How e-books and audiobooks are expanding options for consuming Arabic literature

Special How e-books and audiobooks are expanding options for consuming Arabic literature
Regional book-related events such as the Kuwait International Book Fair and the Riyadh International Book Fair continue to attract large crowds. (AFP)
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Updated 07 January 2023

How e-books and audiobooks are expanding options for consuming Arabic literature

How e-books and audiobooks are expanding options for consuming Arabic literature
  • While many Arab readers prefer the printed book, others say ebooks and audiobooks save time, space and money
  • Growth of digital-literature market evident in production of 8,000 Arabic-language audiobooks in 2022 alone

DUBAI: As technology advances, bookworms are finding more options to consume literature than just through the printed word. Though e-books in Arabic are far fewer in number than those in English, publishers and translators are working to bridge the gap.

In 2018, Amazon announced Arabic-language support for the Kindle e-reader, opening the door of literature to a much larger audience.

From novels to self-help books, biographies to poetry and more, an increasing number of Arabs are finding affordable means to gain knowledge in e-books and audiobooks. Yet, reading a printed book is still the most favored option for the vast majority.

“Honestly, I don’t think there is a problem of reading books in the Arab region as some might think, as much as there is a problem in selling books,” Salah Chebaro, CEO of Beirut-based Neelwafurat, told Arab News.

Neelwafurat, one of the biggest online bookstores in the Arab world, is a word merging the two Arabic names of the Nile and Euphrates rivers.

The bookstore sells printed books from Arab publishers to different cities around the world. It boasts a stock of 15,000 e-books for sale that can be read through the iKitab application, as well as 800,000 printed books.

While printed Arabic-language books continue to be far more popular than e-book equivalents, sales of the latter are slowly growing, in part as a result of the rising prices of printed volumes. (SPA)

“When you look at the number of the pirated books that were downloaded, they are in the millions,” Chebaro said in an online interview from the Lebanese capital. “People like to read, but they don’t like to pay to read.”  

However, “the predicament for publishers, distributors and bookshops in the Arab world … is in shipping (books) and other logistics related to the geography of the Arab region.”

For instance, the cost of shipping a consignment of printed books weighing a total of 2 kilograms from New York to Los Angeles in the US is roughly the same as, say, sending it from Cairo to Amman.

This is because of the geographical distribution of the Arab region, which makes transportation, shipping, exporting and importing more complicated and expensive, Chebaro said.

Saving on shipping costs is among the main factors behind the increasing popularity of e-books in the Arab region. Other factors include saving the space needed to store and carry around print books, as well as the speed of buying a book online, which can be finalized in the blink of an eye.

While some continue to maintain their preference for the printed word, reading on gadgets has many advantages. Yemeni-British Dhuha Awad, a creativity facilitator based in Dubai, says she likes the dictionary function in digital English books.

“I can type the word I am looking for, and the gadget will display all the lines that have that word (in the digital book). Also, I don’t need to carry the book I am reading with me all the time,” Awad told Arab News.

Her library consists of roughly equal numbers of digital and printed books, and she uses the e-book format to further save time and physical space. “If I like a certain book and want others to read it, I make sure I have it in paper. But if I am not sure, I will buy the digital format first,” she said.


• Global e-book revenues surpassed $16.1bn in 2021 and could reach $18.7bn by 2026. 

• The number of e-book readers worldwide is expected to breach 1.1bn by 2027.

• Sales of e-books constitute around 10% of overall book sales, according to publishers.

• In 2018, Amazon announced Arabic-language support for the Kindle e-reader.

The growth in the e-books market in the Arab region is led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, Ali Abdel Moneim Ahmed, digital publishing consultant with Liberty Education in the UK, Egypt, and UAE, said during a panel discussion at the Sharjah Publishers Conference on the sidelines of the 2022 edition of the UAE’s Sharjah International Book Fair, held every November.

More and more publishers are offering online platforms with their books having digital versions, Ahmed said. Publishers are also collaborating with audio-ready platforms, such as Storytel and Audible.

E-book sales of classic books in the markets of the three aforementioned Arab countries have “increased by 14 percent (in 2021),” Ahmed said. “This is apart from the online publications, which have increased by 50 percent.”

Despite the increasing sales of e-books, there is still room for even more growth. Sales of e-books constitute around 10 percent of overall book sales, according to publishers. 

“It is a promising (field) … and it is increasing every year. But we haven’t yet reached the percentages of Europe and the US, where nearly 30 percent of books sales are e-books,” Chebaro told Arab News.

Global e-books sales are massive, despite figures varying among different sources and websites.

According to WordsRated, a US-based non-commercial research organization, global e-book revenues in 2021 reached over $16.1 billion, and is expected to cross the $18.7 billion mark by 2026.

