As Gulf states forge ahead with economic expansion plans, they are starting to address a glaring social deficit - the dismal dissemination of knowledge in Arab societies.

In the latest of a series of initiatives, the Abu Dhabi government is on Wednesday launching Kalima - which means ‘word’ in Arabic - a project that aims to finance the translation of 100 classic and contemporary books every year.

The project comes as a new Dubai foundation focussing on education works with three regional centres dedicated to translating select works into Arabic and ensure their free distribution to universities.

Linking up with 20 of the top publishers in the region, concentrated in two countries - Egypt and Lebanon - Abu Dhabi’s Kalima will choose the works and back their distribution and marketing.

The effort to boost translation of foreign works is both educational and political, marking an attempt to counter the dominance of religious books on the market.

Among the first books that Kalima will be promoting are Umberto Eco’s The Sign and Stephen Hawkins’ A brief history of Time.

A 2003 UN Arab Human Development Report said serious constraints hampered the acquisition, diffusion and production of knowledge in the Arab world and offered some alarming findings.

Translation of works into Arabic, it said, lagged far behind the rest of the world, with five times more books translated into Greek at that time, which was spoken by 11m people, compared to an Arab world population of more than 280m. A best seller in Arab countries might have a print run of only 5,000 copies, it said.

According to Karim Nagy, chief executive of Kalima, more recent statistics show that from 1972 to date, only 8,000 books were translated into Arabic, compared to 190,000 in Spnish. He attributes part of the problem to the deep fragmentation of the publishing industry.

But in the largely autocratic Arab world, government control and censorship have also impeded the industry and hampered the development of other key aspects of a knowledge society, particularly the media.

Pressure on publishers has also come from political groups, with Islamists seeking to prevent the sale of books they find offensive. Press laws in the United Arab Emirates itself, which includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai, remain restrictive and there is a high level of self-censorship in the local press.

Mr Nagy said Kalima did not intend to be deliberately controversial but that it would also not exercise censorship filters in the title selection. International publishers, he said, will be on the selection committee. “We want to win the readers,” he said. Ends

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