UAE's talented Rhodes Scholars proud to be ambassadors for the nation

The UAE sends two high-achieving students to study at Oxford each year under scheme promoting academic excellence

Hamel Sanad Alqubaisi, a NYUAD student, was granted the Rhodes Scholarship in 2015. Photo: Hamel Sanad Alqubaisi
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Gifted graduates have told of their pride at rising to the university challenge as Rhodes Scholars and putting the UAE on the academic map.

Each year, the Emirates selects two of its brightest and best to study at the University of Oxford, one of the world's leading seats of learning.

Since 2014, 20 accomplished students — both Emiratis and expats — have been chosen for the prestigious scheme.

The first UAE Rhodes Scholar was Shamma Al Mazrui, Minister of State for Youth.

She became the world's youngest cabinet member when appointed to the role aged 22 in 2016.

She had finished her master's of public policy with distinction from the University of Oxford the previous year.

Zaki Nusseibeh, Cultural Adviser to the President. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

Minister showed outstanding promise

There was only scholarship available for the UAE back then. But such was Ms Al Mazrui's ability, and that of a fellow candidate, that the Emirates successfully pushed for a second spot.

“I remember she was competing against some of the best talents but she was outstanding,” Zaki Nusseibeh, Cultural Adviser to the President and Chancellor of UAE University, told The National.

He was in the jury that selected the first cohort of Rhodes Scholars in 2014.

The UAE scheme was initially known as the Falcon Scholarship. The Rhodes Trust later conferred the Rhodes title on the UAE's selections.

“UAE was small and known as an oil-rich country at that time. They wanted to make sure that we are sending the best of the best that live up to the Rhodes reputation," said Mr Nusseibeh, who served as chairman of the UAE Rhodes Committee from 2015 until this year.

"They saw that it went brilliantly well from the first year onwards."

Shamma Al Mazrui, Minister of State for Youth Affairs, with Zaki Nusseibeh and Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Future Technology. Chris Whiteoak / The National

He said the jury was torn between Ms Mazrui and Charlotte Wang, another New York University Abu Dhabi student, who was “equally brilliant”.

“That is when I suggested 'why not choose two UAE Rhodes Scholars every year'.”

Mr Nusseibeh said the UAE’s Rhodes journey started out of its ambition to foster young leaders who would come back and make an impact on their society.

“Our Rhodes scholars who represent the UAE in Oxford are ambassadors of the country who showcase the emirates’ strengths and talent,” he said.

“They come back with a broader world view and serve the community with that spirit. The New York University has sent more Rhodes scholars [per student] to Oxford than any other university in the world and that shows the quality of educational excellence the UAE has been able to achieve.”

Established in 1902 by the late British businessman Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Scholarship is one of the world's oldest awards for international fellowship and academic study. Applicants are selected through an intensive process including a written application and in-person interviews.

Eminent Rhodes Scholars include former US president Bill Clinton, astronomer Edwin Hubble — whose name went on to grace the famous space telescope — and Australian pharmacologist Lord Howard, who In 1945 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine along with Alexander Fleming and Ernst Chain for their work in discovering penicillin.

In the UAE, Rhodes is established as a partnership between the Rhodes Trust and the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.

Every year, two Rhodes Scholars are selected from the UAE based purely on merit.

Mohammad Al Sharid won the Rhodes in 2017. Photo: Mohammad Al Sharid

Life-changing experience

Mohammad Al Sharid, a Khalifa University student, who won the Rhodes in 2017, said the experience was "eye-opening".

“It changed me from a student who was intellectually curious into someone who was more well-rounded," he said.

Mr Al Sharid, who completed a Doctor of Philosophy DPhil in engineering science at Oxford, is currently working as a post-doctoral fellow at Khalifa University.

He said he hoped his research as a scientist working on the use of artificial intelligence in medical imaging would help his country make great strides in the field.

He spoke of the benefits of the scholarship.

“The intellectual growth of some of this country’s brightest individuals will only serve to benefit the nation in the future as they return to the UAE," he said.

"Also, these UAE scholars also serve as ‘ambassadors’ in a way on a truly global stage where every nation has sent some of its best and brightest.”

'I made my father proud'

Hamel Sanad Alqubaisi, an NYUAD student, who won the Rhodes Scholarship in 2015 and completed a Master of Philosophy in International Relations at Oxford, said his admission to the UK university came as a shock.

“I had no idea that I would end up in a prestigious institution like Oxford but my father always wanted me to," he said.

"I could always a sense of pride in my father whenever he spoke about Cambridge or Oxford. I remember the day when I got the acceptance letter from both Cambridge and Oxford. When I broke the news to my father, I still remember his excitement and joy.

"He kept reading the offer letter again and again. That was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.”

A civil servant with the federal government, Mr Alqubaisi said he wanted to make a difference in the world.

“Leadership comes in different forms. You cannot measure success with certain yardsticks."

Farah Shamout, from Jordan, is thankful for her Oxford opportunity. Photo: Farah Shamout

Leading the way in artificial intelligence

Farah Shamout, from Jordan, became a Rhodes Scholar in 2016, going on to study a Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering Science at Oxford.

Currently a faculty member at NYUAD, she said her Oxford experience helped her connect with a community of academics with whom many collaborations were made possible.

She said she was helping to build a research environment for machine learning in the UAE.

“I am specialising in clinical artificial intelligence applications in healthcare.

"Through my research, I hope to come up with new ideas that can transform artificial intelligence and computing. I also want to contribute to regulations and governance of AI in healthcare.”

Top 10 global universities - in pictures

Updated: December 02, 2022, 5:11 AM