The inaugural Mohammed bin Zayed Majlis for Future Generations was held last week – and far from being a pleasant get-together for thousands of Emirati university students, the event became the forum for a real discussion about the future direction of the country.
It started when Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, stood up on Monday to warn that the era of “comfortable” government jobs was coming to an end. “You are no longer competing amongst yourselves, but with the greatest minds around the world,” he told the audience.
That was followed on Wednesday by an impassioned speech from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. “You are better than us and you have to be better than us – there is no option, you have to be better than your fathers and grandfathers,” the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces said. Sheikh Mohammed returned to a theme he has talked about in the past: preparing the UAE for the end of the oil era.
These are serious words and the importance of them goes far beyond education. The oil era would close soon, Sheikh Mohammed said, “in your lifetime, not mine”, and he framed the challenge as one of national security: “You are the real wealth, not the 3 million barrels of oil. You are the future of this nation’s security and safety net. We are in a good condition now, but we want to establish the vision for 50 years ahead.”
It is this message that it seems clear the leadership wishes to convey to places far beyond one venue in Abu Dhabi. In a separate session at the event, Emiratis were encouraged to move away from business and finance courses – seen as preparation for a government job – and pursue science, technology and mathematics. Sheikh Mohammed particularly singled out engineering: “We cannot have enough of it,” he said.
The reason the leadership is so concerned about educating a new generation, and so willing to pour vast quantities of resources into education, is because it is that, not oil wealth, not military might, that ensures that the UAE will continue to prosper into the future. A diverse, globally focused knowledge economy is the best security, even in a turbulent region, because that will ensure prosperity in the coming decades. But the leadership can only offer the tools. It is up to a new generation of Emiratis to grasp them and build a future.