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Animation and animated magazine publication are not new to the United Arab Emirates – popular local children’s magazine Majid launched in the late 1970s and animated series “Freej” aired in 2006. However, aspiring comic book artists and writers have had limited opportunities to develop their work locally. Abu Dhabi’s Culture and Creative Industries strategy aims to change this.
The Abu Dhabi government launched its CCI strategy in 2019 to promote and sustain the growth of the emirate’s cultural and creative sector, spanning art, heritage, performance, TV, video gaming, film, and more. The Abu Dhabi government will invest $6 billion into developing this sector, having already invested over $2 billion from 2017-2021. According to a 2022 UNESCO report, cultural and creative sectors contribute to 3.1% of global gross domestic product and 6.2% of global employment. Through public-private partnerships, with institutions such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Berklee College of Music, Warner Bros., and Paramount, Abu Dhabi hopes to capitalize on CCIs as one of the most rapidly growing economic sectors worldwide.
The Culture Summit is hosted annually in Abu Dhabi with speakers including former heads of state, government officials, entrepreneurs, and renowned architects, artists, and academics. This year’s summit, from October 23-25, featured the theme “A Living Culture,” with sessions ranging from performances and screenings to panel discussions and workshops, exploring cultural ecosystem cultivation. One session highlighted Sandstorm Comics, a recently launched comic book studio founded by Emirati Thai entrepreneur Mo Abedin and comic book artist Mohammad Alshaibani and supported by the Abu Dhabi government’s CCI strategy.
AGSIW spoke to Mo Abedin to learn more about his experience in building the local comic book studio – a space he wishes he had had as an aspiring comic book creator 20 years ago – and his dream to create a homegrown comic book scene for local talent in the UAE.
AGSIW: Tell us a bit about Sandstorm.
Mo: It’s a comic book space that has free workshops and open collaborative spaces that people can come to anytime and interact with professionals. One of our initiatives is comic book publication. We launched a submission season in March and closed it in May, then we shortlisted 10 concepts. These 10 talents will now go through a fully supported development process to produce a comic book. They will be attached to experienced, world-class artists, writers or co-writers if required, colorists, letterers, cover artists, and an art director. Going from being a passionate creative to joining an elite team of world-class professionals is something I really wish that I had when I was 15!
We’ll be signing on and working with between 10 to 17 books a year. Development is obviously different for each project, depending on the page count, complexity of the story, and characters inside the stories. Each book will have a specialized publishing and marketing strategy because we don’t only produce comic books that fit one style or one market. It all depends on the style, creative direction, and voice of the author that we’re working with. It’s a melting pot over here in the UAE, so it would be a shame to just limit it to one kind of art style or storytelling platform.
On top of this, we’re also committed to education. We’re developing weekly workshops to allow people to come by, sit with professionals or like-minded individuals, and talk about what they want to do or get help. There are about five art directors that will join our team and facilitate these weekly workshops. All of them have easily over 15 years of experience in comic book production. We will also be inviting international guests. We are in the middle of building a studio right now that will contain a huge community space with a screen broadcasting live Q&A sessions, workshops, mentorship, and panel discussions. We will curate workshops like this throughout the year that are totally free. There will also be workshops where people will be drawing live, either in the studio or virtually. This creates an environment that will encourage community growth and promote work consistency.
AGSIW: What motivated you to start Sandstorm?
Mo: I’ve been a fan of comics my entire life. I have been working on my own comic book since I was 15 years old. Part of the reason I’m at Sandstorm was due to my own endeavor to produce my own comic book. Having nothing here back in the day was very difficult because nobody saw the value in what you were doing. But when you start speaking to people who actually understand what you’re talking about, and they see the value of what you’re trying to build and do, those are the people who can help you. I believe that this is the first effort to have a proper comic book production studio in the city, which provides proper infrastructure and opportunities for people who are passionate about comics, want to pursue a career in comics, or develop their own books.
I look at the opportunities that we provide at Sandstorm through that kind of lens, where I ask myself, “What did I wish I had when I was 15 years old? What kind of support did I really want? What resources did I need? What kind of help did I require to do these kinds of things?” And that’s how my creative director, Mohammad Alshaibani, and I structured Sandstorm. He has a master’s degree in sequential art – he’s fantastic, and very passionate about education, and probably the only Emirati who has a master’s degree in sequential art.
AGSIW: What is the support structure for Sandstorm?
Mo: Sandstorm is supported by the Abu Dhabi government’s Culture and Creative Industries strategy. A regular comic book studio is now being backed by Abu Dhabi – it’s nuts! This is a very progressive approach by the government because it doesn’t only support UAE nationals, but also residents living here. Since 90% of the UAE’s residents are expatriates and 10% are UAE nationals, it’s impossible to tell the stories that originate from here only with 10% of its people.
It’s also really progressive of the leadership of Abu Dhabi to believe in a concept like this and see the value that it can bring to the community and the people here. Because it’s not really about comics, it’s about sharing stories and creating something that you really believe in. That has emotions behind it, that moves people. Most comic book companies’ goal is to profit – they have commercial intentions. But in this case, since we’re community building and industry building, our intentions are to create success stories, so we really focus on talent development, creating world-class content, and working with some of the best talents in the world to help produce some of the best talents in the world.
AGSIW: How do you see Sandstorm engaging more broadly within the UAE or the Gulf’s cultural ecosystem?
Mo: The way that I look at comics is as a storytelling platform. I had to break the stereotype that comic books are all about spandex superheroes in order for people to take them more seriously. The Walking Dead is a comic book.
I try to make sure that everybody understands the value of what we’re doing and how we can contribute to other industries, either vertically or horizontally. If I gave you a black and white script to read, you’ll likely be less inclined to read it. But if I put a comic book in front of you, you’ll start flipping through because of the art, panels, words, and special effects. You can actually see the main character, what the world looks like, the story, the creative direction, and the supporting characters.
If we have an investor who wants to invest in a movie, they can get a better sense of the characters, story, tone, world, and creative direction. At least in the conceptual phase, a comic book could be extremely helpful in terms of communicating a story and building intellectual property. In the bigger scheme of Sandstorm, since it is part of the CCI investment, our incredible ecosystem allows us to work with a lot of different firms that can lend themselves to us, like legal, business development, strategy, and marketing.
AGSIW: What’s your long-term vision for Sandstorm?
Mo: I see success as a few things. The first would be that an aggregator like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or Apple taps into the Middle East through Sandstorm for ideas that are coming out of the region and turns them into shows and movies – to get that international recognition and for the Middle East to become a well of intellectual property that people look into. The other is to see my extremely creative and talented brothers and sisters here become acclaimed authors working with some of the biggest companies in the world. I believe that, with the right support and infrastructure, we can really push them to new heights, especially seeing the quality of the submissions that we received and the amount of passion that we see. And obviously, I would love to see people produce some really cool comics. I want us to join that comic book scene so that when people look at Abu Dhabi, they think, “Wow, they make some really cool comics – where did that come from and where have we been this whole time?” With the people who we’re working with, our team, and the leadership’s support, it’s going to happen – I have a great feeling about that and feel that we’re on the right track.
Nada Ammagui is an associate in arts, culture, and social trends at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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