It was quite the educational experience. On an early June afternoon in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak al Nahayan sat down with a few students in the spacious Majlis room of his palace in Abu Dhabi. The lucky but nervous young women were enrolled at United Arab Emirates University, where the three had finished at the top of a special experimental class originating at Loyola Marymount University/ Los Angeles titled “The Media and Politics of Asia.” But they had never before interviewed their country’s minister of higher education and scientific research.  In fact, hardly any other students had, either. In the Gulf State country’s expanding higher-education system, Sheikh Nahayan is “Mr. Higher Ed” himself: the articulate Emirati holds down the additional positions of chancellor of the Higher Colleges of Technology and president of Zayed University – not to mention chancellor of UAEU. The slightly awed interviewers were Latifa Dadi Rahmedel, Khulood Ali Al Suwaidi and Bashayer Ali Shehhi. Hovering over all like a worried den mother was U.S. journalist and columnist Tom Plate, who is LMU’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies and visiting professor at UAEU. Over the concluded spring semester he had taught the joint Asia media course to the two classes on opposite sides of the globe, beginning the course in Los Angeles via Internet TV, and ending the final two UAEU classes at the university itself in Al Ain in person. This is the edited transcript:

PROFESSOR PLATE:  All right, I think we’ve been invited to begin.

SHEIKH NAHAYAN: Yeah, we’re ready.

PROF. PLATE: And his time is not endless, so let’s begin.  Latifa, you can start…

SHEIKH: If I can’t answer, you help me, okay? [Everyone laughs]

STUDENT LATIFA: So, Your Excellency, thank you for having us today, and we will start with this question, my first question:  The development of the arts and cultures is highly correlated to the growth of society – and of course to economic growth… so do you think that my university — UAEU — is moving fast enough in arts and culture?

SHEIKH: I think that what we have to realize is why the UAE in general and in particular is focusing and encouraging and supporting the arts in all forms, whether it’s music or art in museums.  We think that all this belongs to humanity, and should be shared, and since we are the crossroads between the East and the West, we believe this would contribute to more and better understanding between different people from different walks of life, from different religions — that we have many common interests, and more binds us together than separates us, and by … encouraging and supporting art, we believe that people from different cultures will meet and understand each other better, and create a better world for future generations.  So, you go to any museum in the world and you will not see just a museum with American artifacts, or British. But the art is from all over the world…. Did I answer the question, or is…

STUDENT: Yes, your answer is so encouraging, but I have another …

SHEIKH: Go ahead.

STUDENT: Do you think that the university is meeting your priorities and upholding your vision for arts and music?

SHEIKH: There is still much more to be done. We had introduced three of the best British, American and Japanese masters in museum management, tourism, and cultures and [investment in the arts] is still going on.  There is more to be done because by the time we finish, we’ll have four big museums — major museums—among the biggest museums in the world. They will enhance the culture and understanding of our people and the people around us.  As you know, we live in an area of the world where there are not less than two point five billion people.  If you take India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Horn of Africa and the former Soviet Republics—they’re all coming out for education, for their healthcare …  and that will create, really, a melting pot for everybody, and we [here] are fortunate to have leaders who are tolerant – who believe in tolerance and give understanding and respect to other peoples’ cultures and religions. All this enhances our understanding of the world, and it’s a place where, hopefully, we’ll be able to foster encouragement of culture [while] … having this openness.  Hopefully, we’ll be building bridges across cultures, across religions, across countries. And that is, I think, the responsibility of your generation to eliminate barriers and build bridges and enhance respect for others, as you yourselves want to be respected. You should respect others regardless of where they come from, as–at the end of the day, we are all human beings.  We are all created by God … and our religion teaches us to respect, so most of all we have to respect the human being.  Maybe we are different.  Maybe I have a different opinion.  Maybe I see that my children are different, but that doesn’t mean I hate one of them! …. We should always strive to make it better; strive to make an understanding.  If you don’t understand my point of view, you don’t have to force [me] but I respect you and I will fight for you to put your point of view through, as some philosophers say. What year are you in at the university?  What year?