Statista, another US-based market and consumer data provider, expects the e-books segment to reach $13.6 billion in 2022, with an anticipated annual growth rate of 3.38 percent, reaching over $16 billion by 2027.

Saudi Arabia tops the list of buyers and readers for both digital and printed books in the Arab world. (SPA)

The number of e-book readers is expected to reach over 1.1 billion by 2027, with most of the revenues expected to be generated by the US. The country is the largest book market in the world, with its revenues estimated in billions of dollars.

Nearly one million books are being published yearly in the US, in addition to four million self-published books annually.

By comparison, the Arab book market’s revenue ranges between $100 and $150 million. Only a million books have been published in the Arab region in the past five decades, according to data shared by Chebaro with Arab News.

Figures on publishing in the Arab world are related to many socio-economic factors, chief among them individual income. 

“Today, (the rate of) pirated books in the Gulf region is less than other countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Pirated books are a big problem and (are) connected to an individual’s income,” Chebaro told Arab News. 

“We have a long way to go … (but) overall, sales of paper books are increasing, as well as the sales of e-books. None of them is taking the place of another. Each has a market and each has its customers and readers.”

Saudi Arabia tops the list of buyers and readers for both digital and printed books in the Arab world. It is followed by Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Algeria, according to Chebaro.

Fiction, self-esteem and mental health, and biographies top the list of subjects of interest to Arab readers, Doha Al-Refai, publishing manager at the Rufoof digital bookstore, told Arab News from Amman in Jordan.

The store, which offers 25,000 Arabic titles for a monthly subscription fee, acts like a sort of online library — not selling digital or print copies of books, but rather allowing readers to read books on their website.

“We don’t distribute or sell books for readers. We distribute for the publisher,” Al-Refai told Arab News.

Rufoof has “solved a problem for a wide spectrum of readers, where people don’t have to buy books, whether paper or digital, but can read as much as they want throughout the whole month.”

Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians are among Rufoof’s top clients. While Egyptians are among the most voracious readers, the number of subscribers in the Gulf states are also high, Al-Refai said, adding that the website has plans to expand into audiobooks. 

Audiobooks are a promising field with big potential, according to many publishers. Chebaro and Al-Refai said that the Arab region produced nearly 8,000 audiobooks in 2021, with Al-Refai adding that Rufoof accounted for 5,000 so far.

Egyptian author Amr Hussein says the digital format has helped increase access to literature for those who are unable to afford the increasing prices of books.

“Arabs living in different places, such as Australia, Europe, and other cities far from the Arab region, find it difficult to get Arabic books,” Hussein, who lives in Dubai, told Arab News.

“Distributing books through digital formats provides people anywhere in the world the chance to read books as they are published in the Arab region.”

He said, personally, he prefers audiobooks as he can listen to them while stuck in traffic or in a plane.

Many readers and writers will likely agree with Purva Grover, a Dubai-based writer from India with three e-books under her belt, who told Arab News via email: “The more books we have (in any format) in the world, be it e-books or print, the brighter the future.

“Reading is more about sharing now — I read a good paragraph and I want to instantly screenshot it and send it to my friends, put it up on my social accounts or tag friends — so e-books help us do it all, and hence encourage and spread the word of reading in this tech-friendly era.”

Egypt population reaches 105m

Egypt population reaches 105m
Updated 03 June 2023

Egypt population reaches 105m

Egypt population reaches 105m
  • On Oct. 1, 2022, the database put the population at 104 million
  • Increase of 1 million in 245 days — eight months and five days

Cairo: Egypt’s population reached 105 million on Saturday, according to the population clock linked to the government’s birth and death registration database.

On Oct. 1, 2022, the database put the population at 104 million, meaning that there has been an increase of 1 million in 245 days — eight months and five days.

“The increase of 1 million people in eight months is deeply concerning. This level of population growth presents a formidable challenge and a hindrance for the Egyptian state as it disrupts the path to development,” Fatima Mahmoud, a specialist at the Demographic Center in Cairo, told Arab News.

Mahmoud emphasized the government’s strong intent to manage population growth, highlighting that it significantly strains the state’s resources and budget.

“While the increase is indeed alarming, the situation isn’t entirely bleak. An analysis of the data on the difference in birth and death rates reveals that the recent increase of 1 million was reached in 245 days.

“Comparatively, the prior million increase was achieved in just 221 days, nearly 24 days (fewer). This indicates a noticeable decline in birth rates, a positive trend that should be supported by the government,” she said.

“Aid packages should be granted to families with two children, while community assistance should be withheld for those with more than two children. The government must innovate beyond conventional means to effectively control population growth as it poses a substantial threat to development,” Mahmoud added.

Meanwhile, the latest report from the Maat Foundation, which specializes in community studies, said that Egypt’s population growth “negatively impacts” the country’s ability to achieve sustainable development.

