Saudi Arabia: Literacy and the Written Word


As a child I cherished the nightly routine of my mother reading to me before I went to bed.  She would select a children’s book and depending on the size would either read the entire book in one setting or a chapter an evening.  My mother would read the book imitating the voices of the different characters with great afflictions and enthusiasm.  She read the gamut from Grimm’s Fairytales to Rebecca of Sunny brook Farm to Black Beauty and beyond.  Those nightly stories only cemented my own love to read as I grew older, learned my alphabet and how to pronounce and understand words on my own.  Of course I continued this tradition with my son and the same is done with my grandsons.  Books are treasure and expand the imagination and the curious mind.

Youth literacy rate is defined as the percentage of people between 15 – 24 years of age who can, with understanding, read and write a short simple statement on their everyday life.  According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Institute for Statistics, the total percentile for boys and girls combined is as follows:

Year    Value

1992   87.86

2000   95.91

2004   95.85

2009   97.60


Whereas for adults (male and female) counted as the percent of 15 years old and above is:


Year Value









The good news is that the literacy rates are increasing.  But an underlying question however is whether Saudis actually read books?

I think Saudi woman sums up the lack of reading by Saudi nationals in a blog post she wrote back in May 2008 on the subject.  The overall majority of Saudi citizens simply do not choose to read whether in Arabic, French, English or other languages unless it is the Holy Quran or some other type of an Islamic book.

Reading non-fiction or fiction remains an anemethia.  The majority of Saudi children do not experience their mother or father reading books to them as a young child.  They will experience having the Quran read to them and learning verses of the Quran as a small child.  Nothing wrong with that.  Yet I feel the lack of having books read and then reading them later in life fails to wake up and stimulate the mind to the fulleset.

I have also spoken to Saudi students abroad and the teachers who teach them.  As part of their English language learning experience prior to beginning  University, the Saudi English student is expected to read assigned books and both discuss the book and write a book report.  This has been a difficult task to the student who has not had the experience of growing up  with such tasks as part of his or her education or life.

Most all-Arabic bookstores in Saudi Arabia are text books, Qurans and Islamic books.  Jarir bookstore does offer more variety and not only with books.  It also carries many electronic supplies too.  Jarir offers a variety of books in both Arabic and English.

In concluding this post, I’d really like to hear from Saudis.  Were they read to as children?  What did their parents read to them?  How often and what kind of books do they like to read now?  Yes, I know that many magazines are popular but I’d like to hear about the books.  As a Saudi, do you feel comfortable and confident to write a review about a book you have read?

24 Responses

  1. “The overall majority of Saudi citizens simply do not choose to read whether in Arabic, French, English or other languages unless it is the Holy Quran or some other type of an Islamic book.”

    This is not accidental. 80% of Saudi school curriculum remains non-scientific.

    Many princes held annual memorizing the Quran competition and the winners receive hefty financial compensation. The don’t hold scientific, creative, imaginative and love stories writing and reading. People who can imagine, like Hamza Kashgari live in solitary confinement, ban from traveling, writing or talk to the media.

    Most interesting and enlightening fiction and non-fiction books, magazine and newspapers are censored. More than 400 thousand websites, including CDHR’s are blocked. In short, people have very little choice but to read religious based and oriented books because that’s what’s emphasized, praised and rewarded.

    Like all tyrannical regimes, the system’s survivability depends on keeping people living in the dark. That’s changing, because most Saudis are getting smarter and more creative than the system and the incredibly antiquated methods of ruling.

  2. Unfortunately Saudis don’t emphasize on reading that much,very ccontrary to Islamic teachings.the prophet encouraged pursuing knowledge even.

    Saudis should be aware of the ever evolving world!

  3. Weird that Saudis didn’t remember the very first verse revealed to the Prophet was Iqra’ meaning Read!

  4. Dr. Alyami,

    As always, you are right on! I would like to add that, sadly, this seems to be the story throughout in the muslim world from Azerbaijan to Malaysia to Uganda.

    The spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article: Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles. Of the fifty most-published of these universities, twenty-six are in Turkey, nine are in Iran, three each are in Malaysia and Egypt, Pakistan has two, and Uganda, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan each have one.

    There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. But only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999).

    Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature. Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together.

    In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”

    Comparative metrics on the Arab world tell the same story. Arabs comprise 5 percent of the world’s population, but publish just 1.1 percent of its books, according to the U.N.’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report. Between 1980 and 2000, Korea granted 16,328 patents, while nine Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., granted a combined total of only 370, many of them registered by foreigners. A study in 1989 found that in one year, the United States published 10,481 scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four.

    This may sound like the punch line of a bad joke, but when Nature magazine published a sketch of science in the Arab world in 2002, its reporter identified just three scientific areas in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction.