STUDENT: Um, my third year.

PROF. PLATE: Your Excellency, in our class, the first few meetings over the Internet between your UAEU and my LMU were sometimes a little tense, because the whole idea was so new. Latifa was the first to break the ice.

SHEIKH: Very good!

PROF: So, she is one of the best students we have. Now here is student number two — Bashayer!

STUDENT BASHAYER: Your Highness.  Our UAE, it’s not a democracy like the US but the UAE is improving her image, this is very clear, and it is happening so fast.  So, what do you think the reasons are?

SHEIKH: As you know, if we look at the history of the UAE, born 40 years ago, we were still nomads, and just starting to build our own infrastructure up, build our society and build our institutions, and you cannot move from what we were at that time, forty or forty five years ago, to complete modernization, and always know what’s best, politically or otherwise.  But I think we’ve done well—better than many others, with all respect to everybody, to try and benefit our people, educate them, build institutions, and we have gradually added to the Constitution—gradually, to move towards people having more say in the way they run their country, and as you see now even with elections, nothing is perfect.  Nobody is perfect, not in the States, by the way, or any other place, but here we are all working for UAE … the first priority is its people—the welfare of its people, and justice, and equality and equal opportunities, so then I think we come across very well.  I think that we have established that there’s an equal opportunity here for education, and we don’t have any [education] discrimination in the sexes.  A woman can work and study and travel, there’s no problem.  We tried, of course, to build a justice system of our own.  And we’ve been [allying with] other Arab countries and they come with their own cultures… So, unless we build good, strong institutions with an educated people, then we might stoop to a worse situation. Our most important responsibility is to our people.  We [leaders], we are part of our people.  Them and us, we are in the same boat, and we have been trying … to raise the standard of living, create a better life, better opportunities — provide a respectable life for everybody … So, I think instead of jumping on what other people have done, or copying other people, we should make our own path.

STUDENT: Exactly.

SHEIKH: And we should lead, and we’ve seen how other people — how they’ve ruined their countries; they ruin their people, they oppress their people, they’re willing to kill their people.  We are proud that we never killed anybody … we are here to protect—we are here to create a better life for everybody.  Not only that, but we’re proud that we have over two hundred nationalities and they’re living in harmony and peace, and we go beyond even our own boundaries to make it better for everybody. But I think a time will come when institutions will follow [aspects of] the American system, because it’s easy to follow, that’s all …  as long as it benefits our students, and makes them positive and active.

PROF: Next student, please.

STUDENT KHULOOD: I am a mass communication major, and this question is about education, in general.  As you know, in the UAE, education begins from kindergarten until twelfth class, and then they begin the higher education.  How is our higher education influencing the KD until 12th year classes?

SHEIKH: We understand the deficiencies and the weaknesses of the public-education sector, and KD to twelve, and we realize the reason behind it and the difficulties they’re facing.  So, that is why, unfortunately, in the higher education we spend about one third of our budget on trying to bring up the standards … to the curriculum at our universities.  For that, the government strategy announced … a few years ago … is to eradicate, or to reduce, the gap between systems.  What we’re doing now is … we’re sending our best teachers, our professors, to the schools, to monitor, and mentor, and supervise the way that the present teachers teach.  Also, those who graduate from our education system, and education colleges … are well prepared to be a change-agent in the schools… and, we are working very closely with the schools to improve them, because in the end, we’re all working for the same purpose, and it’s to the benefit of everybody that we bring their level up, so they — the students — will not waste their time…. And at our university system we are embarking on a major research and development project.  We’re all going to emphasize post-graduate studies—[master’s, PhD,]– and tackling social issues, economic issues, environmental issues—hoping the UAE university will be an innovator. Today, everybody has access to the university, but for a long time, nobody had it, except the elite.  Now, that all has to change…..

STUDENT KHULOOD: Well, thank you.


A slightly shorter version of this interview previously appeared in Dubai’s leading newspaper, Khaleej Times.  Please see: http://www.khaleejtimes.com/kt-article-display-1.asp?xfile=data/education/2012/June/education_June5.xml&section=education


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