When a full-time professional goes back to school without quitting his day job, something has to give. For Hamdan Awda, one of the members of INSEAD's inaugural Global Executive MBA class in the Middle East, the sacrifice was his hobby. "I miss my horse," he said this week, following the second round of exams.
Mr Awda, 33, and an endurance riding enthusiast in his spare time, is one of 26 students in the new programme, designed to provide mid-career professionals with a global business education. Because the students are already well advanced in their careers, the discussions are focused on finding practical solutions to problems rather than abstract academic principles.
"The focus is on the theory as well as the practice," Mr Awda said. "Whenever a professor says 'it works this way', five people in the class say 'yeah, but …' The professors expect it. It is designed this way."
The coursework, divided into 10 modules that take place over 15 months, is structured so that participants are able to continue to work full-time while revising for exams at nights and weekends. The average age of the students is 37.
Mr Awda is director of internal audit in the office of Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE. He is the only Emirati in the programme, which includes participants from 15 countries.
Not all of the students come from business backgrounds.
Wael Hmaidan, also 33, is the founder and executive director of IndyAct, a non-governmental organisation based in Beirut that serves as an incubator for activist groups. He said his discussions with business professionals in the programme had given him a new appreciation for how the private sector attempted to balance social good with bottom-line performance.
"My look at the private sector changed. I was a bit shocked," he said. Likewise, he said because he deals with a large volunteer staff he has been able to help business executives consider other ways of providing incentives to employees besides increased pay.
As part of the curriculum participants will visit INSEAD campuses in France and Singapore. Students from those campuses will also make trips to Abu Dhabi.
The international flavour of the programme was a big attraction for Mr Hmaidan. "Although I consider myself very familiar with management generally, heading an international organisation is totally different," he said.
Mr Hmaidan flew to Cancun, Mexico, to attend the summit on climate change immediately after finishing his exams. INSEAD, which is based in Fontainebleau, France, opened in Abu Dhabi in 2007. The first class from the master's programme in entrepreneurial leadership graduated in June. The students in the global executive MBA programme began classes in October and will graduate in December2012.
Mr Awda said he believed it would be a major pipeline for professionals leading the development of the UAE.
"I'm looking forward to being a good example, both for INSEAD and my country. I want to inspire other Emiratis to join such programmes," he said.