I had a dream. His Highness, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the Ruler of Fujairah and Member of the Supreme Council (UAE), called me saying he was going away on holiday and that he was trying something new.
His experiment was to ask a different resident of Fujairah to be in charge of the emirate for every day of his absence and he asked if I would serve in the role for twenty-four hours?
“Your Highness, I would count it a great honour,” I blurted out and then catching my breath I asked, “But is this to simply be a figurehead?”
“No way,” the Ruler replied. “Don’t just keep my seat warm. Make some significant decisions for the good of our emirate. You can’t do too much damage in a day,” he added with a glint in his eye and a smile.
I confessed, “I’ve never had any training to be a Sheikh and you have extremely big sandals to fill. I’m happy to sit in your chair so long as the decisions I make are not seen as a sign of disrespect to you and the valuable service you have rendered.”
Sheikh Hamad reassuringly said, “Don’t worry about that. There’s an old Arab proverb that goes like this: صاحب الحق عينه قوية. Literally it says that the one with the right has a strong eye. To have a strong eye in our Arab culture,” he explained, “is to be bold and to not worry about what others say. So if you’re right, you don't have to worry.”
Notes of a Ruling Sheikh
I was given a warm welcome by his staff and for the first 60 minutes I received some well-wishers at the Remaila Palace—a Consul from Syria, a few grumpy Sheikhs with some complaints, an international dignitary to talk about his human rights organisation, some local CEOs wanting special favours and a few ordinary citizens to wish me a belated ‘Eid Mubarak’.
I enjoyed this open majlis but after one hour I was awash with coffee and high on the most delicious dates that had been grown on one of the Ruler’s farms.
With all the hand-shaking and Salaaming over I went back to the royal office with that Arab proverb reverberating in my mind and knowing that I wanted to make some significant decisions.
Decree # 1
Today (15 September 2010) I reflected on the fact that 299,000 students started their new academic year (2010-2011) at 725 public schools across the UAE, under the guidance of more than 28,000 teachers and administrative staff who had started their work last Monday. What an important day this is for all children and young people in our country!
I thought back to the speech that Humaid Obaid Al Qattami, the UAE Minister of Education, gave on Monday when he urged all teachers to give of their best.
Al Qattami said to representatives of the teachers from across the Emirates:
“The community fully trusts you with preparing the generations which represent the country's future. Through your noble mission, education can achieve its goals and aspirations.”
I thought then that those words were somewhat hollow, that we had the teachers but we hadn’t given them enough ‘noble’ tools. We lacked a plan that would take the youngest pupils and bring them confidently through the various levels of education in the next 15-20 years.
I summoned my right hand man and said we were making a surprise visit to one of the public schools in Fujairah. “Should I alert the media?” he asked. “Yes, I said, “I want all the media to record my visit and speech.”
Within an hour we were in the school grounds. The Principal was busy on this opening day and looked flabbergasted at my unexpected visit. I roved around the classrooms meeting teachers and shaking hands with the children. An unscheduled assembly was held in the school hall.
After my introduction as a ‘substitute Sheikh’ I addressed the gathering:
Three years ago this school was given a poor assessment. If this school had received a report card like the one you take home to your parents it would have read like this:
* Basic Necessities—Fail
* Projectors and Video Equipment—Fail
* Laboratory Equipment—Fail
* Water Coolers—Fail or Not Applicable but subsequently the Red Crescent came to to the rescue to provide you with water coolers!
* Sports Hall—Fail and again Not Applicable because this was non-existent. The School Yard was often too hot for Sports Education and for students to play at morning break and lunch time.
* Air Conditioners—Fail
* Door Handles—Fail because they were all broken.
* Financial Resourcing—Fail. This was hopelessly inadequate. The school needed at least Dh 300,000 to bring it to an acceptable standard.
* School Principal—A+! Your Principal had just arrived and was doing an excellent job bringing the school into the twentieth century [one century at a time]! But, good on her, she spent the entire budget in the first two days on renewing the basics!
Things have improved here at this school but such a report card is unacceptable in this emirate and I am visiting today to say that the government of Fujairah is now committing itself to supplying you and all schools with the tools to do the job.
To this end a number of decisions have been made but let me announce the most significant:
1. The education portion of the government budget will be revised and substantially increased so that every school in the emirate will be resourced with all the new equipment that your school so tragically lacked—air conditioning, lab equipment, video projectors, computer suite, sports hall and library. Let me add while I am speaking about libraries, all schools in Al Fujairah are urged with my support to apply for the Dh 100,000 Emirates Foundation grant to upgrade their libraries. [Libraries to Benefit from Foundation Grants, The National, 14 September 2010]
2. The salaries of all teachers in the emirate of Fujairah at all levels (pre-school, primary, secondary and tertiary) are to be revised and dramatically upgraded. It’s not acceptable for graduating students fresh out of one of our tertiary Colleges to go into the UAE police force or UAE army and be paid in their first year more than what their secondary school principals are being paid after years of dedicated training and service.
To keep our country and citizens safe is of great importance but the training of the minds and the shaping of the character of the young people like those who are before me today is the most important job in this emirate. Money is not everything but the salaries of teachers must reflect the importance of the task and the priorities that we are now emphasizing. I want to attract the best teachers to Fujairah and when they come to do all in my power to see them keep up their training.
The people from this emirate of Fujairah are sometimes mocked by those in the larger cities. They’re often referred to as ‘mountain goats’. But the overhaul that I envisage will put an end to that rough, uneducated stereotype as the people of Fujairah become known around the world as those possessing the highest educational standards and as capable leaders and trendsetters in their chosen field.
3. Students have been entering our tertiary Colleges in Fujairah without the basic grounding that should have been given to them in their primary and secondary schools. This has to change if we are to compete on the international stage and if our tertiary Colleges are going to take them on significantly further. Along with improving the standard of our teachers will be a major plan that overhauls and integrates the entire educational pathway from pre-school through to post-graduate education.
The speech was well received. The media was buzzing. The teachers were euphoric, at least for a day. I hadn’t told them that teachers would not only receive higher salaries but they would receive higher scrutiny and if they didn’t shape up in their evaluations they would be shipped out and replaced by those who did have the goods to teach our young people in Fujairah.
I thought I would return to the Palace for more coffee and dates and to consider my next decree.
On my way I checked the Blackberry that Sheikh Hamad had left for me and noticed a new article [UAE Students Keen on Co-Education, Newzglobe, 15-09-2010] stating that UAE tertiary students were keen on co-education. I reflected that this trend was already taking on at our Fujairah Colleges and I mulled over how we could be proactive in eliminating separate Colleges and developing universities where women and men could study together and thus be prepared for service together in this modern globalised world.
I was starting to enjoy the life of a ruling Sheikh.
(His Highness?) Geoff Pound
This article is also posted on the Fujairah in Focus Facebook Page upon which many more articles and links are posted than on this blog.
Image: His Highness, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the Ruler of Fujairah and Member of the Supreme Council (UAE) and his three sons (from right to left in Arabic fashion—His Highness Sheikh Maktoum, His Highness Sheikh Rashid—at the time graduating from university in England—and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Fujairah. (Photo from a billboard outside the Fujairah Football Club).