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Arabs read 35 hours per year, reveals survey

The top five countries in terms of reading were Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, and Jordan

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Arabs read 35 hours per year on average, according to the results of the Arab Reading Index, produced through a partnership between the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (MBRF) and the Regional Bureau for Arab States of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The Arab Reading Index is the first of its kind in the region; it is a scientific and standardised tool that tracks reading patterns in the Arab World, all in a bid to assign quantifiable numerical data to the process of cultural development in the region.

Jamal bin Huwaireb, managing director of MBRF, said: “We had always heard these statistics being cited, claiming that Arabs only read six minutes on average every year and that, statistically, it takes 80 Arabs to read one book every year. We were very sceptical and sought to determine the source of these statistics only to find that there was virtually no sound evidence to support them. This is why we launched the Arab Reading Index, and set out to find the accurate data ourselves – and from all Arab countries.” 

The survey conducted to put the Index together canvassed 148,000 people across all 22 Arab-League countries. “The sample is massive,” said Dr. Hany Torky, chief technical advisor of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); “normally, a sample would be 1,000 respondents per country, which means we only needed 22,000 individuals for the Index to be considered reliable. We had 148,000.”

“The Index is not a statistic, it is a scientific tool with strictly applied standards,” Dr. Torky explained. “We used electronic polling in order to reach segments of society we couldn’t have reached otherwise – namely, non-students. It usually takes two to three years to develop such a sophisticated index; we did it in just one year, obliging a specific request from H.E. Jamal bin Huwaireb.”

Dr. Najoua Ghriss, Professor at the Higher Institute of Education and Continuous Training in Tunisia and main author of the Arab Reading Index, said: “It is important to have many initiatives to improve education in the region, but it is more important to find ways to synergistically integrate them. I believe the Arab Knowledge Project succeeded in doing just that; it created an infrastructure to foster knowledge and sustainable development. Seeking knowledge without reading is simply inconceivable. This is why, if we are serious in our efforts to spread knowledge, we must establish tools to measure and monitor reading. This is where the Arab Reading Index comes in; its legitimacy comes from the fact that it was borne out of the Arab Reading Challenge.”

The Arab Knowledge Index revealed that the average number of books read across all Arab countries amounted to 16 per year – seven of them were read at schools and universities, while the remaining nine were read in respondents’ free time. Moreover, the average number of Arabic books read was 11, while the average number of foreign-language books was nearly six. Meanwhile, the 35 hours that respondents spent reading every year comprised 15 hours in schools or university and 20 hours outside academic institutions.

The Index measured accessibility to books in each of the countries at home, in school, and in society in general – in other words, it measured how much families, school administrations, and societies encourage and facilitate reading across the Arab World. On average, 46% of respondents asserted that they have access to books at home, 52% enjoy access at school, while 37% felt that society at large encourages reading.

The Arab Knowledge Index also examined the effect that personal traits have on people’s reading habits – namely, the ability to read (literacy rate), motives to read, and personal views and opinions. The polls revealed that 65% of respondents view reading as a necessity, and 70% of them consider it to be no less important than education.

The top five countries in terms of reading were Lebanon with a score of 90, followed by Egypt with 89, Morocco with 87, the UAE with 82, and Jordan with 71.

The Index also revealed that the population of the 22 Arab-League countries favours digital means of reading over traditional ones, where 16 of the 35 hours spent on reading every year were dedicated to reading paper books while 19 hours were dedicated to digital. In terms of paper material, polls showed that 28% of them were books, 20% were novels, 20% were specialised magazines, 17% were newspapers, and 14% were comic books. As for digital sources, 23% of read material was on social media, another 23% on news websites, 21% were e-books, 15% e-magazines, 9.3% blogs, and 7.78% professional networks.

Commenting on the discrepancy between digital and paper reading sources in the Arab world, Jamal bin Huwaireb said: “In Europe, paper is making a comeback and actually surpassing digital material. Over there, they publish by the thousands and millions, whereas in our region, we publish by the hundreds. This is why Arab readers resort to e-books and other digital sources. We must make it a priority to print more books and to make them more affordable to all segments of society.”

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