Knowledge Summit 2016: Reading could change the economy

The highly anticipated 2016 Arab Reading Index represents a sterling effort to document reading in the region, but what will it take to truly elevate literacy in the Arab world? Natasha D’Souza investigates

The Knowledge Summit 2016 - with the theme ‘Knowledge: Present and Future’ - convened a distinguished audience of dignitaries, academics, futurists, decision-makers and civil servants to discuss key literacy and education reforms, and the role of technology.

The third edition of the summit, organised by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (MBRF) under the theme: ‘Knowledge: Present and Future’ was inaugurated by Deputy Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, together with MBRF Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The socio-economic impact of reading

“A society that values reading values the importance of an intelligent civilisation. Such a society has the intellectual capability to drive socio-economic development and develop a sustainable knowledge economy, in keeping with the country’s Vision 2021,” said Jamal bin Huwaireb, Managing Director of the MBRF, in his opening remarks at a ceremony.

Lessons from Australia

Former Australian PM Tony Abbot, in an one-to-one session with CNN’s Becky Anderson on the first day of the summit, shared his personal experiences with enhancing reading culture and access to education among Australia’s aboriginal communities. “I’m a practical person, I place value on tried-and-true techniques. Get the foundations right: reading, writing and counting. Every indication tells me Dubai and the UAE as a whole is a successful place and is on the right track.”

Local efforts: the Arab Reading Index

This year witnessed significant governmental efforts to advocate and strengthen the role of reading in the UAE and the Arab world. In May, Shaikh Khalifa launched the National Strategy for Reading, with a 10-year goal to create a nation of avid lifelong readers, followed by the recent successful culmination of the Arab Reading Challenge which “showed the world that knowledge remains the Arabs’ greatest weapon,” in the word of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai.

The second day of the summit saw the announcement of the highly-anticipated results of the Arab Reading Index, a joint initiative launched earlier this year by the MBRF and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Bin Huwaireb emphasized how this Index, which greatly exceeded its original sample size of 20,000 participants, refutes the earlier claims that an Arab individual reads an average of quarter a page per year compared to Western counterparts.

According to Dr Najoua Ghriss, Professor at the Higher Institute of Education in Tunisia: “The Reading Index is needed to take social and economic development to a higher level. We can't envision a community or society acquiring knowledge without being a reading community. With this Index, we can now diagnose the situation and build remedial strategies."

The future of literacy

While the Index represents a sterling debut scientific effort to document reading in the region, what will it take to truly elevate literacy in the Arab world? “While knowledge and education are key to sustainable development, the quality and relevance of information should be a priority,” noted Sophie De Caen, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Deputy Regional Director for the Regional Bureau for Arab States in UNDP. Referring to the recently released sixth edition of the Arab Human Development Report, she added that while basic literacy has improved vastly in many countries regionally, “knowledge requires a lot more than that.”

To advance opportunities for young people, education reform which addresses universal access, information quality and relevance is critical. She added, "Young people in the Arab region have increasing access to information, but the quality of information has been uneven and too often there are mismatches between education received and demands of an ever-changing economic environment that is the main driver in many Arab countries." 

knowledge summit 2016
The Arab Reading Index panel convened in Dubai at the 2016 Knowledge Summit event

Key stats from the event

- The Arab Reading Index spanned 148,000 individuals from 22 Arab countries. The UAE ranks fourth with a score of 82 per cent, with Lebanon (90), Egypt (89), and Morocco (87) taking the top three spots

- Results show that UAE readers spend an average of 51 hours a year reading, with each reader devouring 24 books every year. This exceeds the regional average of 35 hours and 16 books per year

- E-books and electronic reading materials are more prevalent in the Arab World than print. Bin Huwaireb noted that making more affordable printed reading material would help to encourage reading