Making reading a sticky habit in UAE

Following His Highness Sheikh Mohammed’s announcement that 2016 is the year of reading in the UAE, Vision compiles the most significant ideas submitted by the public to make reading a popular and societal habit. These ideas have been debated by the '100 retreat', which is a group of 100 most important UAE national figures

There was something unusual in the air when, in early December, the UAE leadership declared 2016 to be the country’s “Year of Reading”. So often, and not just in Dubai, initiatives like this are announced in a storm of positive press and left to bubble along in the background, never really achieving their laudable aims. But Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, had other ideas. He shifted the gauntlet from well-meaning politicians and literary organisations to the public. 

“Dear brothers and sisters, ever since 2016 was declared the year of reading in the UAE, we have been receiving many ideas and opinions on how to achieve this objective,” he tweeted. “We need nationwide brainstorming via the hashtag ‘ReadingYear’ to come up with the best ideas on how to turn reading into a popular habit among our youth.”

And the people of the UAE stepped up via Twitter and Instagram. A Library of the World in the UAE was suggested, with “a reading centre of excellence with Islamic and global archives.” And there was a proposal that small public libraries should be built across the country for both adults and children, which could invite storytellers from all over the world. 

Many suggested mimicking reading and literacy projects that work well in other countries - Japan has had success with building reading skills via comics. There was a call to emulate London's Books About Town project which saw benches shaped as opened books and decorated by illustrators and artists dotted around the city to celebrate reading for enjoyment. Someone else posted a picture of something similarly public: a little telephone booth-style box inviting people to take - or leave - a book. 

Encouragingly, these ideas were immediately discussed by 100 influential Emiratis at a Year Of Reading brainstorm session called the 100 Retreat in early January. During its opening discussions, Sheikh Mohammed’s intentions were immediately clear. “We want reading to be a habit at every school, department, office, household and all facilities, parks and streets. This is where it all begins, in the 100-Retreat,” he said.

Sheikh Mohammed’s words inspired immediate action across the spectrum of public, private, education, media and public sectors. Official reading clubs will be started across the country, run by volunteers. A reading competition in co-operation with local media was announced, along with Emirati publishing awards that extend to a private, corporate and public library category to increase the awareness of the libraries that do exist in the UAE. 

And Year of Reading doesn’t stop with actual books. A programme of audiobook expansion, narrated by figures in the media, will be undertaken, as well as a focus on digital and social media, the launch of reading apps and e-publishing platforms, and the digitising of content at universities. Most interestingly, the intention is for reading spaces to be added in offices, with time out permitted for employees to read books. 

Another significant plan announced recently is building the Arab world’s largest library in Dubai, in the shape of an open book. The Mohammed bin Rashid Library in Al Jaddaf, a project that is estimated to cost AED1 billion, will have more than 1.5 million volumes, a million audio books and two million e-books, rendering it the world’s largest electronic collection. It is scheduled to open at the end of 2016.

Dubai is also home to The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the Middle East’s largest literary event, which runs for two weeks from March 1, 2016, and features authors from different genres and countries. The festival has been growing year after year, and had welcomed more than 140 writers, thinkers and speakers from 25 countries in 2015.

“Our aim is to develop a long-term strategy which makes reading a part of the culture, identity and life of our generations,” said Sheikh Mohammed. The hard work starts now.