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Literacy Activism and Serial Entrepreneurship – Isobel Belhoul

Isobel was awarded an OBE by HM Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain as “one of the most influential Brits” and Middle East Business recognized her “the most inspirational woman” living in the UAE 2 years in a row. In her quest to improve literacy over the past 50 years, Isobel has established a school, an iconic bookshop and an award-winning literary festival.

Isobel Abuhoul left Cambridge for Dubai in 1968 and has been here ever since. In 1975, Isobel set up Al Ittehad Private School and Magrudy’s bookshop – both of which are still thriving today. In 2008 Isobel founded the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the Arab World’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word, bringing people of all ages together with authors from across the world to promote education, debate and reading. The festival won the Best Festival title at the Middle East Event Awards in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

In this episode we explored Isobel’s “why?”, what drove her to establish one enterprise after another. Isobel walked me through some of the challenges she faced and what tools she used to overcome them – the value of her network came up a couple of times. We also discussed how she has managed to keep her enterprises alive 40 years on, in the face of fierce competition – by putting herself in the shoes of a demanding and impatient customer! Finally, Isobel gave us a sneak preview of the upcoming Emirates Lit Fest – I’ve bought tickets to 6 sessions and I cannot wait to attend.

The 2018 Emirates Literature Festival is running March 1-10. Tickets are available online at, but do hurry up as the sessions are selling out fast. You can also get in touch with Isobel on Twitter @UmmMansour.