Saudi Arabia's Cultural Literacy Crisis
Saudi Arabia is democratizing. In 2019 for the first time ever women are driving, the cinemas are open, and young people are mixing in the streets and in restaurants. The Kingdom is investing like never before in broadening its economy and establishing a private sector. And, importantly, they have invested deeply into enhanced educational opportunities for its young people.
Like much of the Middle East, Africa, and the world's developing economies, Saudi Arabia is banking that diversification, globalization, and education are the keys to more prosperity, in their case, from sources other than oil. While this is all true, it's unlikely to happen without one other crucial ingredient: cultural literacy.
What is cultural literacy? It's the imbued cultural ethos of intellectual stimulation, of wanting to read, to learn, to satisfy one's questions and curiosities, and to translate that knowledge into inventiveness and innovation. It's something that in the west has been incentivized now for generations through the Protestant work ethic to the point it's now imbued as a fundamental tenet of our culture: reading, learning and exploration are good, and in the west nobody would question it.
Many believe it's the single most important key to growing an economy. As in school, it's often less about the resources put in front of a child, and more often whether or not the child is surrounded by forces encouraging it to use them. In the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, whether that same cultural ethos will so easily emerge as the country reforms is still in question. It's easy for those in the west to forget that for much of the world where deference to authority is more the cultural norm, establishing an ethos of broad-based intellectual curiosity may not come as easily.
To underscore the challenge Saudi Arabia faces in this area, consider the following:
There are barely 80 libraries in the whole of Saudi Arabia, compared to 120,000 libraries in the United States. The USA has a population approximately 10 times that of Saudi Arabia.
This disparity is even greater than it appears when we consider the disproportionate use of libraries by children. Saudi Arabia’s population is significantly younger, with a substantially larger share of the population under age 18.
The “population catchment” for libraries in the United States is approximately 2,500 people, whereas in Saudi Arabia that figure is around 360,000 people. In a city the size of Washington DC one would expect over 260 libraries based on American standards, and fewer than 2 by Saudi standards.
The majority of schools do not have libraries in Saudi Arabia, and bookstores are few and far between.
According to a report cited in the Arab News, an Arab child reads an average of just 6 minutes per year for pleasure, in comparison to a western child who reads an average of 12,000 minutes per year.
The same report claims adults in the Arab world read, on average, one quarter of one page of a book per year. American adults, by contrast, read an average of 11 books per year, while British adults read about 7.
Saudi women notoriously limit their reading to Arabic women’s magazines. Students at Saudi universities are increasingly opting to take online courses because the requirements for reading and note taking are less rigorous.
Several articles suggest that there is a widespread belief in Saudi Arabia that reading is excessively time consuming, and that “getting a quick synopsis off the web” and “screen adaptations” are more interesting.
The discrepancy between the United States and many Arab nations in voluntary reading is even greater than the discrepancy in education or literacy and it may yet be the greatest challenge to economic reforms in those countries.
While improving education and the speed at which people have access to information is important, it seems like it will do little to actually transform Saudi Arabia without a more substantive shift toward emphasizing real genuine curiosity and ambition regardless of the medium. Most learning is done as the result of choices and experiences outside the classroom, and emphasizing technology exclusively for its ability to provide access to information quickly only undermines the real objective of getting people to want to continuously learn and broaden their horizons. Similarly, no amount of formal education can make up for the discrepancy between 12,000 minutes of reading per year and 6 minutes.