Arabs have translated about 100,000 books over the past millennium; that's almost the average that Spain translates in a year, according to one UN report by Arab scholars. The number of non-religious works issued in Arabic remains tragically low, the study adds, noting a lack of reliable data. Perhaps the International Prize for Arabic Fiction could help change this sad record. The contest's first winner, Egyptian Baha Taher, was selected in Abu Dhabi today. One aim of the $50,000 award, modeled on Britain's Man Booker Prize, is to stimulate interchange between Arab countries, where mutual suspicions can be endemic. In this it has already succeeded, judging from the London news conference where the six finalists were announced in January. As the chairman of the Russian Booker Prize for Fiction, I'm inured to passionate debates about literature. Yet this was the liveliest exchange between journalists and a book-judging panel that I've ever witnessed. Why are the books so gloomy, one Arab correspondent demanded after learning that the finalists delved into such matters as oppression in Syria and the horrors of civil war in Lebanon. Because there's little in Arab societies to be cheerful about, replied one judge, Mohammed Bennis, a sophisticated Moroccan poet and critic. But who, asked another reporter, are these authors? Are they just emigres who reinforce foreign stereotypes about Arabs? That got the panel going. No, the judges shot back, the shortlist isn't emigre literature, even though some of the writers have been forced to live abroad. THEN CAME the inevitable hint of inter-Arab jealousies. Why hadn't a single book from the Maghreb countries made the shortlist? Because entries came from 18 Arab countries, the judges said, and 18 into six doesn't go. Perhaps the most encouraging sign was that no one during this hour of debate mentioned either the US or Israel - still less sought to blame them for the Arab world's cultural woes. The finalists in this inaugural contest include two prominent Egyptian writers. Baha Taher was nominated for Sunset Oasis and Mekkaoui Said for Swan Song. Also on the shortlist are two Lebanese authors, Jabbour Douaihy for June Rain and May Menassa for Walking in the Dust. Jordanian Elias Farkouh won a place in the final round with The Land of Purgatory, while Syrian Khaled Khalifa was cited for In Praise of Hatred. Each finalist will receive $10,000. It's no accident that the prize is based in Abu Dhabi, the capital of one of the few Arab societies it is possible to be upbeat about. Not content with oozing oil and gas from every pore, Abu Dhabi is going flat out to become the cultural center of the Middle East. The city is to host a new Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry, not to mention an outpost of the Louvre. Arab reluctance to translate Western works is reciprocated: Western publishers hesitate to issue novels from the Mideast. So an added bonus to this new prize is that Tetra Pak heiress Sigrid Rausing, who owns U.K. publishers Granta and Portobello, has pledged to fund an English translation of the winner. No doubt squalls lie ahead, as this or that mullah or authoritarian regime proscribes this or that winning novel. Yet if stable and open societies are ever to emerge in the Middle East, the key battles must be fought with ideas, and by Arabs themselves. If ever there were a role for the right kind of socially engaged novel, it is here. The writer is a former UK diplomat and member of parliament, a critic for Bloomberg News and an unpaid adviser to the Arab fiction prize. His brief stay in Abu Dhabi was funded by the Emirates Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own.