Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own. –

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.”