UAE ministers and artists recall student days in Cairo nearly 50 years ago

From the Ruler of Sharjah and ministers of state, to doctors and artists, many Emiratis over the past half century once called Cairo home

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From Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, to ministers of state Maitha bint Salem Al Shamsi and Khalifa Al Marar, many Emiratis over the past 50 years called Cairo home as the country sent its young people overseas to study.

On a stage in Cairo this week for a three-day celebration to mark 50 years of ties between the two nations, Ms Al Shamsi recalled her time in the historic city and her memories of a deep-rooted appreciation of intellect and knowledge.

"The Egyptian people respect knowledge and appreciate those who seek it," she said.

Maitha bint Salem Al Shamsi, UAE Minister of State, reviews her academic career in Egypt as part of the session 'Egypt ... The Beginning of Knowledge ... The Beginning of the Path'. Photo: UAE Media Office

"Egypt is home to great thinkers and scientists. I was looking for an author who wrote a book that inspired me and after searching, I was led to him by students and professors at the University of Cairo," she said. Those who helped her to find her mentor were strangers, she said.

"When I reached Dr Mohammad Atef Gheith and asked him to supervise my postgraduate studies in sociology, he politely declined due to prior commitments and a busy schedule. But upon seeing my insistence and appreciation for his research, he agreed to oversee my work and I ended up graduating with honours from the master's programme at the University of Cairo," the minister said.

The first students from the UAE

Mr Al Marar studied in Egypt in the 1970s as Anwar Sadat was coming to power there. He spoke of the impact that political movements there had on him.

"I went to Egypt at a time when student political movements were booming and just after the UAE had declared its unity as a state, and Iran had occupied the UAE's islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs.

Anwar Sadat's visit to Abu Dhabi in 1974. Photo: UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation

"This activity raised my socio-political awareness."

Mr Al Marar said he began as a student of medicine before the situation inspired him to pursue his studies in political science.

Abdulrahman Zainal Al Awadhi studied interior design in Cairo in the 1970s and is now a prominent Emirati artist.

"I chose Egypt because it is an Arabic-speaking country. I was among the first batch of students sent there. The people were very co-operative and had such high morals," the 73-year-old said.

"It felt like home."

Abdulrahman Al Awadhi, a prominent Emirati artist who studied in Egypt in the 1970s. Photo: Abdulrahman Al Awadhi

Nothing felt out of place for Mr Al Awadhi, except, he says, the heavy traffic, which came as a mild shock.

Otherwise, he said, he never felt like a stranger in Egypt.

Abdulghaffar Mohammad Al Hawi arrived in Cairo in 1971, just before the UAE was founded, and also returned this week to mark the 50 years of ties.

"Back then, we were under the wing of the Abu Dhabi scholarships office, which existed before it was taken over by the federal government," he said. "I studied at the University of Cairo, and was among some 1,000 Emirati students studying in Egypt."

The retired doctor said the students created a home from home.

"We formed a club for Emirati students and we would meet there every night and hold annual celebrations of the UAE's national day in major theatres across Cairo," he said.

"It is a beautiful feeling, returning here to the country 50 years ― a lifetime ― after we made some of the most special memories to us," he said.

"I'm still in touch with some of my friends from that time."

Dr Al Hawi said he grew to love Egyptian food "and even mastered the Egyptian accent".

Updated: October 27, 2022, 11:30 PM