The UAE has successfully concluded the Year of Reading (2016), which has sparked a new momentum in a culture of reading and seeking knowledge, which are, as the UAE leadership has reiterated repeatedly, the foundations of a prosperous and enlightened nation.
But even as one chapter closed, another is just beginning.
Under the directives of President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the National Reading Law — part of the National Reading Policy (2016-2026) — will build on the achievements and gains made under the Year of Reading through further initiatives and policies, until reading and knowledge are imbibed in UAE society, especially among children.
All indicators point to the fact that the momentum gathered in 2016 can only get more aggressive as the impetus from educators, parents, policymakers and children themselves is on an irreversible path.
Backed by government initiatives and book fairs, the UAE publishing sector has embarked on a period of “considerable growth”, said Isobel Abulhoul, CEO and trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation and director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Based on surveys and reports by the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) and statistics acquired from the National Media Council (NMC), Abulhoul said the publishing industry has witnessed “rapid expansion” over the last few years.
“The reading interests of such a multinational population are diverse and continue to evolve and blossom. After consulting with the [NMC], I understand that approximately 1,418 books were published in the last eleven months [of 2016],” she added.
The EPA has recorded as averaging yearly revenue of Dh2.5 million during their last survey, Abulhoul added, and most of their members are from the SME sector.
“I’m sure that with the new [National] Reading Law, more entrepreneurs will be encouraged to start up publishing companies. The new National Reading Policy instituted by [President] His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan has put reading at the top of agenda. We have already seen a marked dip in illiteracy rates across the Arab world. This will in turn lead to a higher demand for books in Arabic.”
The EPA has stated that the UAE’s national publishing industry is growing at 12 per cent annually and this is reflected in the NMC’s records, which show that 1,017 publishing houses, including bookshops that import and distribute books, exist today in the UAE.
She said the UAE government has set in motion many programmes to support this burgeoning sector. There are more than 30 national and emirate-level programmes to aid the publishing industry.
“It will be a delight to see many more companies — similar to the already successfully established Kalimat, Kuttab, Hud Hud, Motivate, Sail, Explorer Publishers and the recently launched Arabic science-fiction publishing house ‘Makhtoota 5229’ by Emirates Airline Festival of Literature author Noura Al Noman — enter the publishing landscape,” Abulhoul added.
Between January and November 2016, around 15 per cent of the books published in the UAE were in English. Imports of English reading material, however, are much higher, at an estimated 65 per cent.
In 2016, around 86 per cent of the books published in the UAE were in Arabic. “The larger number of Arabic books being published, I am sure, is a result of the government’s steadfast support for reading.”
She also pointed out that the existing collating system does not differentiate between genres. The NMC will be addressing this in the next phase of their development, Abulhoul said.
“However, the children’s publisher Kalimat has published more than 100 books in its first five years, and that number has no doubt multiplied over the past few years, while Kuttab publishes at least 20 new titles a year. This isn’t including the tremendous amount of educational material that is already in production every year. It is also heartening to note that the more established publishers are winning international awards for their excellent books,” she added.
An advantage for UAE-based readers is that locally produced books tend to be comparatively cheaper than imported ones as they don’t carry added-on import and transportation costs. According to Abulhoul, bookshops here “tend to try and sell books at uniform prices, but most also have ongoing promotions for selected books”.
She added: “I believe we are at the beginning of a time of considerable growth, in terms of publishing houses, and numbers of books being published, and of course, of books being read. With the focus from the highest levels of government in the UAE, it is a clear signal of the importance of reading in terms of culture, heritage and education.”
Even outside the UAE, publishers from the emirates are reaching out. Abulhoul explained: “Most of the larger UAE publishers attend the main book fairs both regionally and farther afield. At all of these fairs, rights for titles in other languages are an important element, and this is a sure route to international recognition for books published in the UAE.”
Within the UAE, exchanges between UAE-based and foreign authors also contribute to the development of the sector.
“Certainly, I have noticed at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, a large amount of networking goes on, between Emirati authors and visiting authors. I know that this leads to books from the UAE being selected for translation, or UAE authors being invited to other festivals around the world.
“As well as writers, we have literary agents and publishers attending the annual festival and again, they are always on the lookout for new and fresh novels, or memoirs.
“Book Fairs in the UAE are wonderful events that really bring opportunities for publishers to sell rights to their titles. The EPA is the organisation that can assist in preparing publishers on how to benefit most from these excellent opportunities. All of these cultural events put books into our hands, and introduce us to new and exciting writers, and long may they continue!”
