it is clear that in a context of unawareness, helplessness and fear, very few traditional publishers will plunge into exploring the electronic age.

In order to circumvent the above-mentioned obstacles the following lines of action might be pursued:

1) obtaining the most complete training possible on digital topics for analogue publishers;

2) encouraging the use of existing infrastructure – in particular the mobile phone network – and other possibilities that require a relatively moderate investment – such as POD;

3) turning to the R&D centres that already exist in the region;

4) promoting exchanges of experiences between analogue publishers, digital publishers and other actors from the local electronic world – particularly programmers and Internet start-ups.

With regard to the first point, there are numerous regional training and networking initiatives already working on the issue. In the section devoted to Africa we refer to CAFED, located in Tunisia, and we should also mention KITAB and the Abu Dhabi Book Fair[6] as some of the many actors involved in training Arab publishers. It would be essential for these institutions to include in their programmes such urgent topics as metadata treatment, cataloguing, publishing software and conversion to ePub in the local language, among others.

As for point 2), it is clear that much more experimentation is needed on the part of publishers with regard to testing new formats, new channels and new business models, particularly with mobile phone platforms. No doubt this will entail a process of “trial and error”, but a dynamic market and a diverse publishing “ecosystem” will only emerge if local actors are the ones who first take the plunge. POD is another promising technology, as numerous analysts have been pointing out for some time.[7] Indeed, with a relatively modest investment, printing outlets of this kind can be set up at different points in the region to form a network that will prove extremely useful in making up for the shortage of bookstores and distributors. The Alexandria Library, in Egypt, has already incorporated POD machines (the Espresso Book Machine model) into its installations.[8] Incidentally, this same technology might enable local publishers to print their books abroad, so as to satisfy the demand of global buyers; for this it will be necessary to link up Arab publishers with international POD distribution platforms.

To promote this path of combined training and experimentation it will be essential to allocate research and development (R&D) resources. Although many of the publishers interviewed point out that the public sector has not had much input in the restructuring of the sector, there are centres and laboratories in the region – both private and state-run – that could make a substantial contribution. Below we will present some examples located in the Persian Gulf, in Qatar to be precise.

Qatar Foundation was set up in 1995 in Doha. Its mission is to foster human capital “in a region whose developing needs and potentialities are considerable”.[9] This institution invests in different research programs in applied technology: medicine, energy, the environment and IT. The computer science department investigates areas such as the Web 3.0, social networks and other tools focused on the Arabic language. Many of the education and research programmes are carried out in conjunction with international bodies like CERN, FITCH, and HEC.

Qatar Science & Technology Park, a member of Qatar Foundation, houses different technology companies and acts as an incubator for start-ups. In addition to providing work space in its impressive installations, QSTP offers support programmes for companies that need to develop and market technology. It is worth highlighting that the institution has recently developed the electronic platform, “IQRA”, which hosts ancient and modern texts in both Arabic and English.[10]

For its part, the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology of Qatar (ictQATAR) is working on a national digitization plan, to protect the local cultural legacy. The interesting point is that these materials (texts, photos and videos) will be made available to users free of charge, with an explicit policy of digital inclusion.[11] The Council has organized numerous seminars on open access,[12] Creative Commons[13] and other key topics for digital publishing. Hessa Al-Jaber, the Secretary General of ictQATAR, says on this subject:

What we have learned, first and foremost, is that no nation and no region has a monopoly on innovation and new thinking. In the right environment, the mind can flourish. There is no area on the globe that has an inherent advantage in asking new questions, or exploring new areas. Anywhere you have a collection of smart, young and ambitious individuals, you will have fresh thinking. That happens to describe Qatar – but it also describes a lot of places. That means that anywhere and everywhere great research is possible, and new approaches can be found. That is a wonderful thing, because it means that a nation and region like ours, which came to the game a bit later than others, has an equal chance to compete. While measuring the impact of such national R&D investments is difficult, some studies suggest that private companies earn 20 to 30 per cent returns on their R&D spending. We think that on a national level the returns are likely to be even higher.[14]

The initiatives that we have described represent just a sample of the large number of R&D centres existing in the region – many of which can be found on the list of members of the Arab Information and Communication Technologies Organization –,[15] thereby disproving the view that the Arab world lacks its own technological resources for an eventual restructuring of its publishing sector.

