By Bernd Debusmann
Good news from the Arab world is an increasingly rare commodity. But there are exceptions.
Take the United Arab Emirates, where a determined drive is underway to close the knowledge gap with the West and restore Arab learning to its past glory.
The aim: re-establish the House of Wisdom, which flourished in Baghdad in the Arab world’s golden age. From 800 to 1,500 AD, the Arab world had no rivals in the study of science and philosophy, and fostered discoveries from algebra to optics.
Arabs established the world’s first universities and hospitals. It is an era largely forgotten and ignored in the West.
The latest steps towards a lofty goal that Emirati leaders first articulated a decade ago are also being made by the rulers of Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, and Dubai, the second-largest and most flamboyant of the seven emirates that make up the country.
In Abu Dhabi, UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan launched a 10-year initiative in May to turn Emirati citizens into habitual book readers.
So far, they are not: according to the national survey that preceded the program, 70 percent of the Emirate population do not read any books, the average Emirati household owns just 20 books and half the country’s school and university students are not in the habit of regular reading.
A National Reading Law to be promulgated later this year is meant to drive the reading rate to 80 percent among students and 50 percent among adults by 2026.
One of the ways to reach that aim is to establish public libraries and book cafés in the shopping malls where Emirati families spend much of their leisure time.
Another: issue “knowledge bags” to new parents with a selection of books to read to their children so they develop the reading habit early.
While Abu Dhabi officials are putting the final touches on the Reading Law, construction is underway in Dubai on what will be the biggest library in the Arab world.
In line with the Dubai government’s penchant for spectacular, attention-grabbing structures, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library will be in the shape of an enormous open book. It is planned to hold 4.5 million books, 2.5 million of them digital.
Municipality planners forecast that the library will attract nine million visitors a year – more than the annual two million who pay to be lifted to the observation deck of the world’s tallest building, the 830-meter Bourj Khalifa.
A few days before Abu Dhabi went public with the reading initiative, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum launched the Dubai Future Foundation, a research institution backed by a $270 million endowment intended to hasten a return to the golden age.
“Arabs and Muslims established the House of Wisdom in the ninth century to serve as a global model, be a beacon for the sciences and a home for innovators from all over the world,” Sheikh Mohammed said.
“Today, we are in dire need of a House of Wisdom for the 21st century, to recapture the past glories, keep up with modern changes, shape the future and innovate to serve humanity.”
As ambitious goals go, this belongs very high on the list, more so because it is pursued by the leaders of a country as young as the UAE — at 44 years old, a mere toddler of a place — whose founders had little formal education. In 1972, when Ras al-Khaimah joined six other emirates to form the United Arab Emirates, the new country had just 45 university graduates.
Progress has been swift. Today, there are 108 universities and colleges in the UAE, which has been allocating between a fifth and a quarter of federal government spending to education over many years. The country’s literacy rate, at 94 percent, ranks above that of the traditional seats of Arab learning — Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
But here is a figure that shows there is a long road towards a new House of Wisdom: Between 1901 and last year, 26 organisations and 874 individuals won the Nobel Prize. Only 10 have gone to Arabs.
(This article was first published in The Arab Weekly.)
Bernd Debusmann is a former columnist for Reuters who has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries (and lived in nine). He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.