UAE schools are at the vanguard of implementing national reading initiatives as well as launching their own projects, besides routine reading practices. They embraced the Year of Reading in 2016 and told Gulf News that they look forward to contributing to the National Reading Law. Many schools have actively been promoting reading on campus and said the new initiatives will significantly boost their efforts.
Dubai British School
At the beginning of the year, Alison Goulden, the Primary English Leader, ran workshops for parents explaining how at DBS we teach and encourage children to read at school. This included giving the parents ideas and strategies on how to support their child at home. We believe that a joint approach between home and school is fundamental to reading success.
In addition to this, every child in the Primary school has a weekly library lesson in our newly refurbished library where we have displays about local authors and lots of children’s text-related work on show for all to see.
We have adopted a text-based style of planning and teaching, with a particular story at the heart of every ‘Wow’ learning theme.
GEMS Nations Academy in Al Barsha, Dubai
Here in Dubai, we have seen strong encouragement from KHDA [Knowledge and Human Development Authority] for the development of stronger reading skills, in both Arabic and English. There are programmes aimed at schools, like new regulations requiring regular standardised testing in order to better mark the progress of the nation’s students in reading and mathematics, and there are programmes aimed at parents, like the 10Minutes10Days programme initiated by KHDA last April and May. It challenged parents to read to their children for at least 10 minutes per day.
The leaders know that in this digital age, there is a real danger that the migration of our attention to sound-bites and tweets can reduce our capacity for thoughtful and reflective interpretation and problem-solving. Similarly, the flooding of our consciousness with photographic and video representations of the world threatens to crowd out reading as the medium for complex communication and learning. While the book will remain, we hope, a treasured object in our experience of ideas, stories, and culture, the inevitable rise of the digital screen as the medium for information transfer presents a new challenge: to renew our commitment to reading as an essential skill … and as one of life’s most rewarding pleasures.
Sandra Zaher, director at Al Nahda National School for Girls
“The UAE’s focus on reading is laudable, and has only caused us to step up the pace of related programmes at our school. More than 120 of our students participated in the UAE’s National Reading Competition, and 22 of them were even awarded.
One of the most well-loved activities we have to promote reading requires children to dress up as characters in books they’ve read. They then enact scenes from the books. We also regularly organise story writing competitions for children, and the winning stories are published and shelved in the school library.
This year, we presented the Director’s Award to a student in Grade 5 who read 300 pages a day over one particular weekend.
Dr Rishi Padegaonkar, principal at Bright Riders School
Since the launch of the UAE’s Reading Law, we’ve seen children more engaged in their books, and even those who do not like to read now get exposed to more knowledge from their peers. In addition, we’ve seen a greater range of vocabulary being used by our students.
Up to Grade 4, we have students read books and then explain what they have learnt to their classmates. Children in higher grades must act out sections of their books in class, and the best groups get to perform in the school assembly. For this activity, we have assigned a selection of 102 books, both fiction and non-fiction.
Through these reading-associated activities, we find that children are gaining in confidence too.
(Inputs from Samihah Zaman, Staff Reporter)
national publishing industry growth in UAE
publishing houses [that import and distribute books] in UAE
of books published in UAE in 2016 in Arabic
of books published in UAE between January and November 2016 were in English
Average yearly revenue from publishing in UAE
(Source: Emirates Publishing Association and National Media Council)
Milestones in promoting reading culture in UAE
In 2016, the Arab Reading Challenge — launched by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai — galvanised the participation of more than 3.5 million students from different schools in the Arab world who read more than 150 million books. There were a staggering 1,500 other initiatives supporting reading in 2016, launched by schools, government departments and the private sector, under the overarching Year of Reading.
Meanwhile, annual UAE book fairs and literature events — most notably the Sharjah International Book Fair, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, and Abu Dhabi International Book Fair — continue to grow year on year. UAE-based professionals from the local publishing industry say reading initiatives and policies will only sustain this expansion.
Other landmark developments, such as the Sharjah “publishing city”, which will be a tax-free haven for publishers and book dealers, as well as a planned UAE library association, are also under way.
Another milestone, also announced in 2016, will be the Dh1-billion Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Library in Dubai, holding more than 4.5 million printed books, audio books and e-books, making it the largest of its kind in the Arab world.
The steps towards a nation that reads as effortlessly as it breathes are bearing fruit.
The UAE is already the fourth best-read country among 22 Arab countries surveyed in the region, according to the Arab Reading Index 2016, released in December 2016.
The average UAE reader spends 57 hours reading 24 books per year, 18 of them in Arabic language with the remaining eight books in foreign languages, the index suggests.
In the coming decade, by the time the national reading targets are to be met, the UAE should have raised its output of content from the current 400 books per year to 4,000 books in 2026.