"A teacher in my daughter's school committed suicide. They just bring these teachers and put them here," one parent told me, after hearing Dr Maryam Lootah's thoughts on the current state of UAE education.
Dr Lootah, an assistant professor of political science at UAE University, wasn't speaking of poetry, but her prose demanded applause from the audience. She gave a scathing assessment of the nation's historical trajectory of education and the widget-worker based economy, where the focus is on skills instead of character. She called for an end to the addiction to foreign consultants, teachers and curricula.
Overall, she seemed to speak for many in the audience who have had their fill of an education policy that has been marked by false starts and abrupt stops. It was evident that there were many in the packed audience who had been waiting to exhale as their voices were finally heard. Dr Lootah used the example of 2008's financial crisis, where "those same businessmen and bankers in London are looking to become teachers here". The implication was that the unscrupulous characters involved in banking may now be found in a school near you, teaching your children.
The trade-off between the UAE's emerging economy and national identity was, Dr Lootah said, nothing more than a rip off. Dr Ian Haslam, the vice chancellor of Emirates College of Advanced Education said it best: "If Australia needs to assess their education policies, they are not going to call some one from Britain or anywhere else to do it. They have the people to do it themselves." Given the political mood in the United States, one could just imagine what would happen if a contingent of educational consultants were sent in from the UAE.
Luckily, Emiratis are a kind people who take pride in their culture of hospitality. However, within Dr Lootah's talk, one could sense the beginnings of a revolt. As she spoke there was an icy chill in the back where a few westerners were sitting as still as mannequins, trying not to draw attention. I asked the panel; "What kind of training are these teachers and consultants getting when they come to the UAE, because the children are suffering?" I didn't get a response. It's not just about language, it's about values, and what one participant referred to as a "cultural tsunami".
Now there seems to be a generation of nationals with little or no experience of what it means to be Emirati, Muslim or Arab, with many getting by mostly on rumour and borrowed memories. They can't speak Arabic well, prefer English and in nearly all respects have lost their traditional character. Dr Lootah believes these students are an outcome of a tragedy and predicts that if the trend of importing foreign consultants is not stopped, it will lead to the erasure of Emiratis as a people. Ali al Saloom, of The National's Ask Ali column, once complained that for an Emirati to be accepted in expatriate circles, they must speak perfect English, rap, break-dance or mimic some sort of western behaviour.
Another effect of these policy changes is that imported teachers see Arab teachers as inferior, curtailing the efforts of Emiratisation. Students also adopt these attitudes, believing western teachers are better - and also, damagingly, that skin colour is an indicator of teaching ability. I know of an African American Muslim teacher who says that at the beginning of each year, parents come to meet her. And when they see her brown skin and abaya, they demand a transfer for their children.
This is not to say that those from the West are all bad, and in many ways, it's really a matter of learning about your environment and being respectful. Most people feel that it's unnecessary to explain to expatriates the values of UAE. In other cases it's the complete opposite; some Arabs want to mimic everything that is western, leaving their Arab-Islamic identity at home in the closet. For Dr Lootah, it seems that this last option is unacceptable.
Maryam Ismail is a sociologist based in the US and the UAE