NYUAD Institute: Abu Dhabi's 'academic majlis' celebrates 10 years of growth

Hundreds of local and international speakers have led discussions at the institute since it opened its doors in 2008

A talk at NYUAD Institute, which predates the university by two years.
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Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury took to the stage at NYUAD Institute 10 years ago today, leading the first of hundreds of conferences and events to be held at the centre.

More than 700 speakers have since stood on that platform, inspiring discussions about literature, politics, art and science and, on Sunday, Mr Khoury returns as a reminder of what the institute has achieved in a decade.

Established in 2008, NYUAD Institute precedes the university by two years. It is a centre of research and academic and creative activity where academics, researchers, authors and thought-leaders have converged to discuss topics of local and international importance.

To commemorate its anniversary, the institute will hold a series of talks, screenings, workshops and an exhibition, free of charge, and open to the public until the end of the year.

On Sunday, Mr Khoury will lead a discussion about his work and the evolution of the Arab literary scene since he last spoke at the institute.

Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, Omar Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence and Rakesh Suri, chief executive Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi will also be speaking at the institute in the coming months.

The institute was established with the aim of introducing New York University to Abu Dhabi, and vice versa, with many professors from the US flying over to participate in panel discussions before the university opened.

The institute became known for its talks on genomics, metaphysics, meta-ethics, mathematics and translation of Arabic literature.

“In certain fields the institute has become internationally known as a meeting place of minds,” said Philip Kennedy, vice provost for public programming at NYUAD Institute.

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"In its early days, the institute allowed NYUAD to bring professors from NYU to give talks in Abu Dhabi. We were the only forum that could do that on an intellectual and consistent basis,” he said.

Through the institute, the local community could see NYUAD had a presence in the emirate. Beginning as a small office, hopping between conference halls across town, the institute has since established a permanent home in Saadiyat.

"The institute has grown in a significant way. We went from 20 events a year to 65 events a year. The Intercontinental hotel auditorium became our home for a while. When we moved to Saadiyat Island we got our own room where we could seat 300 people,” said Mr Kennedy.

“As we developed the institute, we balanced subjects of local interest with topics of global significance.”

Topics such as archaeology and history in the UAE emerged as particularly popular, as did discussions on the economy and development.

Nobel laureates and international professors have shared space with UAE ministers to discuss economy diversification.

"When Omar Ghobash talked about his book Letters To A Young Muslim, Emiratis came out in droves and he spent two hours signing books. Jane Goodall also always gets a full house," said Mr Kennedy.

Gila Bessarat-Waels, assistant director of academic programmes joined NYUAD Institute in 2009. She had two children aged 1 and 4 at the time.

“The 10th anniversary of the institute reminds me of how my children have grown with the centre,” she said.

"I have seen the institute grow from a small office … we then moved to our downtown campus and now we have a huge office at the new campus.

"We would run around town and do everything from setting up, fixing the lighting and finding papers and speakers. Now we have more help and can work on specific objectives. We are no longer like Bohemians going from one venue to the other. Now we have our own home," she said.

She compared the institute to an ‘academic majlis’, attracting people from across the city to ponder topics.

"Our talks would attract only 50 people but now we get between 170-200 people at our events. There is still a feeling of a majlis where people gather to listen to someone talk. Some people have been coming for the last 10 years and participate in the lectures. Many people stay back for refreshments. Many have bonded, become friends and some have even got married,” said Ms Bessarat-Waels.

Martin Klimke, vice provost for academic policies and governance and associate professor of history at NYUAD, said the institute acts as a platform for the university's staff to reach out to international colleagues and invite them over for talks.

Mr Klimke witnessed the institute’s growth, having joined NYUAD in 2012.

"We have an average of 150 people at our events. Academic institutes don’t usually draw such crowds. This has been a source of pride here,” he said.

"There is a sense of welcoming and many people come here after work and listen to fascinating people. It’s a community of like-minded individuals.”