What’s a scientist like you doing in the UAE?

The balance between modernity and traditional culture, a great mix of people with varied cultural backgrounds, free circulation of ideas, books and information in the country is captivating

On my frequent travels I get to meet wonderfully bright and interesting people from various walks of life: scientists, intellectuals, social leaders, media personalities and many others. We quickly ask one another about what we do, where we are based, how our life trajectories have brought us there, and perhaps where we expect to go next … When I say that I am a scientist and based in the UAE people invariably ask, “What’s a scientist like you doing in the UAE?” or some variant of this question.

The question is not meant as demeaning to the UAE. In fact, very quickly, upon hearing my answers, people become captivated about the Emirates. They just tend to unconsciously equate a fluent English-speaking scientist or academic with the West. But globalisation is changing these stereotypes, and people are beginning to realise that there is much good science and culture in the rest of the world.

So what’s a scientist like me doing in the UAE? In a nutshell, I tell my new acquaintances: Here I have the perfect formula for my personal and professional life, a balance between modernity and traditional culture, a great mix of people with huge varieties of cultural backgrounds, a free circulation of ideas, books, and information, financial and material comfort that frees me (and many others) from worries and allows me to focus on ideas and projects that I can undertake. I can attend any event anywhere in the world, visa difficulties notwithstanding — in fact even visas are easier to obtain here in the UAE for most nationalities.

And there’s one other important factor (perhaps the most important one): my excellent university! Indeed, where else can one find an institution that has a student body of 92 different nationalities and a faculty and staff body with more than 40 nationalities? People’s jaws invariably drop when I mention just this fact. One can readily imagine the pleasure of interacting with students and colleagues with fascinating cultural backgrounds and personal trajectories.

Cultural mosaic

The society at large in the UAE also offers a unique setting for one’s life: it is essentially bilingual, and while Islam (of a very moderate shade) is the dominant religion, there is broad and genuine tolerance toward other religions, beliefs, and practices. The cultural mosaic is also rather extraordinary, with the extensive availability of books of all tendencies, the visits and performances by celebrities from various fields (music, cinema, literature, politics, sports), etc.

Indeed, just in the past three years, my young university welcomed three Nobel prize winners, in addition to Nelson Mandela before that, and other great thinkers and artists too numerous to name. No place is perfect on Earth, however, and it would not be constructive of me if I did not mention areas where improvements can be made.

Despite the existence of a number of excellent universities in the country, the amount of collaboration or even interaction between them (common research projects, common courses, exchange of students, participation in one another’s committees, etc.) is still rather weak.

One must keep in mind, though, that most of them were established only recently. Setting stronger collaborations should in fact be a no-brainer, considering that we are far from the “centre(s) of gravity” or hubs of world research, i.e. North America, Europe, and the Far East. There are few top-notch research facilities in the country or even the region, and we should all join hands and share our resources (human and material).

Other areas of improvement include job security and financial and personal security. There are no retirement plans available for most expats and few long-term health insurance plans. Many of us worry about what will happen if, God forbid, a personal tragedy suddenly hits us.

On its National Day, I would like to congratulate the UAE for its extraordinary development in just a few decades, an unprecedented feat in human history. I also wish to thank the country and its people for giving us such a comfortable and enjoyable life. I hope that we expats can continue to contribute to the progress of this young and vibrant nation for years to come.

By Nidhal Guessoum, published in Gulf News, November 25th 2013.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor and associate dean at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum