Louvre Abu Dhabi aims to make up for failed education in the Middle East

Leading Emirati thinker, Zaki Nusseibeh, on why the UAE is more humanistic than its neighbours

Silvia Razgova/The National

Silvia Razgova/The National

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi from 1966, and then of the UAE, the country that he forged by uniting seven Emirates into a federation after the withdrawal of the British in 1971, wanted to build a modern state, and to provide for its security and stability in a turbulent region. The Middle East was going through major upheavals and there were revolutions and wars raging all around it. Sheikh Zayed’s vision was based on uniting the seven Emirates to create a viable state by focussing on the development of the people. His priority in achieving this meant, first and foremost, investing in education. He said, “Our real wealth is in our people. We need to provide the necessary infrastructure of educational tools to respond to their needs—invest in building new and modern schools, universities, technical colleges—doing everything we can to create for our young boys and girls the means to prosper in a society of knowledge.”

Zaki Nusseibeh, one of the UAE’s leading intellectuals and interpreter for 36 years to Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE, explains what went wrong.

The Art Newspaper: What was Sheikh Zayed’s view of other cultures and religions?

Zaki Nusseibeh: He looked on mankind as one race, one family. He was a deeply religious person, and was proud of his Muslim tradition, but he believed that God had created different nations, giving each its own faith, its own cultural characteristics, its own natural resources. It is not for us to question God’s purpose in this. An individual’s religion and culture are predetermined by birthplace. But all men are born as brothers, and religion for him was pure moral goodness, because, he always said, God was merciful, and man was put on earth to work with his fellow human beings to make it a better, happier place to live in.

He had a vision of building bridges to all nations and working with them for the benefit and advantage of his own people but also to help others. As far back as 1968, when Abu Dhabi was completely lacking in infrastructure, he allocated ten per cent of the development budget to helping countries in Africa, in Asia, and even far away in Latin America.

TAN: He wasn’t somebody who had much formal education himself. Did he have an idea of what kind of education he wanted?

ZN: He was a very wise person. Although he did not receive a formal education, he had an inquisitive mind and learnt a great deal by absorbing everything around him throughout an active life full of travel and of meetings with people from all walks of life and from different nations. He always appreciated the importance of science, of knowledge and of creating an environment in which people can learn how to cope with the modern world. He wanted an education that could do two things: on the one hand, instil in his young people the sense of history, of cultural identity, and tradition, but at the same time open their minds to new cultures, to new worlds, to new ways of living.

TAN: Did he believe in education for women?

ZN: Sheikh Zayed believed strongly that women were an equal partner in society. He always said that you could not develop any country without also focussing on the role of women in it, because they were the mothers who would bring up the next generation, they represented half the population, and you could not achieve your goals without their active participation. He was helped in this by his remarkable wife, Sheikha Fatima. They both worked hard, as early as the 1940s and 50s, to bring women into education.

TAN: At the Institut du Monde Arabe’s 2015 conference, Renewals in the Arab World, delegates from all over the region agreed that education in their countries was not fit for the modern world. What went wrong?

ZN: With Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt towards the end of the 18th century, the Arab world suddenly woke up to see that the world around it had advanced in remarkable ways while the Arabs had been living in a cocoon for centuries. This was a rude shock. In the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, several reformers who visited the West and became influenced by its achievements called for a new revival of the Arab world based on modern education system and the spirit of Enlightenment. Modern educational institutions sprang up in several Arab countries. Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, for example, boasted of a good educational infrastructure. Sadly, this whole system seemed to collapse from the 1960s and 70s onward, for a number of reasons.

The failure of education throughout the Arab world is one of the main causes of the collapse of several nation states in the region today. Instead of focussing on modernising education and ensuring its high standards, as called for by the early reformers, mass education introduced by indifferent or ignorant governments in many Arab countries meant the devaluation of its standards. A lot of the education became based on learning by heart instead of developing tools of critical thinking. The universities (and schools) in Egypt before the 1952 revolution were good institutions but they collapsed when their classes were opened to thousands of students, who came and graduated with degrees that left them professionally handicapped. The same experience was sadly repeated in other Arab capitals.

These young people end up in sinecure jobs in the public sector, or with a world view that is totally mythological, seeking employment in economically failed states. They become easy prey to whoever offers them a miracle future. After the 1967 war and the collapse of the regimes that had led the first wave of Arab aspiration for progress, it was easy to let them believe in the myth of a saviour who would bring them paradise on Earth by the enchantment of religious salvation.