It explained: “The economic consequences of population increase include higher consumption among individuals, increased state expenditures on services, widespread unemployment, reduced wages in both public and private sectors, rising housing prices, urban expansion onto agricultural lands, deterioration of public facilities, and inflated allocations of public spending on essential services such as education, health, transportation, housing, social protection, and security.

“All these effects are unfortunately at the expense of capital expenditure on developmental projects in primary productive sectors like agriculture and the transformative industry.”

However, Dr. Alia Al-Mahdi, a professor at the faculty of economics and political science at Cairo University, argued that population increase “is not necessarily a barrier to economic development.”

She said: “A large population can become a positive factor for achieving growth and economic development if the state effectively utilizes the human resources, as demonstrated in countries like India and China, each with a population exceeding 1 billion.”

Al-Mahdi added: “Economic decline, deterioration, and sluggish growth rates are usually the catalysts for increased population growth. Conversely, population growth rates decrease when the economy is performing well and incomes are rising. This is reflected in citizens’ growing desire to enhance their quality of life, consequently reducing the birth rate.”

Tunisian FM hails Italy’s support over IMF loan

Tunisian FM hails Italy’s support over IMF loan
Updated 03 June 2023

Tunisian FM hails Italy’s support over IMF loan

Tunisian FM hails Italy’s support over IMF loan
  • International Monetary Fund seeks govt reforms but Rome backs disbursement ‘without preconditions’
  • Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to pay official visit to North African country next week

ROME: Tunisia’s foreign minister has hailed “Italy’s clear understanding of the … need to support the … economic recovery underway” in his country.

Nabil Ammar was speaking on Friday night at a ceremony in the residence of Italy’s ambassador in Tunis on the occasion of Italy’s National Day. The event was attended by representatives of Tunisia’s government and business community.

Ammar thanked Italy for all its efforts to explain Tunisia’s viewpoint to other countries regarding negotiations for a loan of nearly $1.9 billion from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF requires Tunisia’s government to carry out a series of reforms before giving the loan. However, Tunisia is asking for a first tranche of funding to be released immediately by the IMF, while the rest of the loan can be paid in line with the progress of reforms.

Ammar described Italy’s backing of Tunisia on this point as “intelligent and constructive.” He recalled that Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni urged the IMF at last month’s G7 Summit to adopt a “practical” approach to disbursing funds to Tunisia “without preconditions.”

Ammar stressed that the challenges facing all Mediterranean countries and others worldwide on migration “go beyond the capacities of individual states and require all of us to raise solidarity to the level of a fundamental value more quickly than ever before.”

He expressed his hope that the proposal by Tunisian President Kais Saied to organize a regional conference on migration will be accepted “so that this phenomenon can be effectively tackled in a way that takes account of the humanitarian dimension.”

Saied made the proposal during his meeting in Tunis with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi on May 15.

Meloni and Saied on Friday night discussed bilateral relations during a phone call. According to a press release by Meloni’s office, she accepted Saied’s invitation to pay an official visit to Tunisia next week.

180 dead from Sudan fighting buried unidentified: Red Crescent

180 dead from Sudan fighting buried unidentified: Red Crescent
Updated 03 June 2023

180 dead from Sudan fighting buried unidentified: Red Crescent

180 dead from Sudan fighting buried unidentified: Red Crescent
  • Volunteers have buried 102 unidentified bodies in the capital’s Al-Shegilab cemetery and 78 more in cemeteries in Darfur

KHARTOUM: Persistent fighting in Sudan’s twin flashpoints of Khartoum and Darfur has forced volunteers to bury 180 bodies recovered from combat zones without identification, the Sudanese Red Crescent said.
Since fighting between Sudan’s warring generals erupted on April 15, volunteers have buried 102 unidentified bodies in the capital’s Al-Shegilab cemetery and 78 more in cemeteries in Darfur, the Red Crescent said in a statement Friday.
Both regular army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and his deputy-turned-rival, paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, have issued repeated pledges to protect civilians and secure humanitarian corridors.
But Red Crescent volunteers — supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross — have found it difficult to move through the streets to pick up the dead, “due to security constraints,” the Red Crescent said.
In cease-fire talks in Saudi Arabia last month, the warring parties had agreed to “enable responsible humanitarian actors, such as the Sudanese Red Crescent and/or the International Committee of the Red Cross to collect, register and bury the deceased in coordination with competent authorities.”
But amid repeated and flagrant violations by both sides, the US- and Saudi-brokered truce agreement collapsed.
Entire districts of the capital no longer have running water, electricity is only available for a few hours a week and three quarters of hospitals in combat zones are not functioning.
The situation is particularly dire in the western region of Darfur, which is home to around a quarter of Sudan’s population and has never recovered from a devastating two-decade war that left hundreds of thousands dead and more than two million displaced.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed, villages and markets torched and aid facilities looted, prompting tens of thousands to seek refuge in neighboring Chad.
More than 1,800 people have been killed in the fighting, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Medics and aid agencies have said repeatedly that the real death toll is likely to be much higher, because of the number of bodies abandoned in areas that are unreachable.

