A senior United States official has encouraged more students from the UAE to consider studying in America, against a backdrop of what critics say is increasingly hostile rhetoric by the Trump administration.
Carl Risch, Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said concerns among some students that they were unwelcome in the US were entirely unfounded.
Speaking during a brief visit to the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, he insisted America had always supported “academic freedom” and encouraged international students.
He also downplayed the administration’s decision to instigate a travel ban on a number of Muslim-majority nations, saying the US remained a very welcoming country.
“The US and people of the US - the vast, vast majority - welcome students from all around the world,” Mr Risch said.
“We want people to pursue education in the US. We are open to students. All are welcome regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or language.”
Mr Risch’s comments came as recent figures showed a drop in the number of students from the Middle East studying in the US for the first time in 10 years.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the decline may be partially linked to President Donald Trump’s introduction of a travel-ban against five Muslim-majority countries.
Figures released last year from the Institute of International Education (IIE) show an 8.4 per cent drop in individuals from the Middle East studying in the US between 2016 and 2017.
The number of UAE students also declined for the first time in 10 years - down from 2,920 to 2,753.
Experts put the decrease down to a number of factors, including improved education opportunities at home, increased competition, fewer scholarships and a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US.
Senthil Nathan, managing director of UAE-based education consultants Edu Alliance, argued the decline in numbers could well continue.
“Scholarships have been reduced because of the oil price, particularly in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“And secondly the political rhetoric in the US is scary - I’ve heard this from students and parents. They know universities can’t guarantee safety off campus.
“There are now also alternatives to the US in the UAE, Canada and Australia. They are promoting themselves.”
According to the IIE report, there were 92,470 students from the Middle East enrolled in a college or university in the US from 2016 to 2017, down from 100,926 in the previous year. The report was compiled with support from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Mr Nathan added that an incident where an Emirati student was killed in the US in 2016 had not improved the atmosphere. Saif Nasser Mubarak Al Ameri was shot five times by a police officer after fleeing the scene of a car crash.
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“These visits help,” Mr Nathan said in reference to Mr Risch’s trip to the UAE. “A visit from the US’s top political leadership would help more.”
Mr Risch went on to insist that students should not be concerned about choosing to study in America.
“No country in the world has the same record of openness, academic freedom and diversity like the US,” he said.
“It’s an important part of our economy. The US has always encouraged international students.”
Mr Trump’s travel ban applies to nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, as well as North Korea and Venezuela.
While there are exceptions for student visas, more background checks are required which can delay applications. Individuals from the countries can also apply for a visa waiver on a case-by-case basis, but this can be a costly process.
Mr Risch said the ban was based on concerns over identity management and information sharing and had nothing to do with religion, ethnicity or language.
“It does not pertain to the vast majority of people in the world,” he said. “The situation regarding students is no different now. [The US] is still a very welcoming place.”
Regarding the visa waiver programme for tourists, Mr Risch said there was currently no plan to introduce this for Emirati passport holders.
There are also no plans to amend the system that results in students having to leave once their visa expires. “It will stay the way it is as those changes would need a change in legislation,” Mr Risch added.