The World Bank credits higher literacy rates to "healthier populations, less crime, greater economic growth and higher employments rates". Reading, it says, is "foundational for acquiring advanced skills".
It makes sense, then, that the UAE, one of the world's fastest-developing countries, has seen a remarkable growth in the literacy rate in recent decades. In 1975, it stood at 54 per cent in people 15 years old and above. In 2019, it was 98 per cent. That jump took the country 44 years. The equivalent took the UK an estimated 350.
It is down to the Emirates' huge investment in education and people, and testimony to the hard work of teachers, librarians, writers and many others.
This week the UAE got another spectacular asset in the mission to elevate the status of reading, when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, inaugurated the Mohammed bin Rashid Library in Al Jaddaf, Dubai.
The building is vast, shaped like a book stand and cost Dh1 billion ($272.3 million) to build. The design incorporates technology and artificial intelligence to make the library as accessible as possible, including robots to help visitors and an electronic book retrieval system. It contains more than a million print and digital volumes, 73,000 music scores and 75,000 videos (as well as many other media), organised in nine sections: the General Library; the Emirates Library; the Young Adults Library; the Children’s Library; the Special Collection Library; the Maps and Atlases Library; the Media and Arts Library; the Business Library and the Periodical Library.
On Twitter, Sheikh Mohammed wrote: “Today we launch a cultural and intellectual edifice for our new generations, through which we aim to promote reading, spread knowledge and support researchers and scientists." He went on to say: "The economy needs knowledge, politics needs wisdom, and nations need knowledge, and all of that can be found in books."
The new library will promote these ideals in a spectacular manner. But it is not the only domain in which the mission is being carried out. In 2017, the UAE designated March as Reading Month. This year's saw book clubs, temporary libraries and free digital subscriptions pop up across to the country. The 14th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature took place this year. Sharjah International Book Fair reported almost 1.7 million visitors in 2021, its 40th edition. The newer Abu Dhabi International Book Fair welcomed more than 1,000 publishers from 80 countries in 2022.
Many of them were from the Arab world, a point that underlines a particularly important role of the UAE's literary scene. Authors, books and libraries are often among the first victims of history's worst epochs, from the destruction of the library of Alexandria to book burnings in the Nazi era. Not all threats to them are as dramatic, however, but they can still chip away at the fragile sector. From regional declining standards and interest in Arabic teaching to a lack of support for emerging regional writers, the Arab world is battling a number of threats to its long literary tradition.
A safe haven in the region can preserve it through tough times, as well as increase its potential. Libraries guard treasures, but also offer the environment for new ones to emerge. Dubai's new library opens its doors to the public on Thursday. We do not know them yet, but among the visitors will be world-renowned authors in the making, who now have one more tool to help them on the rocky but rewarding road to becoming a writer.