Fortunately, education in the Emirates did not follow the same path. There is a focus here, especially after what has been happening around us, on the fact that you don’t teach students by cramming their minds with things that they learn by heart (and forget overnight), but that learning is a dynamic process that requires tools of critical thinking.

TAN: How has this come about?

ZN: It was a logical development from where we started. In the beginning, the government had to build a school system from scratch, so it built schools and universities and it imported teachers from the Arab world, but soon realised that this standard of education was not sufficient to lead its students into the 21st century. That was when the government began an ambitious programme to modernise the whole educational infrastructure, to set new international standards, to train the teachers themselves, to make classes in the UAE to compete with the best worldwide. But of course, a first-class school must develop within a cultural ecosystem that promotes knowledge. This is why you must invest in culture as well. It’s not sufficient to have a student sit in a classroom and learn something in a book to gain knowledge and develop critical thinking­—you must also encourage them, for example, to go to a museum nearby and look at a work of art as part of their overall education.

TAN:Do you think there is something in the Arab intellectual tradition that makes it hard for students to feel free to question?

ZN: Not in the Arab intellectual tradition as such, but undoubtedly in a certain kind of religious preaching of the last 40 or 50 years that imposed an environment of intellectual terrorism, forcing students to accept what they are told by rote, discouraging them from posing critical questions. But if you go back to the Middle Ages, whether in Spain or Baghdad, there was an openness to all civilisations and intermingling of cultures and religions, where the philosophers, writers and the poets questioned everything and were able to debate in an open sphere. The Arabs lived a glorious flourishing of the sciences, of art, literature and music.

TAN: Louvre Abu Dhabi is making a point of showing works produced by the different religions. That presumably is part of its mission; to show that different religions existed at the same time?

ZN: It’s a universal museum, the first of its kind in the region, and the idea of a universal museum is to tell the story of mankind, which is a story that belongs to all of us and to which we have all contributed in different ways.

I mean, where we live now, Abu Dhabi, there were different religions that flourished here in the past. A seventh to eighth century CE church and monastery, founded by the Church of the East, has been discovered on the island of Sir Bani Yas, and Sheikh Zayed was proud to have this restored to show that People of the Book [Qur’anic term for Jews and Christians] had lived here as a community. Today more than 200 nationalities live in harmony here enjoying freedom of religion.

Louvre Abu Dhabi will show different religions, of course, but also different cultures; how they developed and what was happening here in this region, in the Gulf, as civilisations were evolving elsewhere. What is our contribution to mankind’s story? How do we fit in? Where are the points of differences? Where do we come together?

TAN: Have there been surveys of what Emiratis think of Louvre Abu Dhabi or the other future museums?

ZN: Yes. Over the last ten years, there have been field studies of what kind of people come to what kind of exhibitions, what programmes appeal to what kind of public, what footfall you can expect in the museum and how to encourage visitors. How do you bring the museum to schools by developing curricula? How do you bring the school children to the museum?

TAN: I couldn’t help noticing that the young women seem to be more active than the young men. More of them go to university and seem to want to get jobs.

ZN: They’re highly motivated, focussed; they are mature and they want to contribute to society. Yes, you are right: we have a large number of highly successful, intelligent, competent, hardworking young women who fill posts in the cultural world, diplomacy, politics, medicine and other fields.

TAN: What do young men think of as being the most appropriate subject to study?

ZN: In the Emirates, young men initially all wanted to study politics or economics in order to go into government or to build business empires. However, new times require new skills. Today there is a focus on the sciences and mathematics as core subjects in education. At the same time, I think there is an awareness that teaching those core subjects is not enough, because you also need to prepare future leaders to have a wider outlook on life. This is why I believe teaching the humanities remains relevant, even for scientists and engineers, because they also need to have a world view that is open.

TAN: Has the decline in the price of oil sped up plans for the post-oil society?

ZN: Those plans were there from the beginning. I remember Sheikh Zayed saying with the first five-year plan in 1968, “We must diversify our economy base.” Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed made a very moving presentation in 2015 in which he said that in 50 years we will be smiling as we see the last barrel of oil being exported from Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is investing heavily in renewable energy, in new industries, in services. Dubai, of course, is a major entrepreneurial centre that has a thriving tourism industry and an active trading history. Air travel and airports? Who would have imagined that the airports of Abu Dhabi and Dubai would out-strip Heathrow airport?