New faces at the top of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

The Emirates Literature Foundation has announced two new senior appointments to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature team: Ahlam Bolooki will become the Festival Director while Jennifer Malton will take on the role of Chief Operating Officer.

The immediate effect is to reduce the burden on Isobel Abulhoul, Festival Director since she established the Festival back in 2008 (previously she had co-founded Magrudy’s: pioneering the written word in the UAE has always been her thing). Isobel Abulhoul has been a great success as the public face of LitFest, and she will continue as CEO of the Festival and a Trustee of its governing body, the Emirates Literature Foundation.

She’ll now concentrate on “year-long initiatives” as well as overall strategy for the Emirates Literature Foundation, leaving the management and operation of the Festival to the new appointees. “I am delighted to welcome two wonderful people to our management team,” she said. “Their skills will be a huge asset as the Festival moves forward to its second decade, championing reading in the UAE and upholding its reputation as one of the leading international literary festivals in the world.”

Ahlam Bolooki now takes over as the main advocate and spokesperson for the Festival, responsible for its development and delivery, running its budget, and generally meeting its goals. She joins from a four-year stint at Dubai Tourism, latterly as the Head of Regional Campaigns at Dubai Tourism. Her background is actually in hospitality marketing, and before Dubai Tourism she spent more than four years in marketing and communications for Jumeirah group.

That makes her an interesting choice. The trustees have gone for someone well versed in branding and brand management, development of creative briefs across a variety of different types of marketing campaigns, and dealing with internal and external stakeholders. There’s no obvious connection with literature, culture or education in her CV, which suggests that the trustees were looking for someone who could grow the brand and apply some commercial savvy. To that end, her brief for instance includes developing a marketing plan “that increases national and ultimately international reach, increases ticket sales and diversifies audiences”.

It’s true that the Festival is not primarily an industry event like the Sharjah or Abu Dhabi book fairs; it’s all about developing and then feeding a love of the written word rather than promoting publishers or authors. This particularly applies to giving children a lifelong interest in reading, a core issue for the Foundation and an important feature of the Festival (it always sends a selection of its authors out to schools to give workshops and readings); the Year of Reading was back in 2016, but it remains a key target for government.

So does ‘soft power’, the ability of the UAE to punch above its perceived weight in the international arena through initiatives like the Festival. Improving and extending LitFest’s already strong international reputation is another priority for the incoming Festival Director.

Given that set of core messages, it seems that delivery rather than content was seen to be the priority …

The appointment of Jennifer Malton as COO fits this reading, too. Again, she does not come from a background in arts, culture or education; instead she brings nine years of practical experience of running big events as official Show Secretary for the Dubai International Arabian Horse Championship at DWTC. She’s been involved with horses for many years, including time as a committee member of the British Equestrian Retail Association and co-owner of a professional showjumping yard (she’s a professionally qualified saddle fitter too).

It’s a sizable task for the two new appointees. This year the Festival’s main programme had more than 250 author sessions and other events, featured around 180 authors from 50 countries, and attracted 41,780 visitors. Running alongside was an education programme that is reckoned to have “positively impacted” on 28,000 students across the UAE.

The 11th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature will be held from 28 February to 9 March next year.

Above: Isobel Abulhoul (centre) with Ahlam Bolooki (left) and Jennifer Malton (right)

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