Will UAE’s Ras Al Khaimah produce the next Bill Gates?
A Google-sponsored project in the emirate seeks to train young people and teachers in the fields of science, technology
Ras Al Khaimah is not the first place that springs to mind when asked about the United Arab Emirates and it certainly is not as well-known outside of the country as Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
So the revelation that tech giant Google now has financial investment in the emirate, might well come as a surprise to some.
The Google sponsored community project – Innovation Hub - is aimed at training young people and teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). And the Emirate’s education chiefs say they have high hopes for the future of its younger population.
The project – which has been set up by Al Bayt Mitwahid Association, that promotes projects aimed at turning the UAE into a self-sustainable nation - will combine education and technology in one space, offering classes in robotics, 3D printing, aerospace, electronics, computer coding, programming and green energy.
The thinking behind the project is based on the worldwide shortage of students following the four STEM-based disciplines, in the hope that by introducing students to the latest technologies they will develop a passion which they follow through their education into a career locally in the country.
Saeed All Kaabi, chairman of the UAE Teachers’ Association, said the UAE was competing with the rest of the world, but added: “If we are going to succeed at this we need to maintain a pace that can compete with other countries and we need to think globally, otherwise we cannot achieve this.”
Google’s involvement in the project in Ras Al Khaimah was prompted by a recognition that there was a lack of investment in the emirate or an adequate supply of people trained in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
The project is set in the UAE Teachers’ Association building in Ras Al Khaimah, tucked behind the main thoroughfare to the industrial zones and the Oman peninsula border. The street is a far cry from the six lane highways of Dubai, surrounded by glistening new sky scrapers, shopping malls and five star hotels.
Instead, the quiet road is lined with a small number of schools and education offices, grass grows through the cracks in the surface of the walkway, the uncovered sand is kicked up by the gusts of wind that are channeled down the street.
Step inside the Teachers’ Association building and it looks like most other community buildings, but in a small classroom is a collection of state-of-the-art technology and engineering equipment that will be used to teach teachers and students.
The emirate’s Director of the Eductaion Zone Somaya Al Suwaidi, said its students already excel at the traditional sciences and mathematics. And she said that while the emirate might not have the same level of wealth as Dubai or Abu Dhabi, it does have the potential.
She explained: “It is true that our emirate might not be as well-known as Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but it is the home of some of the country’s highest performing students. We already have the best scores for science and mathematics in the country and our students have won awards in competitions against other Gulf nations.”
Suwaidi said that students performed particularly well in the traditional sciences, but “they need to now move forward with their knowledge of technology and engineering.”
She said the hope was that the introduction of the center would help the UAE reach its vision of producing the world’s highest achieving students by 2021. Which she said would be able to join the nation’s workforce.
Her visions might seem like high hopes for such a relatively small project - but Google, Yahoo and Apple were all founded in bedrooms or garages - and Google’s Middle East and North Africa Director, Mohamad Mourad, said all that was required was for a small idea to be turned into a bigger one.
He explained: “When YouTube launched a competition for people to come up with an idea for an experiment to be carried out on the International Space Station (ISS), an 18-year-old came up with the idea of taking a jumping spider out of its natural environment and see how it would adapt.”
Amr Mohamed from Alexandria, Egypt had watched the spiders and wondered if they would still be able to jump in different environments - his idea won and the spider was launched into space and stayed on the ISS for 100 days. The spider was able to adapt to its new environment and catch prey, surviving for the duration of its stay, before being successfully returning to earth where it readjusted to gravity (it died four days later).
“What this showed,” explained Mourad, “was that when you come up with a small idea, you can make it 10 times bigger if you want to - that’s all it takes.”
UAE’s future Silicone Valley?
The aim of the Ras Al Khaimah project is to create similar big thinkers that will put the emirate on the map – possibly alongside the likes of Silicone Valley.
The UAE’s public sector workforce is mostly made of Emiratis - but the country’s rulers have for some time been pushing a project of Emiratization, aimed at increasing the number of local people working in the private sector.
It is hoped that the innovation hub - while comparatively small - will help contribute towards reaching this aim.
Sam Blatteis, Google’s head of government relations and public policy, Gulf countries, said: “We were inspired by Ras Al Khaimah - there’s a tremendous amount of potential here.
“Google hires the best people, irrespective of where they come from - whether it is half way around the world or 90 minutes down the road. We place a very high priority on human capital development.
“We see this [project] as a long term commitment to the country that we are in. We really genuinely see an eagerness to learn and a potential in the local population. Our office in the UAE has doubled in head count recently, so we are very interested in this country in the long term and we have a growing number of functions here.”
And Blatteis added: “We’re committed to supporting the development of human capital in the UAE – creating a STEM-ready workforce.”