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My Journey from Reader to Leader

by Eddie Rayner

As Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote in her autobiography, My Journey, ‘There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all’. This is a sentiment that Isobel Abulhoul – OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire), the CEO and Trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation, and co-founder of Magrudy’s bookstore chain – has always been heavily influenced by her love of books, a passion that first ignited in early childhood and ultimately led to various entrepreneurial pursuits.

EDUAE: How did it all begin for you in Dubai?

Isobel: I moved to Dubai in 1968, where I began my career as a nursery school teacher, before co-founding Al Ittihad School in 1974. My next major step was opening Magrudy’s, which became one of Dubai’s biggest bookstore chains. Finally, following a chance conversation, the idea for a literary festival was discussed, and this led to me founding the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, a first of its kind in the UAE. Over the last 11 years it has grown to be the Arab world’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word.

EDUAE: How have the Festival and Foundation progressed?

Isobel: Launched in 2009 with 65 authors, the Festival has grown continually and, in 2019, hosted over 181 authors from 40 countries and reached more than 45,000 people. A few years later, in 2013, The Emirates Literature Foundation was established by royal decree from HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE, and Ruler of Dubai. The Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on cultivating a spirit of reading, and as part of its initiatives has implemented a School Librarian of the Year Award, year-round school education programmes and competitions, book clubs, and creative writing courses.

EDUAE: What are the proudest moments of your career?

Isobel: There are so many I could choose from, but being awarded an OBE from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of my years of service to education and British literature in the UAE was a very special moment. As was the award from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum for my contribution to the Year of Reading in the UAE, and being named the Cultural Personality of the Year by HH Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah. I’m enormously grateful for the public recognition.

EDUAE: What advice would you give young women venturing into the business world?

Isobel: I come from a generation where women were expected to get married and have children. There certainly were not many female CEO’s when I was younger. But in terms of leadership roles for women, if you think you are capable of leading a team, then go for it. You should not think that being female is a barrier, because if you believe it is, then it will be. It never entered my head that I couldn’t succeed if I really put my heart and soul into the job in question.

Isobel Abulhoul is an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire), the CEO and Trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation, and co-founder of Magrudy’s bookstore chain.