Culture

This Country Stripped Taxes Off Books in Push for a Smarter Workforce

People pass by a poster advertising Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum's poetry book at a bookshop in Dubai in 2009. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Tax-free books? A right to reading time during work hours? A ban on trashing books? Mandatory reading materials in Starbucks?

That’s the law now in the United Arab Emirates, which has enacted what they call an unprecedented initiative to grow a knowledge-based economy.

The UAE isn’t exactly starting in a shabby spot, literacy-wise. Of the total population, 93.8 percent of residents over 15 years of age can read and write, according to CIA World Factbook statistics. The rate is even higher among women.

The Emirates have gotten rich off oil, but have made strides in diversifying their economy, including through free trade zones and a welcoming environment for expatriate workers. Oil and gas now represent about a quarter of annual GDP.

UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the emir of Abu Dhabi, said the goal of the new reading law “is to prepare generations that work towards excelling and achieving the vision of the UAE, which since its inception has recognized the importance of knowledge, science and culture, and harnessed them in the best interests of the homeland and Emiratis.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir of Dubai, elaborated on the new law that starts at birth with a government-supplied “knowledge briefcase” given to the families of newborns.

“Reading material will be exempted from any fees or taxes for the purposes of distribution, publishing and printing. The law offers support for the publishing sector, and also provides facilities for authors and editors,” Sheikh Mohammed tweeted.

“The law consolidates the cultural image of books in our society, and obliges coffee shops in shopping malls to offer reading material for its customers. The law will encourage the private sector to invest in the establishment of libraries and cultural centers. This will be done by providing the private sector with facilities, incentives and discounts,” he continued.

Media organizations will have to put some book TV in their lineups, and books that are no longer wanted have to be donated or preserved — schools, meanwhile, will be compelled to teach kids to respect books. There will also be an official month each year dedicated to promoting literature.

He noted that employees now have “the right to specialized reading within working hours” under the new law.

“Our goal is for 2016 to be the beginning of a sustainable cultural change among generations; a change that consolidates the importance of reading and celebrates knowledge and boosts the status of reading,” the sheikh added.