“Books are the quietest and most constant friends; they are the most accessible and the wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers” Charles William Eliot

The famous American writer and illustrator Dr Seuss was quoted as saying: “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” The UAE is going places, to space, Mars and beyond. The country is moving in directions that will continue to push the boundaries of our lives, our abilities, and the way we see the world, so how do we get there?

Well to start with, all the initiatives that are being put in place for the future of the UAE are based on an idea, and where do ideas come from? I believe they come from people who are able to look beyond what is possible and see something better, something our leaders have been doing since before the day we become a Federation on 2 December 1971. 44 years later the UAE is a thriving and established Nation, how do we continue to spread that process and the ideology to constantly be thinking about growing into the unknown?

In 2015 the “Year of Innovation” was established to push government entities to bring innovation to the forefront of their strategies, one of the major initiatives was that every government entity should incorporate a “Chief Innovation Officer” into their leadership teams. At the beginning of the year, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan UAE President, Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and Ruler of Abu Dhabi announced that 2016 would be the “Year of Reading.”

HH Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan is quoted as saying: “Our goal is to consolidate the UAE as a global capital of culture, bring about lifelong behavioural change and immune next generations culturally.” Our President’s words tackle the heart of why reading is so critical within our society, it isn’t simply a matter of ensuring we become better readers or read more books, it’s about what society creates when you embed a strong culture of reading within our day to day lives.

“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries”
Rene Descartes

Reading tackles issues such as illiteracy, which in a global context declines in reading rates has started to create. What reading achieves is to get people to think, each book is a journey, a new way of exploring the world, and a way of learning things beyond the lessons you learnt in school or at work. The more you read the more you begin to question what was, what is, and what could be. Things are no longer black and white, things are not always right or wrong, different opinions exist beyond our own and reading about them unlocks those doors within our minds. More importantly, it teaches us how to question things.

I remember the first class I took at graduate school was Critical Analytical Thinking, it was a class I did pretty poorly in because I would just take information that was given to me at face value. I more or less lacked the ability to think deeper about a situation, or problem, and question the information that was being given to me. We read strange headlines in the papers all the time, however we don’t really stop to question what was being shared and why, we don’t say “wait, hold on, that can’t be right”, we simply digest.

We are what we eat, and if we eat nothing our bodies become weak. The same goes for reading, it is fuel for the brain, and if we read nothing, our minds become weak and we proceed to simply accept information because our minds are not strong enough to process it and we do not have the stamina to think through issues, to find solutions, and develop action plans to build a better tomorrow. That’s why I believe reading is so critical to our society, it creates a source of strength and confidence within our citizens and residents, it creates a wealth of knowledge to base our economy on beyond the natural resources that has played a primary role in building our country during the past 44 years. It creates a source of wealth that knows no limits.

Reading is such an important source of wealth that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, called for a brainstorming session of one hundred of the UAE’s leading government officials, business executives, media personalities, thought leaders, and youth. The brainstorming session named: “The 100 Retreat” was covered strictly by social media influencers who were responsible for asking questions, and ensuring that voices and ideas from the community were relayed and heard.

The brainstorming session leaders were split into separate tables to cover a certain sector or topic, for example one table was dedicated to the role of the private sector in promoting reading within the country, another table was dedicated to reading for non-Arabic speakers, and one to understand the role media and journalists play in promoting reading within it’s strategy and content.

As an attendee, I covered the event for social media moving from table to table and listening to various leaders discuss their ideas; this was an enriching experience in and of itself. I heard Emirati writer and star of the Ramadan Show “Min Gal Wadal” discuss how technological applications such as “Blinkist” is changing the way we interact with books and our approach to reading, I listened to UAE’s youngest Emirati author and recently appointed UAE youth council member, Dubai Abulhoul, proudly take her fellow members through her personal journey of reading to become a better writer, and I interviewed Gulf Today’s Editor-In-Chief Aysha Taryam about her thoughts on the UAE wide book clubs, calendars to track reading progress, and her views on the empowerment that comes with reading. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, to have that much brainpower in one room, at one time, focusing solely on one issue. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of and to witness.

After about an hour of brainstorming, UAE’s leaders including, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, His Highness Lt General Shiekh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, His Highness Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, His Highness Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, and His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development joined each at the tables to share their thoughts on the progress they had made.

What made the brainstorming session that much more important was at the end the brainstorming session leaders from each of the tables had to present their plan of action to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. It wasn’t enough to come up with great ideas, as a group they had to have a clear path to execute those ideas, and tangible ways to measure the impact that their strategy would have on creating a culture within their respective sectors.

“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark” Victor Hugo

It’s pretty much the story of the UAE, ideas should always be ready to be act upon, and “The100 Retreat” was no different, everyone left there with a plan in place and a year to turn those plans into actions. Only a few weeks after the brainstorming session ended the first action was initiated, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Library announced that it would house over one and a half millions books, making it the largest library in the Arab World. This action alone sets the bar for what’s to come, and sends a clear message to the world that 2015 might have been the start of the “Year of Reading”, but it was only the start of something much bigger, a life long investment of learning and knowledge.

The greatest impact I think reading can have is on our youth and I think that is where a bulk of the investment in reading lies. To give the next generation the necessary tools and knowledge they need to prosper, we have to instill a mentality that if you don’t know something there is a book out there that can teach you how, that can fill your mind with the methods and process to doing pretty much anything you want to do in this world. I can think of nothing more empowering.

I can feel that power in my children as they learn to read, they learn new things, they grow more confident, they start to compare and contrast, they identify things in the real world based on what they read, and they start to ask “Why?” a lot more often. It’s their brain in action, they are thinking and engaging with what they learn, and that is what I believe the whole point of reading is based on, to create a society of thinkers.

In the Apple commercial Steve Jobs said: “It is the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who DO!” Steve Jobs stressed the word think, and when you look back at history, everything started with a single thought. From the Declaration of Independence, to the formation of UAE, to the civil rights movement, female empowerment, or how to construct a faster more efficient computer, these ideas were implemented by people who used their minds to move beyond the realities of their present world, and to challenge what others said was impossible and achieve it.

Reading does that, it changes people, it gives them the power to dream, it gives them the confidence to believe that anything is possible with the right knowledge and the right environment to bring their ideas to light. Reading gives people the ability to question the status quo, to see things the way they are and to say things can be better. Reading gives people an opportunity to shape their destinies; it gives them hope to believe. What I’ve realized through the “Year of Reading” so far is it’s about much more than simply picking up a book, it’s the journey we embark on while reading it, and what happens after we finish the last chapter. So here’s to the “Year of Reading”, to building a generation of people crazy enough to think they can change the world, I look forward to watching them do it.

* This article was originally published in Shawati Magazine