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Khalid Al Ameri: Education in the Middle East
October 20, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today
 
One of the first words that comes to mind when I think of education is necessity. Regardless of the extent, medium, or approach, education is necessary for personal growth, intellectual development, and professional prosperity. Additionally education is the common denominator to solving a lot of the global problems we face today such as poverty, women’s rights, or unemployment.

My belief in the critical role that education can play in the UAE, and the neighbouring Gulf states for that matter, is that of creating the fundamental building blocks of a sustainable economic environment. Fortunately the UAE has been blessed with the resources to support a population with all the basic needs, and in many instances “wants”. However, will those resources support a nation and its people into perpetuity? If you are a believer that nothing lasts forever then the answer is clearly no.

When I made the decision to pursue higher education the frequently asked question was “Why are you leaving the UAE for two years to go back to school? It’s not worth it.” That question still rings in my ears today as I come to the midway point of my education. My fellow US-based Gulf students and I have thought long and hard as to why many are inclined to ask those types of questions, and here is what we came up with.

First and foremost, given the rapid and dynamic growth of the UAE in such a short period of time there are several cultural aspects towards education that still linger from past generations, an attitude that education may not be as critical to success as, say, hard work. For example, in the early days before the unification of the UAE the primary motivation of the Bedouins, traders, fishermen and pearl divers was survival today, rather than learning for tomorrow.

Furthermore, when you look at many of today’s successful business and government leaders who have carried over their fortunes from previous generations, for the most part they were go-getters, hard workers, and in the right place at the right time. All this to say that although education was not a necessary part of the professional tool kit then, the economic machine we deal with today demands it. If our youth are constantly using yesterday’s examples to prepare for tomorrow’s problems, education will never be a priority.

Another potential roadblock to incentivising education is due to a lack of widespread meritocracy within organisations. A paper by the International Congress of E-Governments on Arab countries, that discussed the lack of ICT skills and resistance to change amongst civil servants, cited that the main deterrents for public sector talented workers are perceptions of favouritism and a general lack of meritocracy.

Now one can argue that education is not an absolute measure of meritocracy, but it is certainly a strong indicator. In a world where the mediocre are promoted, and the best and brightest are not recognised or promoted for their hard work, the argument will always be that time spent on professional development and education is simply wasted.

Finally on the softer side of things, we as a people are pretty comfortable, comfortable enough where we don’t necessarily need to worry about any dramatic changes in the socio-economic system we have grown so accustomed to. As long as we are guaranteed pretty much everything we need not only to survive, but also live sustainable, dignified lives, with guaranteed healthcare, schooling, housing, and more importantly access to jobs through Emiratisation there is little external motivation for people to pursue higher education. As long as UAE Nationals continue to see their nationality as a means to success rather than their capabilities and qualifications, the pursuit of education will always be an unnecessary discomfort to our way of life.

There are two things that should drive us all to the pursuit of a higher education, one is internally driven, the pursuit of knowledge, personal excellence, and professional or academic achievement. Those internal motivators are things that we as individuals must work on.

Personally, an additional characteristic that keeps me going is the fear that things won’t be the same when my children are my age, that they might not have access to the endless array of opportunities our leadership have kindly bestowed upon us.  It is upon all of us to start setting the example for generations to come and create a sustainable economy that is built from the bottom up. For the road ahead where we must all be equipped to build and lead industries, and fully support our leadership on delivering the vision they have for our country, and it all starts with education.
 
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The author is a columnist on education and youth developemnt

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