The Cambridge-born ‘literapreneur’ who made Dubai home

Isobel Abulhoul OBE, CEO and Trustee Emirates Literature Foundation and Festival Director, has worked relentlessly to keep the benefit of reading alive

Ehtesham Shahid
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“I was born in Cambridge, grew up in Cambridge and I love going back to Cambridge. But I’m always really relieved to get on the plane to get back to Dubai,” says Isobel Abulhoul.

The CEO & Trustee of Emirates Literature Foundation and Festival Director candidly admits that she doesn’t fit into England anymore. “I feel a bit of an outsider there whereas I never feel that here. This is home for me,” she says.


Isobel being at peace with Dubai, in a way, sums up her five decades of association with the city and, by default, the society. She moved here in 1968, married into “a very big Emirati family”.

Her upbringing and the habit of being an avid reader passed on to her five children. Yet, there was scope for a lot more. “My husband and I were involved in setting up this bilingual school – Al-Ittihad Private School – on a land donated by HH late Sheikh Rashid.”

The transformation

Then came Magrudy’s in 1975, which famously became “a central part of Dubai life”. Isobel was by now transforming into a “literapreneur” – a term coined without her consent.

“I had knowledge of literature. So I had to apply myself to learn to how to run a business,” she says with characteristic aplomb. It was during this time that a chance conversation made Isobel aware of the fact that Dubai had no literature festival.

Ironically, she had never been to a literature festival at that stage. “I had the knowledge of setting up and running a book shop, knowing what people were interested in reading, understanding the dynamics of the industry besides publishers and agents.”

However, in the final analysis, all that helped in setting up the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Institutional support

What mattered now was making the idea tick and, not surprisingly, Isobel made her “big Emirati family” to good use. “Everywhere you go I would see someone from my family.” Moreover, people in the city had grown up with Magrudy’s and she had lived in Dubai for a very long time. So there was an element of trust.

This is when Emirates Airline and Dubai Culture joined forces. “It was due to a belief that I would do what I said I would do and I did”, she says. Around the same time, she also got the mandate to create the Dubai International Writer’s Center.

Basically, all that meant she got to “look at what we could do in the world of literacy, literature, reading, writing, the written and spoken word, what we could do to enrich the landscape of Dubai”.

Isobel has also identified an area that needs attention in her organization’s next phase of growth. “At the moment I am thinking about projects that I believe will help strengthen the Arabic language”.

Fruits of labor

By her own admission, the festival and the foundation have evolved much further than anybody would have dreamed. “The festival, for example, is now considered one of the best international festivals in the world. Its unique in what is its reach and in what it does. It is like an Olympic of festivals really”.

Last year, the festival welcomed more than 170 writers, thinkers and speakers from 35 countries. As many as 40,000 visitors attended it and it featured more than 200 one-off sessions, with something to suit every taste.

Authors and celebrities, of all shapes and sizes, come to the festival and this year’s festival – to be held from March 3-11 – will be no different. So what’s in store for book lovers this time around?

Isobel says she is always discovering new writers that she loves and tries to include them in the festival. “My favorite book of all time is For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. We are not going to have Ernest but his grandson John is coming this year”, she says.

Book and humanity

Isobel has a word of advice for parents. According to her, if you’re looking at turning a nation into readers, you have to start when they are tiny. “If you want someone to become a reader, you have to introduce books in a warm, loving way. And the best people to do that are the parents”, she says.

She maintains that if you read your baby from when they are little, they would definitely love books. “And if they love books, they will read widely. And if they read widely, they will have more opportunities. They will be more empathetic, they will do better in studies and so on”.

According to Isobel, giving the gift of reading is priceless and in the year of giving, everyone needs to ensure that they are doing absolutely everything to make sure that the next generation will love books in the way that we do. “Because without books, a whole part of humanity is lost”.

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