  5. yes, my mom read to me, and my father sometimes put us to bed and invented stories off the cuff.
    But my mother taught me to read when I was 4 and since then I never looked back. Gifts of books are common for birthdays or Christmas or as a reward.
    Of course we also read a lot of comics. Comic books in Europe were a lot better than the ones in America used to be.
    I loved books about evolution and dinosaurs when I was 8 years old, and then I went on to cavemen, and ancient Egypt.
    I discovered that the grown-ups part of the library had much better, more serious, more detailed books than the children’s part, and as my father gave me his library card I could borrow books from there.

    When you travel in the London Underground almost everybody carries a book.
    In the Netherlands there are station libraries now, where you can borrow a book for the train journey. And for travelling I now have a Nook with about 400 books on it.

    One of my problems when moving is my 2000 books…. And I love them all….?

  6. Sorry people, if your comment does not appear: stuff is getting lost in spam again. WordPress is acting up weird.
    Please have patience.

  7. One of the only Saudis I know (from blogs) often posts about books she is reading.

  8. One stark contrast I noticed right away in Bahrain is that most of the houses I visited did not have any visible books on display…no bookshelves or even books laying around. Of course most houses had qurans and possibly a Hadith collection but quite often these were dusty on high shelves. One thing that was in abundance in almost every house were tabloid type magazines. They seemed to be the main source of reading material.

    Again…this was my experience living and visiting homes over 23 years. Getting my own children to read has been quite a struggle because I was up against an education system that does not encourage reading at all. No weekly book reports, no trips to the library…in fact many of my children’s various govt schools did not even have libraries or had very small ones that went unused according to my children.

    One thing I found quite telling through 5 children going through that education system is that they never were asked to write stories…poems…writing and reading go hand in hand. The more you read the more vocabulary you learn and utilize…and the more creative and open minded is your thinking and writing. If your education system does not encourage reading…or even writing…then it is not interested in creativity…in asking yourself to think beyond memorization. My children never had to answer questions like, in your opinion what do think….etc. When I brought them here my youngest had a hard time with this in school. The teachers thought he was just not doing class work, being stubborn…but I had to explain that he simply had no experience with that simple question in school…only by what I try to instill at home.

    Again this may not be everyone’s experience in the middle east…but it was mine with my children’s in Bahrains govt. schools.

  9. In the US, small children start with “board books”, pages made out of stiff cardboard so they don’t tear the pages. Are there such books in Arab countries? Also aren’t pictures forbidden/restricted in Islam? If so, how can you have interesting books for children?

    Thanks so much Bedu for this post. I adore reading to children. I love English literature and my nephew loves animals. I started reading Gerald Durrell books to him when he was probably 4. Now, at 9, he still prefers me to read a G Durrell book to him over watching television.

  10. XM,

    I have had read the article a few times before. I think I may have posted here on AB forum also.

    Towards the middle of the article, you will find the author discuss the primary reasons behind the decline of “science” as a subject in the muslim world. Contrary to popular beliefs, myths and “urban legends” in the islamic world surrounding their decline i.e colonialism was the primary culprit, the author points to elsewhere within the islamic historicity.

    The author traces it back to the rise of the anti-philosophical Asharism school among Sunni Muslims, who comprise the vast majority of the Muslim world. To understand this anti-rationalist movement, we once again turn our gaze back to the time of caliph Mamun, who picked up the pro-science torch lit by the second caliph, Mansur, and ran with it. He responded to a crisis of legitimacy by attempting to undermine traditionalist religious scholars while actively sponsoring a doctrine called Mutazilism that was deeply influenced by Greek rationalism, particularly Aristotelianism.

    To this end, he imposed an inquisition, under which those who refused to profess their allegiance to Mutazilism were punished by flogging, imprisonment, or beheading. But the caliphs who followed Mamun upheld the doctrine with less fervor, and within a few decades, adherence to it became a punishable offense. The backlash against Mutazilism was tremendously successful: by 885 AD, a half century after Mamun’s death, it even became a crime to copy books of philosophy. The beginning of the de-Hellenization of Arabic high culture was underway. By the twelfth or thirteenth century, the influence of Mutazilism was completely marginalized.

    In its place arose the anti-rationalist Ashari school whose increasing dominance is linked to the decline of Arabic science. With the rise of the Asharites, the ethos in the Islamic world was increasingly opposed to original scholarship and any scientific inquiry that did not directly aid in religious regulation of private and public life.

    While the Mutazilites had contended that the Koran was “created” and so God’s purpose for man must be interpreted through reason, the Asharites believed the Koran to be coeval with God — and therefore unchallengeable. At the heart of Ashari metaphysics is the idea of occasionalism, a doctrine that denies natural causality. Put simply, it suggests natural necessity cannot exist because God’s will is completely free. Asharites believed that God is the only cause, so that the world is a series of discrete physical events each willed by God.

