The best line of the 2024 International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries (Congress PCI), held in Abu Dhabi last week, was delivered not by a publisher of books, but a publisher of video games. In a disquisition on the status of the Arabic language and culture in the global creative industries, Fawzi Mesmar, the v-p of global creative for French video game company Ubisoft—publisher of the Assassin’s Creed series, which often employs settings and storylines from the Middle East—asserted: “Arabic is not exotic, but iconic.”

Congress PCI, organized by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, brings together key figures from the United Arab Emirates annually, for conversation and networking with international professionals from the worlds of book publishing, comics publishing, filmmaking, and video games. Now in its third year, this year’s event attracted 380 attendees and featured 35 speakers including a group of international literary agents and publishers, among whom were Nora Rawn, manager of subsidiary rights for Harlequin, and Stu Levy, founder of TokyoPop, among others.

The message in Mesmar's statement echoed throughout the congress. In his opening remarks, Ali Bin Tamim, director of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, stressed his desire for "the Arabic language to have its rightful place in the amazing space of creative and cultural industries." And in the opening talk—between Mohamed Al Khalifa Mubarak, chair of the Department of Culture and Tourism at Abu Dhabi, and Egyptian American economist Mohamed El-Erian, now based at Queens' College at the University of Cambridge—the speakers emphasized that investing in the creative industry Arab community would pay dividends for the region and the broader world alike.

El-Erian began by pointing out that "one of the biases in the West is to forget that the Arab world was at the forefront of mathematics, astronomy, architecture.” This long history of creativity, he added, means that there is a deep well of Arabic cultural heritage from which to draw.

Mubarak highlighted the potential for leveraging educational and cultural "building blocks" to raise the profile and place of Arabic in world culture. "We have to make sure that we create incentive schemes, that we generate funds to really invest in these creators, to create fantastic Arabic content,” he said. He went on to emphasize the need to fill the void in Arabic content, and pointed to the recent launch of Sandstorm, a new U.A.E.–based graphic novel publishing company, whose books feature stories rooted in Arabic culture and published in bilingual Arabic and English editions.

Adaptation and Multiplatform Content Creation

The event's opening keynote panel discussion, "Filmmaking Alchemy: The Dynamic Relationship Between Literature and Film Adaptations," delved into the intricate process of transforming novels into films. Panelists including director Marwan Hamed, actor Karim Abdel Aziz, and author and screenwriter Ahmed Mourad shared their insights on collaborating on the film adaptation of Mourad’s novel The Blue Elephant.

"When a novel undergoes film adaptation, it becomes a universal translation of the author's vision," Mourad said. "This intricate process involves a myriad of talents, from the script writers and directors to actors, cinematographers, sound teams, and music composers."

Hamed, who directed the movie, shared that "adapting a novel requires a deep understanding of the source material and the ability to translate its essence into a visual medium.” Abdel Aziz, who starred in the movie, added that, “as an actor, it's crucial to immerse yourself in the world of the novel and understand the nuances of the character you're portraying." He continued: "It's a collaborative effort between the actor, director, and screenwriter to ensure that the essence of the character is captured.”

The panelists also discussed the avenues for showcasing and profiting from film adaptations, including the opportunities streaming has brought to the Arabic-language film industry and the the importance of international film festivals as a distribution strategies to reach a wider audience. And the following panel, "Evolving Consumer Tastes and Consumption in the Era of Multi-Platform Content Creation," explored the changing landscape of content consumption as providers expand across multiple platforms, often utilizing recycled content from a single intellectual property.

Maaz Sheikh, cofounder and CEO of Starzplay, emphasized the complexity of consumer behavior within the region. "The GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] is very different from North Africa, which is very different from the Levant," Sheikh said. "As much as we, the service providers, need to simplify to the outside, on the inside—each of these regions and segments—the consumer behavior is quite complex."

Sheikh also highlighted the importance of language and platform experience in catering to the younger generation. "Language is important, but so is the [lived] experience that they get," he added.

Mazen Hayek, a well-known business advisor and media influencer in the region, concurred, noting that there is an ongoing transformation in the relationship between with broadcasters and consumers. "TV, whether you put it in a linear perspective or a streaming perspective, is not the first point of call for most people," Hayek said. "Most people's life experiences still affect how they consume content."

Ashley Rite, v-p of marketing and growth at OSN, a U.A.E. broadcaster, spoke about the convergence of platforms and the value of consumer attention. "Consumers might not like longform content, but they're happy to sit on their devices for two to three hours," Rite explained. "It's a very difficult thing to balance longform versus shortform content."

One specific challenge, panelists agreed, is determining how to personalize the experience of content consumption—something all the more important in the face of an ever-increasing amount of content. Sheikh said that Starzplay has experimented with AI-driven personalization models, but noted that extensive data to train these models is needed in order to effectively cater to individual preferences.

Artificial Intelligence

AI was at the center of a subsequent panel, "Beyond Bytes: Impact of Generative AI on Humanity," which delved into the profound societal impact of the latest technological advancements in publishing and the intersection of technology and society. Panelists addressed the ethical and social implications of generative AI—emphasizing the need for regulation, user awareness, and development of value-aligned AI systems—as well as its vast business potential.

Nadim Sadek, founder and CEO of Shimmr AI, emphasized the rapid pace of the technology's development and its effect on human understanding and collaboration. "AI has really accelerated our ability to understand things and to collaborate in a way that we haven't previously understood," Sadek said. "It's mesmerizing. I think it's making some of us fearful to deal with it.”

Sadek also highlighted the potential for AI to redefine creativity and the importance of accepting machine creativity. "I think we should accept machine creativity. And I think, for example, hallucinations, which are always dismissed as a bad thing, are actually quite interesting bits of creativity," he added.

Hoda Al Khzaimi, Director of the Center for Cyber Security at New York University Abu Dhabi, stressed the need for a diverse approach to technological development. "The current ecosystem mandates this kind of diverse approach," Al Khzaimi said. "It mandates the philosophers to be part of this equation, the social scientists to be part of the equation, psychologists, the economists, and as well as the technology developers to build that next technology product that should go to market."

The U.A.E. is bullish on AI technology, panelists noted: the country is home to one of the first academic institutions wholly dedicated to studying AI—Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence—and has supported the development of its own large language model, called Falcon. Preslav Nakov, a professor a Mohamed bin Zayed University, discussed the challenges and opportunities surrounding AI for students and the importance of using the technology as a copilot. "Humans are not going to go away—just like in the past, we have invented the calculator, we have invented the computer," Nakov said. "Those are things that have made us more productive."