Teaching politics and disruption in Abu Dhabi

'I am joined at NYUAD by former leaders of businesses and NGOs, journalists, writers, professors from other universities, and even one or two other politicians'

David Cameron teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi. Photo: David Cameron / Twitter
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I must admit: the 15 students from 10 countries sitting in front of me looked fairly shocked. They had signed up for a course about "Practising Politics and Government in the Age of Disruption" without knowing that their “Professor” was going to be a former UK Prime Minister.

I can’t claim to have been equally surprised. After all, I had agreed to this role. But looking at their faces made me ask: why, 34 years after leaving university as a student, had I returned as an (untrained) teacher? Why NYUAD, rather than my old University of Oxford? And why Abu Dhabi, in the UAE, thousands of miles from home?

I first came to know NYUAD a few years ago when speaking at Ideas Abu Dhabi, which took place at the brand new campus. Of course, the scale of the university, the facilities and buildings, all blow you away. That’s the Emirates for you – they never do anything by halves. But the real shock was the students. Selected by ability, so that family income – or rather lack of it – is no bar to entry, they come from over 100 countries. They are bright, they speak and write English superbly even though for most, it is their second language, and are ambitious and engaged about everything from politics to social and cultural issues.

Emiratis are the single biggest group, but currently, they do not account for more than one fifth of the students. For sure, Abu Dhabi’s partnership with NYU has attracted one of the world’s great higher education brands for the country, but it has built a university for the world. Every university boasts about the native intelligence of its students, but here one statistic stands out: if these young people were applying to NYU in Manhattan, they would be in the top 10 per cent of the intake.

First impressions matter, but not as much as time taken to understand what a country is trying to do

A big attraction for me was the concept of “J-Term” (where the J stands for January). In just over three weeks, visiting professors and guest "tutors" from across the world – offering an array of differing expertise and topics to study – work with students to pack in teaching, seminars, tuition and written work that would usually be spread across a four-month term. In my case, it is a series of seminars on some of the issues that have been driving politics in Europe for the past two decades: the financial crash, the migration crisis, the rise of populism, Brexit and, of course, the war in Ukraine.

We ask a lot of the students. In an era when young people (and their parents) question whether there is enough teaching, written work and feedback even at some of our best universities, my students have to tolerate my teaching for three hours every day – and then produce written work every two days that is discussed and marked almost as soon as it is handed in.

J-Term works for NYU and the teaching staff too. It means that NYU can attract a range of professors and guest tutors that might otherwise struggle to make the time commitment. I am joined here by former leaders of businesses and NGOs, journalists, writers, professors from other universities, and even one or two other politicians, including former PM Matteo Renzi from Italy.

While the teaching schedule is hectic, there is plenty of time left to think. I must have travelled to the UAE half a dozen times as a political leader and many more times since. But usually for a day or two, never more. First impressions matter, but not as much as time taken to properly understand what a country is trying to do. It is easy to see – and be bowled over by – the physical transformation. I am writing this in a flat in Mamsha, on Saadiyat Island, a part of the city that didn’t exist when I first came here as prime minister just over a decade ago. Next door is Jubail Island, where a whole new part of the city is being built from scratch, together with thousands of acres of new mangroves, as part of Abu Dhabi’s target of planting one million trees by 2030.

But it takes longer to grasp the scale of ambition when it comes to human capital. And NYU Abu Dhabi is a part of that. Not so much “build it and they will come”, more “build it and see how we grow.” The same goes for bringing to Abu Dhabi the Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic to grow the health economy or the first Louvre outside Paris to grow the cultural one.

Of course, challenges remain. Maintaining stability in an unstable neighbourhood. Managing a hot climate in an overheating world. And building a cohesive society and meeting peoples’ natural aspirations in a country that is welcoming people from across the globe. I don’t understate any of those.

But one of the questions in my course about "Practising Politics in the Age of Disruption" is whether states and governments are capable of long-term thinking and delivering major projects that can transform their nation’s prospects. There is little doubt that when it comes to the UAE, the answer is a solid “yes”.

Published: February 23, 2023, 4:00 AM
Updated: November 13, 2023, 11:08 AM