    To sum it all up, the author quotes the great Bernard Lewis from his book “What Went Wrong”: “The relationship between Christendom and Islam in the sciences was now reversed. Those who had been disciples now became teachers; those who had been masters became pupils, often reluctant and resentful pupils”. It is both sad and true that the civilization that had produced cities, libraries, and observatories and opened itself to the world had now regressed and become closed, resentful, violent, and hostile to discourse and innovation.

    Oh well. Allah swt Mu’Alim! Mohammed saaw Mu’Alim!

  11. My first gift to F for his 12 b’day was a set of hardy Boys books:-) he had never read one single enid blyton book till he moved to his aunts place. he didn’t even know they existed. he said reading was never considered a pastime during his growing up yrs in KSa , he loved the ratty old lending lib in our town and spent all his money on borrowing books after he went thru my stash. that’s how we became fast friends, going back and forth to the lib and i was his source of enid blyton .soon he branched into his own and became a voracious reader, but i still say i started him on the path of reading:-)

    That’s all it takes a few books to capture a child’s imagination and then there is no stopping them. now with the internet and kindle and such i don’t think anyone in Saudi has to be limited by lack of libraries or books everything is available on the net, download, read and enjoy.

  12. I think every Saudi student in the US (or elsewhere) should try volunteer reading stories to children at a local library or Y. It can be such an enriching and rewarding experience for both.

  13. It was very sad for me to see the lack of books in Saudi homes and especially the lack of interest with teen family members who accompanied me to Jarir for me to get my book fix. I was actually surprised to see the variet of books available in Jarir stores.

  14. I love reading, in fact, it is my hobby. As a kid, I remember going to the public library every week and borrowed 4 books to read in that week. I loved Enid blyton. My teacher used to read books last day of the week and I used to love that class.

    I loved comic books too such as Astrix, Tintin, Archies, including girlie books (I remember Bunty from my childhood). Also enjoyed James Bond books, Agatha Cristie, simple romance of Mills and Boons – ahhh! Yes even Gerald Durrell – Ahh! those were the days. I would still enjoy all those books.

    Now I have my own library. People actually borrow from it so I number them and keep a register.

    These days Kindle and other electronic readers made it easier to carry lots of books. That is good, esp, if your travelling but I love to curl up in bed with good old-fashioned book any day.

  15. I still love to curl up with a good book before I go to sleep. There are so many classic books which can be shared with many nationalities.

    When I was in my governmental career, I found it interesting that many diplomats whom I came to know always wanted to borrow any books I had from Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens).

    Hmmm….as I’m pondering, it seems to me there is a market opportunity here for enterprising writers to write children’s books (in Arabic) for Saudi Arabia. Wonder if a book about “The Adventures of Tripod” based on my own three-legged cat would be of interest? It could educate about the love and joy one can receive from an animal and Tripod has had his fill of adventures and keeps me in smiles.

  16. “The Adventures of Tripod” sounds really cute. I think it would be popular if it was bilingual (Arabic and English). Fun way to even learn English. Not only in KSA but in the Gulf too.

  17. Sarah made a good suggestion, to make it bilingual! That would be fun!

  18. susanne430 said “One of the only Saudis I know (from blogs) often posts about books she is reading.”

    They are a minority who read books.The reading for the only pleasure of reading is not a part of the Saudi culture.

    The reading is not encouraged. There is a lack of public libraries. at Jarir bookstore and Virgin, a space of reading is at the disposal of the public but it is rarely used. while in European countries for example we sat down on the ground to read.

  19. Literacy and reading is really pushed in North America and much of Europe. It engages the brain and broadens one’s mind and imagination. It is one of the most important pleasures and learning tools a human can use and enjoy. Pity is it so downplayed in Islamic countries and especially when some of the finest writers and poets have been Muslim.

  20. Carol…I can’t remember the name of the series but there is a children’s book collection that stars a cat in Bahrain written by an expat that lived/lives there. It’s been a number of years since I saw it so can’t remember the details. It was aimed at both bahraini children and expats but was in English.

  21. I thought this article in Arab News is very relevant to the topic:

    If anyone knows how I could contact Al-Zamil for a possible interview, please email me: [email protected]

  22. Carol,
    Maybe you can contact Mr. Najeeb A. R. Al Zamil through his Dynamics Academy site:

    The number is on the top of the page. Not sure how updated the site is though.

  23. Sarah,

    You’re great – thank you! I’ve already sent a request via the contact form on the web site. Let’s hope I will receive a positive response.

    Best Regards, Carol

  24. Carol, you’re welcome.- glad to be of some help.

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