Meet the Lebanese expat who sold books to young UAE royals

Tahseen Al Khayat established Abu Dhabi's first bookshop


Anjana Sankar

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Published: Fri 15 Jul 2022, 11:06 AM

Last updated: Fri 15 Jul 2022, 1:26 PM

In the late 1960s, petrodollars were filling Abu Dhabi's coffers and new infrastructural projects, like schools and hospitals, were only starting to come up. But for those who loved the printed word, there was not a single bookshop in the emirate.

That was when 20-year-old Tahseen Al Khayat, originally from Beirut, landed in Abu Dhabi from Kuwait with a suitcase full of books. When he opened the first All Prints bookstore on Airport Road, it soon became a favourite haunt for both expats and Emiratis.

Among the regular visitors to his shop were two young kandura-clad boys.

Al Khayat says young Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the late UAE President and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, now the country's Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation - both sons of late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan - were his loyal customers from the beginning.

"Both of them were young boys at that time and avid readers too. My shop was just opposite Sheikh Zayed's Al Manhal Palace on Airport Road, and I still remember how Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Abdullah used to hop into the shop and comb through the latest collection of books," Al Khayat, now a 74-year-old media mogul and business tycoon in Lebanon, told Khaleej Times.

"Whenever Sheikh Khalifa visited our shop, it was a celebration for us. He bought so many books that we did not have to worry about our sales for the whole month," said Al Khayat, who claims he maintains a close relationship with the ruling family members of Abu Dhabi till date.

Though Sheikh Khalifa was a bulk buyer, Sheikh Abdullah was the more avid reader of the two, he said.

"I used to be amazed by his depth of knowledge at that young age. He would ask for specific books, come back to our shop and discuss the book at length. He could spend hours sitting and reading."

When Abu Dhabi was just a sandy patch

When Al Khayat landed in Abu Dhabi in early 1968, the emirate's airport was nothing more than a sandy runway with a small terminal without air conditioners. It was then part of the British empire's Trucial States, and the UAE was yet to be born as a federal nation.

"We had to wait in the plane for the dust to settle. I stepped out to the sand from the aeroplane and walked to the terminal. It was 54 years ago, and I still remember those early days of my life in Abu Dhabi," said Al Khayat.

The founder of the Tahseen Khayat Group now owns a business empire spanning publishing, printing, distribution, media, oil and gas, power generation, pharmaceuticals and hospitality.

He originally worked as a salesman in Kuwait selling Encyclopaedia Brittanica until the shop closed down.

"My employer lost all his money and could not pay me. Instead, he gave me his collection of books, and I decided to open a bookshop in Abu Dhabi," Khayat said.

That is how All Prints, Abu Dhabi's first bookshop, was born in 1968. Today, the store is located in the Sheikh Saif Bin Butti Building on Al Nasr Street in the Khalidiya area and is a one-stop shop for book lovers in the capital.

Now more than a book shop, it is an education and distribution enterprise that prints and distributes textbooks and supplies both educational materials and digital solutions. It also conducts teacher training for all major schools and universities throughout the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon.

Humble beginnings

But like many other expat-owned businesses, All Prints had a humble beginning and flourished under the patronage of the country's leaders.

"When I approached Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammad Al Nahyan, who was the then Deputy of Sheikh Zayed, and my friend Zaki Nusseibeh, (who is currently the Cultural Advisor to the President of the UAE,) they gave me help and support. I found a shop in the Mohammad Al Hurr building, and the best part is, the owner Al Hurr did not even take rent from me, saying I should first start the business and make enough money and then only worry about the rent," said Al Khayat.

He said the leaders were very keen to encourage business people to start new enterprises in Abu Dhabi.

"I was amazed by how welcoming the leaders were to expats. People of different nationalities and religious backgrounds were coming to Abu Dhabi. There was no conflict, and everyone had opportunities to flourish," he said.

From book shop to educational hub

Today the bookshop in Khalidiya is a household name.

Nadia Al Khayat, Tahseen's daughter who takes care of the business, says the biggest achievement of All Prints is that it has turned Abu Dhabi into an academic hub, partnering with educational institutes across the Arab world.

Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism has recognized All Prints as an urban treasure for its long-standing contribution to the emirate's cultural and educational landscape.

"The recognition means a lot to us. To be recognized as an urban treasure is a recognition of our hard work and contribution. It also shows how much the country's leadership appreciates and encourages entrepreneurship and culture," said Nadia, the eldest daughter of Al Khayat.

"The growth that Abu Dhabi has witnessed…we have been part of it for more than 54 years, and we have always strived to keep up with that pace of growth. Abu Dhabi is a huge success story, and when you are part of it, you have to replicate that same success. That is what we have done," said Nadia.

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