A decade ago, the UN’s Arab Human Development Report made waves when it found that “The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates.” The Report also noted that the Arab world had become a scientific desert:
Arab countries have some of the lowest levels of research funding in the world. R&D [research and development] expenditure as a percentage of GDP was a mere 0.4 for the Arab world in 1996, compared to 1.26 in 1995 for Cuba, 2.35 in 1994 for Israel, and 2.9 for Japan. Science and technology output is quantifiable and measurable in terms of the number of scientific papers per unit of population. The average output of the Arab world per million inhabitants is roughly 2 percent of that of an industrialized country.
The Report was valuable because it changed discourse: While so many Western activists made any number of excuses about why Arabs had fallen behind other populations in the world, the UN report was written by Arabs and put facts above politics.
While there has been a great deal of progress during the past decade, alas, when it comes to reading, a new report suggests that Arabs are again falling behind. According to Al-Arabiya coverage of the Arab Thought Foundation’s report:
An Arab individual on average reads a quarter of a page a year compared to the 11 books read by an American and seven books by a British person… Another survey on reading habits in the Middle East in April 2011 made for a depressing read. Only one in five read on a regular basis and among those under 25 ─ nearly 65 per cent of the 3,667 questioned by Yahoo! Maktoob Research ─ about one in three seldom or never read a book for pleasure. The survey’s results shows similar reading habits across countries. In an Arab League table of readers by nations, the United Arab Emirates placed fifth behind Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and Iraq. In the UAE, just 22 percent of people described themselves as regular readers. A general lack of educational opportunities in poor Arab countries can also add to these facts. Research for the Arab League region estimates that about 100 million people ─ almost one in three – struggle to read and write. A 2011 UNESCO report found that in the UAE, one in 10 people is illiterate.
The Middle East is a bastion of conspiracy theories, a trend made worse by the absence of critical thinking. If President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are serious about a new beginning, perhaps it is time to recognize a basic problem and promote education first and foremost in the Arab Middle East. Pumping rock music via Radio Sawa and giving billions in aid, mostly siphoned into generals’ and middle men’ bank accounts, simply no longer cuts it.