Three Israeli soldiers, Egyptian officer killed in border gunfire incident

Three Israeli soldiers, Egyptian officer killed in border gunfire incident
Updated 03 June 2023

Three Israeli soldiers, Egyptian officer killed in border gunfire incident

Three Israeli soldiers, Egyptian officer killed in border gunfire incident
  • Egypt confirms security force member killed in Israel border shooting while "chasing a drug smuggler"
  • The exchange of fire reportedly took place around the Nitzana border crossing between Israel and Egypt
  • Egypt and Israel coordinating on border incident; fighting along their shared border is rare

JERUSALEM: Three Israeli soldiers and an Egyptian security officer were killed near the countries’ border on Saturday, Israel and Egypt said, in a rare incident that the countries said they are investigating jointly.
The Israeli military said an Egyptian policeman shot and killed two soldiers while they secured a military post at the Egyptian border early on Saturday. It said the officer and a third Israeli soldier were killed in a confrontation inside Israeli territory hours later.
Egypt’s military said that the three Israeli and one Egyptian security personnel had been killed in an exchange of fire as the Egyptian security officer chased smugglers across the frontier.
Egyptian and Israeli officials are probing the circumstances of the incident in full cooperation, the Israeli military and two Egyptian security sources said.
The Israeli military said it was unclear how the Egyptian officer crossed the border fence and soldiers were searching the area to rule out additional assailants.
An Israeli military spokesperson said two soldiers had been shot while on duty in a relatively desolate area in the Negev desert along the Egypt border early on Saturday. Their bodies were found later, when they didn’t answer the radio, the spokesperson added.
Once the military understood the incident was ongoing, soldiers identified an infiltration into Israeli territory, leading to a gunfight in which the assailant, an Egyptian policeman, and the third Israeli soldier were killed, it said.
Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said he conducted a situational assessment with the chief of staff and that the military “will investigate the event as required.”
Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
The Israeli military spokesperson said that while drug smuggling attempts in the area were frequent, the last known infiltration into Israel happened some 10 years ago.

UN agency for Palestinian refugees raises just a third of $300m needed to help millions

UN agency for Palestinian refugees raises just a third of $300m needed to help millions
Updated 03 June 2023

UN agency for Palestinian refugees raises just a third of $300m needed to help millions

UN agency for Palestinian refugees raises just a third of $300m needed to help millions
  • UNRWA chief grateful for the new pledges but they are below the funds needed to keep over 700 schools and 140 clinics open from September through December

UNITED NATIONS: Despite a dire warning from the UN chief that the UN agency for Palestinian refugees “is on the verge of financial collapse,” donors at a pledging conference on Friday provided just $107 million in new funds — significantly less than the $300 million it needs to keep helping millions of people.
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the agency known as UNRWA, said he was grateful for the new pledges but they are below the funds needed to keep over 700 schools and 140 clinics open from September through December.
“We will continue to work tirelessly with our partners, including host countries — the refugees’ top supporters — to raise the funds needed,” he said in a statement.
At the beginning of the year, UNRWA appealed for $1.6 billion for its programs, operations and emergency response across Syria, Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Jordan. That includes nearly $850 million for its core budget, which includes running schools and health clinics.
According to UNRWA, donors on Friday announced $812.3 million in pledges, but just $107.2 million were new contributions. The countries pledging new funds were not announced.
Lazzarini told a press conference Thursday that UNRWA needs $150 million to keep all services running until the end of the year, and an additional $50 million to start 2024 without liabilities. In addition, he said, the agency needs $75 million to keep the food pipeline in Gaza operating and about $30 million for its cash distribution program in Syria and Lebanon.
UNRWA was founded in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to provide hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes with education, health care, social services and in some cases jobs. Today, their numbers — with descendants — have grown to some 5.9 million people, most in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, as well as neighboring countries in the Middle East.
UNRWA has faced a financial crisis for 10 years, but Lazzarini said the current crisis is “massive,” calling it “our main existential threat.”
“It is deepening, and our ability to muddle through is slowly but surely coming to an end,” he said. “The situation is even more critical now that some of our committed donors have indicated that the will substantially decrease their contribution to the agency.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a speech read by his chief of staff at the start of the pledging conference that “when UNRWA’s future hangs in the balance so do the lives of millions of Palestine refugees relying on essential services.”
Those services include education for over half a million girls and boys, health care for around 2 million people, job opportunities for young people in Gaza and elsewhere, psycho-social support for hundreds of thousands of children, and a social safety net for nearly half a million of the poorest Palestinians, he said. More than 1.2 million Palestinians also receive humanitarian assistance.