Arabia and the knowledge gap
Think big. Think global. Spare no expense. That could be the motto for an ambitious effort by the United Arab Emirates to close the knowledge gap with the West and eventually restore Arab learning to its former glory.
Headlines from Dubai, the second-largest and most flamboyant of the seven emirates that make up the country, have been dominated by the bursting of a spectacular property bubble and an exodus of foreigners who lost their jobs as the global recession slowed down the economy. One thing that is not slowing –an education drive without parallel in the Arab world.
“Our commitment to excellence in education remains undiminished despite the economic crisis,” the UAE minister of higher education and scientific research, Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan told a meeting this month that brought together some 1,000 students from 120 countries to discuss subjects that ranged from educating deaf students to improving global financial stability by better regulation.
Around the world, education is a tempting target for budget cutters in times of financial distress. But the UAE education budget has been increased by 12 percent this year and now takes up almost a quarter of overall spending. Expensive? Yes. But, as one speaker at a panel discussion put it: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
The 1,000-student get-together in Dubai, more famous for over-the-top opulence than as an educational center, is known as Education Without Borders and takes place every two years, as does an event dubbed Festival of Thinkers that brings together Nobel Prize Winners and well-known public intellectuals with students from the UAE and neighboring countries. The next one is scheduled for November.
“What’s been happening here,” said Jamil Mroue, a Lebanese newspaper publisher who now makes his home in Abu Dhabi, “is that the Emirates have turned into an incubator for new ideas and fresh thinking. The ancient seats of Arab learning – Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad – have nothing new to contribute.”
It is somewhat ironic that a country as young as the UAE – at 37 years old, a mere toddler of a place – is seen as an example for the heavyweights of Arab history to follow. Few members of the founding generation had any formal schooling. In 1972, when Ras al Khaimah joined six other emirates to complete the United Arab Emirates, the new country had just 45 university graduates, five of whom were women.
WOMEN OUTNUMBER MEN
Now the UAE has 60 colleges and universities and female students comfortably outnumber men. At the largest institution of higher learning, for example, the Higher Colleges of Technology, the ratio of women to men is 10,000 to 6,000.
Three out of five students in the public education system – which is free for Emiratis – are women, a remarkable achievement in a Muslim country. Gender equality is enshrined in the constitution and while health care and education attract a considerable share of educated women, the UAE air force admitted four female pilots last year. Women also serve in the police and make up about a fifth of the diplomatic corps.
So, how close is the UAE to the aim announced two years ago by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai, “to build a knowledge-based society throughout the region and enhance the standing of scholars and intellectuals in the Arab world.”
Still a way to go. At the time, Sheikh Mohammed pledged $10 billion to the project and announced plans to re-establish the Arab House of Wisdom which flourished in Baghdad in the Arab World’s golden age, from 800 to 1,500 AD, and had no rivals in the study of philosophy and science. Discoveries ranged from algebra to optics. Arabic was the language of international scholarship.
The knowledge gap that is now being narrowed is between Arabs and the West, where the Arabs’ role in the development of modern science is rarely recognized and largely forgotten.
And how large is the gap? Researchers from the UAE and the United Nations Development Program are working on an Arab Knowledge Report 2009 which should show how far the Arab world has advanced since a devastating 2002 UNDP assessment written not by Western scholars but by Arab experts.
They portrayed the Arab region as living in isolation from the world of ideas and lagging behind the rest of the world on virtually everything, from education to respect for human rights and the status of women. Only six (including the UAE) of the 22 Arab countries were seen as having achieved “high human development.”
There’s a reason for the UAE beyond trying to help wake the Arab world from decades of decline and slumber, and it’s entirely pragmatic: demographics. Fewer than 20 percent of the 4.5 million population are native Emiratis and the economy is almost entirely run by foreigners. According to the official United Emirates Yearbook, expatriates currently hold 99 percent of jobs in the private sector and 91 percent of positions in the government.
“Emiratisation” of the work force has been a key plank of government policies but progress has been slow, partly because employers have been reluctant to hire Emiratis. Confidence in the education system should help diminish that reluctance.
But the 21st century House of Wisdom seems a distant goal.