Another unfounded belief is that there is a shortage of human capital. In fact – and following on from the aforementioned reflections of Hessa Al-Jaber –, the Arab world abounds in enterprising potential. One only has to visit the portals YallaStartUp or StartUpArabia to see the variety of Web projects being developed in the Middle East and North Africa. These young companies may prove to be unexpected allies for publishers, insofar as many of their developments are aimed at optimizing the experience of digital reading and writing in Arabic.[16] One notable example is Yamli, founded by Habib Haddad, a young Lebanese engineer now living in the US. According to Haddad’s account, during the Lebanese War of 2006, most of the information on the events was only available in Arabic, so in order to stay informed it was necessary to carry out searches in that language, something that is far from simple when using a keyboard with Latin characters. In November 2007, after several months of work, Haddad inaugurated the portal Yamli.com, which, thanks to a real-time transliteration engine, makes it possible to conduct searches in Arabic using Latin characters. The Lebanese engineer believes the project will help to increase the penetration of Arabic on the Web, since up to now the lack of equivalencies between Arabic and English has created a vicious circle:

[The problem] starts with the difficulty of typing Arabic, which leads to less people searching for it, and less money for Arabic publishers.[17]

There are also countless designers and programmers developing plug-ins, scripts and other software solutions for free use by the Web community. One such person is the Qatari specialist Abdulrahman Alotaiba, the creator of the extensions Inline Text Direction and Arabic Links For Print, aimed at improving the experience of writing in Arabic, in both digital and printed format. On his personal website, Alotaiba states:

I am a strong believer in open source development (…). I believe that I wouldn’t have reached the level I am at currently if it wasn’t for Allah’s blessing and then the open source community. I owe the open source community so much that I devoted most of my personal projects to [it].[18]

Alotaiba’s example, and that of many other programmers, shows there are significant human resources in the Middle East and North Africa and to the extent that they make a name for themselves and forge links with the publishing sector, they will be able to accelerate the development of different electronic publication projects, for any of the existing mediums: computer screens, e-readers, tablets and mobile phones.

  1. January 2011, cited supra.
  2. There are numerous examples of banned books that end up being uploaded to the Web for free download. Cf. Daragahi, Borzou: “In Jordan, a bookstore devoted to forbidden titles”, Los Angeles Times, 15th November, 2010.
  3. For a detailed description of the different modalities of digital censorship applied by governments in the region, see: “Middle East and North Africa”, OpenNet Initiative.
  4. Cf. Etling, Bruce; Kelly, John; Faris, Robert and Palfrey, John: Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent, June 2009.
  5. December 2010, cited supra.
  6. Kitab is a body formed in 2007, through the joint actions of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Frankfurt Book Fair. Its main objective is to promote books and reading in Abu Dhabi and neighbouring countries. Among other activities, it is in charge of organizing the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, an event that has gained international reach.
  7. Cf. Nawotka, Edward: “Is POD a Possible Answer to Book Distribution Barriers?”, Publishing Perspectives, 3rd March, 2010.
  8. Cf. “Choose a Book and Print it instantly”, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 21st February, 2007.
  9. Cf. “About Qatar Foundation”, Qatar Foundation.
  10. Cf. Agonia, Ailyn: “QSTP translates book from Latin to Arabic”, Qatar Tribune, 14th December, 2010.
  11. Cf. Al-Jaber, Hessa: Digitally Open: Innovation and Open Access Forum, 23rd October, 2010.
  12. Cf. “Digitally Open: Innovation and Open Access Forum“, ICT Qatar.
  13. Cf. “Sharing Digital Content in the Arab World”, ICT Qatar.
  14. Cf. Al-Jaber, Hessa: “The Government’s Role in Promoting ICT Research”, ICT Qatar, 12th December, 2010.
  15. Cf. “Member Sates”, Arab ICT Organization.
  16. They also implement online payment systems and mobile phone applications, among other tools that may be extremely useful for electronic publishing of the future.
  17. Cf. Streit, Valerie: “Window Opens to Arabic Web”, CNN Sci Tech Blog, 14th January, 2009.
  18. Cf. Alotaiba, Abdulrahman: “Learn more about me”, Mawqey, the virtual home of Abdulrahman Alotaiba.
Arab World


  1. thierry quinqueton

     /  27/08/2011

    Cette réflexion de Ramy Habeeb, je l’encadre et je la mets au dessus de mon bureau !
    “Je crois que la meilleure manière de combattre la censure est de construire un marché. Après que le marché soit construit et qu’une industrie forte et vigoureuse ait fait son apparition, les censeurs seront interpellés par les nouveaux acteurs. Mais ces organismes internationaux qui nous montrent du doigt avec colère en s’exclamant “quelle honte !”… ne sont pas d’une grande efficacité. Construisez un marché, faites que le livre soit rentable, et vous verrez comment les forces locales s’occuperont elles-mêmes des censeurs.”

    • octavio

       /  31/08/2011

      Tout à fait d’accord! Ce sera essentiel d’aller du bas vers le haut, de l’intérieur vers l’extérieur, si le but est de stimuler des “écosystèmes” numériques locaux durables et solides.

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