UAE Army trains its soldiers to speak Farsi

Armed forces hope their language programme will help improve relations between the UAE and Iran.

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ABU DHABI // The Army is training a new cadre of soldiers to speak Farsi.

The armed forces hope their language programme will continue the process of smoothing relations between the UAE and Iran.

"The UAE has a relationship with Iran, a historical, cultural, religious and economic relationship," said Professor Gameel Hussein, the director of military programmes at Abu Dhabi University, which is offering the bachelor's degree. "The students have to know the language and the culture."

Dr Nabil Ibrahim, the university's chancellor, called it an acknowledgement of the importance of Iran in the region.

"Persian is the language spoken by the biggest country in the Middle East," he said. "It's very useful for the students to understand more than just the language but the culture too."

The UAE, which is home to up to half a million Iranians, remains one of Iran's major trading partners, with trade estimated to be worth US$12 million (Dh44m) a year.

The first batch of students, who enrolled last month, are studying core subjects including maths and IT, while the university looks for specialists who will begin teaching next year.

Dr Robert Stewart-Ingersoll, an assistant professor of international studies at the American University of Sharjah, said greater understanding of Iran was vital, reducing the potential for conflict and encouraging collaborations such as academic exchange. "Iran is not only rising in its influence and importance in the region, but it is also a state that is frequently misunderstood in public discourse," he said. "This lack of understanding increases the risk of strategic missteps.

"Sometimes conflicts cannot be avoided but too often conflicts occur unnecessarily because of misperception or miscalculation. Understanding the culture, history and politics of Iran reduces the risk of such an occurrence."

Dr Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a lecturer in political science at United Arab Emirates University, said Iran was strategically vital to the UAE.

"Iran is a very difficult place to deal with and understand," he said. "It has always presented itself as very ambiguous so experts are needed to understand Iran ... It's a very closed society and looks as if it will stay this way for a long time still."

In spite of its proximity to the Gulf states, he said, there was still a great deal of "paranoia of the outside world" in Iran, not only of the West, but also of its Gulf neighbours.

Dr Stewart-Ingersoll said there would be many opportunities for the Army course's graduates.

"I'd think that there would be any number of possibilities for diplomatic, defence or security-related positions within the Government as well as in the private sector," he said.

"This sort of expertise could position one well within companies that operate in the future in both states."