Culture exchange: The British Council turns 75

As the British Council celebrates its 75th anniversary and marks its 40th year in the UAE, we take a look at its goals, its projects and the current entrepreneurship competition.

Michael Bechara the director of projects at the UAE British Council, says the International Young Design Entrepreneur award "celebrates the importance of creative entrepreneurs".
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As the British Council celebrates its 75th anniversary and marks its 40th year in the UAE, Philippa Kennedy looks at its goals, its projects and the current international entrepreneurship competition In a dusty corner of Academic City at the end of an unmade road, the familiar four spots of the British Council logo identify their temporary Dubai offices. In a few months time, brand new premises near Rashid Hospital will become a permanent UAE home for the organisation that celebrates its 75th birthday this year worldwide.

The opening of the new single storey building also marks the council's 40th year in the Emirates. Currently, staff are busy sifting through entries for an international competition that encapsulates at least part of what the council tries to achieve. It is looking for a gifted young design entrepreneur who will represent the UAE at a 10-day international trade fair in London called 100% Design. Michel Bechara, the director of projects, says: "It's called the Young Creative Entrepreneurs (YCE) award and the UAE winner will go on to take part in the International Young Design Entrepreneur (IYDE) award, which is a worldwide competition that champions and celebrates the importance of creative entrepreneurs working in the field of design.

"There are nine different categories in the international competition. In the UAE we choose one sector each year and we are trying to find the best entrepreneur leading their sector. The winner goes to the UK on an expense-paid trip and will benefit from many opportunities that they will experience during the 10-day trade fair." The winner will compete with nine other finalists for the international title and could win the £5,000 (Dh30,000) project grant to partner and develop business links with the UK. Last year's winner from the UAE was Suhaila al Awadhi in the publishing category. This year the category is "design entrepreneur" with the emphasis firmly on the word entrepreneur.

Judges will look for leadership qualities along with evidence that the candidate is an agent of change with good market awareness and original ideas. They want to find someone who is ready to embrace an international outlook. The panel of experts includes Daniel Camara from the market research company Pink Tank, Fergus Duncan from the interior design company Aedas Interiors, Professor George Katodrytis from the American University of Sharjah (an architect) and Paul Sellers, the British Council's country director for the UAE. They will meet on Thursday, when shortlisted candidates will give a presentation of their work and ideas. The winner will be announced on Saturday.

It's just one project among many that the British Council in the UAE has either mounted or supported and it aptly reflects the council's ethos: to build cultural relations and understanding. At a time when international relations between Muslim and Christian countries are strained, the delicate work of the council is more important than ever, staff believe. The way it carries out its objectives varies from country to country. Currently, the council has offices in 110 countries around the world and 7,000 staff members, two-thirds of which are based outside of Britain. They have a £200 million (Dh1.2 trillion) worldwide budget that is supplemented by the income from the world-renowned teaching programme.

"The cost recovery programme generates that much income again," Sellers says. "Our activities are very wide, including teaching English, which is of course something we are very well known for. When the council started in Cairo 75 years ago the core thing was cultural exchange. Because English wasn't as prevalent as it is now, we introduced it with literature, texts, books and interesting articles. Then it evolved massively so that now we have a cost recovery business right across the world.

"Therefore it doesn't impact on the British taxpayer, as we are providing a service that is paid for, but it allows us to have a platform offering our expertise on a non cost recovery basis. We work with teachers in the ministries and state schools. "We lead the way in this field," he says. "Our teachers write books and we hold teaching conferences. We set the standards worldwide for the teaching of English."

Teaching is only part of the job. Promoting "all good things from the UK in the arena of culture" is another. It takes many forms, including going into schools and universities and talking to students and their teachers, developing and producing the arts and cultural events and building what Sellers describes as "mutuality" into relationships. "We are here to enter into a dialogue with people and to bring British professionals here to build relationships which will hopefully be self-sustaining," he says.

An example of that might be a planned trip to the Edinburgh Festival next month. Delegates from the UAE will visit a British Council showcase tailor-made to them. They will be introduced to producers and theatre managers who might be interested in bringing UK talent to the UAE. A similar delegation is scheduled to go to the London Jazz Festival in November. A collaboration between artists from Britain and the Middle East will arrive in the UAE in December in the form of the My Father's House photography and film exhibition. The Emirati photographer Lamya Gargash is one of the artists.

The council also has a presence at the educational fairs that take place twice a year in hotels and exhibition centres giving information to students who are interested in gaining places at UK universities. "We don't express an opinion, although obviously quality is important. We listen to the requirements of students and point them in the direction of the universities that suit their needs. We also give people advice on visa requirements," Sellers says.

There was a time when the council was primarily known for teaching English and giving jolly good parties. Sellers, a consummate diplomat and networker, says they still give good parties linked to cultural events but the council's work has expanded and developed over the years. "We still have parties because my job is to maintain relationships with key people. Networking is very important," says Sellers, who also sits on the committees of various British business groups.

"It's not so much about the British expat community. It's about cultural relationships, establishing links, getting people debating with each other and giving back our UK experience." Building partnerships with other local organisations such as the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage are an essential part of the council's work. At the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, it ran more than 14 activities, workshops and panel discussions designed to encourage reading.

The council did something similar at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai in February, where the poet Alec Williams and the storyteller Valerie Bloom read and performed stories and poetry to young children. "Reading to children is an area that not many people have experience of in this part of the world, although it's always unfair to stereotype and generalise," Bechara says. We are focusing on reading to children between seven and 11 and also in the 12-15 age group. Experts say it's one way to push children into having an interest in books."

Bechara, who hails from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, says he was aware of the British Council when he was studying management information systems at a Beirut college. "If you wanted to study in France you would go to Le Mission Culturelle Francaise now known as the Alliance Francais, or the Goethe Institute for German. It was the British Council for the UK. "Globally, it focuses on three areas: intercultural dialogue, creative and knowledge economy and climate change. We believe that climate change, if it continues to remain an issue, would become an area of conflict worldwide."

Sellers admits that sometimes people find it hard to define the work of the British Council. There is an elaborate scorecard system that enables them to quantify success in terms of statistics. But he points to certain special evenings such as the banquet hosted by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed at the Sharjah Biennial and attended by Edward Oakden CMG, the British ambassador, as something less quantifiable but equally important. The British Council was one of the contributors.

"It was held in a pretty open-air courtyard in the historic quarter of Sharjah where wonderful Arabic food was served and the smell of frankincense drifted in the air. It was a multicultural crowd of people from the UAE and international artistic community and the buzz of conversation was fantastic. It is moments like this - bringing people from different cultures together in relaxed circumstances amid the euphoria of a successful cultural event - that sow the seeds of the next exciting project."