Ras al Khaimah is not the most prominent of the seven members that constitute the United Arab Emirates. Often it is overshadowed by its larger and more prosperous neighbours, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Yet it was not always like this. In the 19th century Ras al Khaimah was a regional power with a strong Navy that even worried the British Raj in India.
Modern Ras al Khaimah however is seeking to rebuild its glory in the 21st century based on something different – education. Its ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qassimi, who took over as Ruler of the Emirate in October 2010, has set out his vision for the future in an interview with the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National. In the interview Sheikh Saud said that better teachers and opportunities for its people are necessary for the emirate to develop and that expansion in areas such as industry and tourism depends on education becoming a top priority and will be the foundation for growth.
“The hope for countries lies in their ability to educate their future generation,” said Sheikh Saud. “The wealth of nations lies in their human capital. If we are to remain prosperous and be at the forefront of the league of nations, we have to arm ourselves by empowering our people with knowledge.
“This ranks number one for me – to make sure our experiment in education really is great, to learn from it and move to another territory.”
At the heart of this is the work of the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research. The facts uncovered by its researchers, said Sheikh Saud, were the only way to tackle the challenges facing education. “Education reform really starts with the teacher,” said the Ruler. “If we improve the quality of the teacher, we improve the outcome of our education. This can be done in measured steps, with quantifiable results.
“My dream is to improve the quality of teachers. We need to improve our capacity, which is much longer term. We need long-term mentoring and monitoring of teachers. Our country depends on them.”
The foundation has been working with the RAK Education Zone to assess English language teachers in the emirate’s government schools, addressing any skills gaps it finds. The foundation is also conducting a nationwide study to help understand why so few Emirati males stay in higher education. A vital part of the education strategy is investment, including support for private universities such as the American University of Ras Al Khaimah and the RAK Medical and Health Sciences University.
“What we’d like to do is bring the opportunity to the people who want to study, even if they live in RAK, to give choices and easier access,” said Sheikh Saud. “Giving people the opportunities to further their education will improve the quality of life for people here.
“I want everyone who lives here to have the chance to better him or herself. I don’t want it to be that living here means he or she doesn’t have that chance. It’s vital for society. The level of education of the population will correlate to the economic situation, the whole success of that place.”
The private universities, said Sheikh Saud, were an essential supplement to RAK’s sole federal higher education institution, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), which admits only Emiratis and offers a limited range of courses. “HCT has been very good but we want to have choices for people,” said Sheikh Saud. “These other universities will help fill the gaps.” He is setting up a university council to help the facilities plan their strategies together, to increase communication between them and ultimately to raise standards. He hopes it will prove a vital tool in formulating policy and advancing the sector. “The institutions have to raise their standards,” said Sheikh Saud. “We need to have flexibility but to work together to create minimum standards and innovate to create opportunities.”
He is also keen to improve youth literacy. In 2009, the Programme for International Student Assessment found that UAE nationals age 15 scored well below the rich-nation average for literacy, ranking 54th of 65 participating countries.
“To inculcate independent thinkers, you need to encourage the culture of reading. A nation that reads is a nation that can really lead. A nation that doesn’t read can never find itself in the forefront of nations,” said the Ruler of Ras al Khaimah in his interview with The National.
Recent visitors to Ras al Khaimah are impressed by the rapid development taking place in the Emirate. It seems however that Sheikh Saqr is aware that this development is meaningless unless it is built on good foundations. His choice of education as being that foundation is commendable.Fact box
- Ras al Khaimah is one of the seven emirates that form the United Arab Emirates.
- Its Ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qasimi was born in 1956 and was educated at the American University of Beirut and the University of Michigan. He became Ruler of Ras al Khaimah on 27 October 2010 following the death of his father.
- Ras al-Khaimah is estimated to have a total population of 300,000, of which around half are Emirati citizens and the other half are expatriates (No official figures are available).