Hydrocarbons were crucial to the UAE's emergence as a regional powerhouse during the past 50 years. But other, longer-term investments were also on the minds of the country's leaders during the very first days of the Emirates. As UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, said: "Wealth is not in money. Wealth lies in men. This is where true power lies, the power we value. This is what has convinced us to direct all our resources to build the individual, and to use the wealth which God has provided us in the service of the nation.”
As the UAE begins a new era under Sheikh Mohamed, its third president, the maxim is as constant as ever. However, the methods to realise it are constantly up for revision as times change.
At the end of last week, a new shift came when the country announced a shake-up at the Ministry of Education. New ministers, approaches and organisations were set out to work on better preparing young people for the world. Structural changes will be taking place across the education system, focusing on improving state schools and mentoring between birth to Year 4. Ahmad Al Falasi, currently Minister of State for Entrepreneurship and SMEs, is to be Minister of Education, and Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology and head of the UAE's space agency, will oversee public education and how young people are taught about technology.
Overall, the goal is to create education that from the very earliest stages gives learners the tools to best match modern job markets and life, one of the most important responsibilities a government has. In today's markets it is even more so. The UAE is investing significantly in technical industries of the future, which require expertise that is in high demand all over the world. According to a survey commissioned by the UK-based Institution of Engineering and Technology, 93 per cent of engineering employers in the Emirates have had difficulty recruiting staff during the past year. More than four in 10 said applicants lacked work experience and necessary technical skills.
Progress is being made in other but equally important regards. Last week, staff at Aspen Heights British School in Abu Dhabi received the School Mental Health Award from the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, part of Leeds Beckett University in the UK. They won particular praise for how they dealt with pupils' difficulties during the pandemic. Their approaches include emotional learning classes, well-being areas, yoga sessions and calming corners. They have even adopted two hens, three tortoises, four kittens, 10 giant snails, a hamster and two fish tanks for pupils to interact with.
Beyond just finding the right jobs, education that matches modern trends also helps the world. Yesterday it was announced that the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy is launching training programmes aimed at building capacity to address climate change. About 200 people will receive roughly a year's training in anticipation of the UAE’s Cop28 Presidency. Beyond that, spreading these skills is an important part of realising the UAE's plans to reach net zero by 2050.
The evolving approach to education in the UAE is centred on grades, qualifications and skills. But it also recognises that these final results are dependent on healthy foundations that go back to a child's earliest years.