When Alf Lim first considered his university options, his top choice was Stanford - a prestigious US institution, instantly recognisable in his native Norway.
But after hearing of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), the 20-year-old abandoned his plan, picking NYUAD as his number one choice instead.
His decision to study in a place he had never visited signals how the capital is rapidly earning a reputation as a global education centre.
But while Mr Lim was attracted by the Abu Dhabi's Middle Eastern location, he admits it was the New York University brand that was particularly important.
"The name played a role in making this a safer bet," says Mr Lim, who received a full scholarship to study here. "The fact that you have the big name is important because it gives my education some weight when I return to Europe."
Partnering with internationally acclaimed universities such as NYUAD is something Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) - founded in 2005 with the sole purpose of elevating education to the highest international standards - has incorporated into its long-term education strategy.
The reasoning is simple. By teaming up with the big names, Abu Dhabi can simultaneously provide local students with access to world-class education programmes, and transform the emirate into a hub that attracts talent from elsewhere.
"We benefit greatly from the partnerships as we learn what works well for students in other places. Likewise, our partners come to understand the particular needs and aspirations of Adec as we work together to improve the quality of education across all sectors in Abu Dhabi," says an official from Adec's public education (P-12) sector.
The newest kid on the block was announced last week. Cranleigh, a leading UK independent school founded in 1865, has partnered with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), and is due to open on Saadiyat Island in 2014.
Housing up to 1,600 boys and girls, from ages 3 to 18, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi is set to be the largest campus in the emirate. The idea for the capital campus was mooted in 2010 when the school was approached by a group of former pupils with Middle Eastern connections.
The news follows the opening of Brighton College, another successful British brand with an 167-year history, that opened in Abu Dhabi last year.
"The education system in Abu Dhabi needs schools like Cranleigh to join the excellent schools that already exist in the emirate, to share ideas, and compete both inside and outside the classroom to drive the overall standards up," says Michael T Wilson, head of Cranleigh Preparatory School.
"We have not lifted Cranleigh, UK, into Abu Dhabi; we have translated it into the local setting."
While Cranleigh Abu Dhabi will attract pupils from the capital and the surrounding emirates, its boarding facilities - a first for Abu Dhabi - will also attract international pupils, something that is key for all of the emirate's global tie-ups.
Take Norway's Mr Lim at NYUAD. Now in his second year studying economics, Mr Lim is one of 450 students from 89 countries around the world. Students from the US make up the largest group and Emiratis the second largest.
As Josh Taylor, NYUAD's associate vice chancellor of public affairs and community relations, points out, the university has come a long way since opening its doors 2010.
"In just a few short years NYU Abu Dhabi is competing with the most selective universities in the world. Last year, we received more than 15,000 applications for admission; about 2,500 selected Abu Dhabi as their primary choice, with NYUNY being their alternate selection. We accepted just over 200."
Some may question why these global partnerships are necessary, particularly when the emirate already has so many well-established schools and higher-education facilities.
However, to ensure the capital succeeds in its mission to develop a diversified knowledge economy, it needs to act fast.
"It is difficult to build a globally recognised higher-education system in a short period. The oldest European universities have a history spanning over 750 years, which is the case at La Sorbonne," says Prof Eric Fouache, vice-chancellor of Paris Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, which entered the emirate's education arena in 2006 as the first French-speaking institution.
Paris-Sorbonne is one of the 20 best universities for human sciences worldwide, so it makes sense to bring the brand into Abu Dhabi.
The same is true of INSEAD, one of the world's leading business schools - which opened in Abu Dhabi in 2007 - and says its presence here is key not only to Abu Dhabi's developing education structure but also to the business community.
Miguel Lobo, INSEAD Abu Dhabi's associate professor of decision sciences, says: "INSEAD Abu Dhabi is providing the country with a new pool of talent with global management skills. In addition, many senior executives come from elsewhere in the world to participate in our programmes and events. This contributes to the city's international visibility and reputation as a business hub, and helps further develop economic ties into global business networks."
However, it is not only Abu Dhabi that gains.
For brands operating in fiercely competitive established markets in the west, it is a chance to spread their wings and attract new interest in their style of education.
"How could we refuse to participate in an intercultural adventure supporting the message of tolerance indulgence, and universality offered by a Muslim country from the Middle East?" asks Prof Fouache. "Being the first French university abroad is a big challenge. The identical duplication of courses, by the same lecturers coming from Paris, makes it impossible to repeat the experience elsewhere. Therefore, there will be no other Sorbonne abroad, at least not with the same structure as in Abu Dhabi, which gives even more value to our university."
Similarly, when NYUAD opened its doors to undergraduates in September 2010, it became the first liberal arts campus operated overseas by a major American university.
After first meeting in 2005, the partners agreed they wanted an American-style, research-focused educational institution that offers a 21st century facility. That dream will be fully realised when NYUAD moves from its existing central location to a state-of-the art campus on Saadiyat Island in 2014.
Students such as Mr Sim are already reaping the rewards. He has two terms planned overseas in Shanghai and New York and an internship with the United Nations Environmental Progamme in Abu Dhabi, an opportunity he thinks would be unlikely elsewhere.
"The competition for a lot of great internships is less in Abu Dhabi than in New York. You'd need to be a graduate student and probably a graduate from Harvard and even then the chances are really slim," he says.
NYUAD also satisfies the needs of those closer to home.
For the Emirati, Shaikha Al Falasi, studying in an international institution in her own country solved a personal dilemma.
While the civil engineering student had dreams of studying overseas, she did not want to leave her beloved friends and family behind.
"I applied to New York and then saw a box asking if you want your application to be taken into consideration for the Abu Dhabi campus. I was so happy that I got in. I can go 100 kilometres and home is there," says Ms Al Falasi, 19, who stays at the campus during the week, driving home to Dubai on Thursdays.
"Even though home is not far away, even the silliest things like doing your laundry makes you independent, so it's a new experience."
Ms Al Falasi, who is the only Emirati on her course, feels she will have the "best of both worlds" by also taking terms in Berlin and London.
She says this opportunity, coupled with the international name, were the driving factors in her decision to apply. And she hopes the course will be enough to propel her into a career working for Mubadala, Abu Dhabi government's investment arm.
"With respect to all other universities, I am in a very prestigious university and when others see you have studied in Berlin they will think, 'Oh, she knows a lot of other aspects about engineering'. I will learn German and I already know French, so when you are in a global university you get to live differently and learn directly from others."
It is a glowing review for such a new university but it also points to a wider issue. Do these international partnerships put local institutions at risk of being sidelined?
INSEAD Abu Dhabi's Mr Lobo says the presence of internationally recognised higher-education institutions enables local universities to attract better faculty and students, therefore ensuring faster development of the educational system.
And Adec says they are not undermining existing facilities.
"One of the key criteria in assessing the case of inviting international institutions to Abu Dhabi is the landscape of programmes offered by Abu Dhabi institutions," says Dr Jihad Mohaidat, Adec's global partnerships division manager. "The format of inviting international institutions will be in the form of strengthening local programmes to be world-class if needed, otherwise international institutions in these specific programmes are not invited."
So how do these global institutions ensure their reputation and standards are not diluted by operating on foreign soil?
"The INSEAD Global Executive MBA programme is integrated across all three campuses," Prof Lobo says. "The students who start in Abu Dhabi travel to France and Singapore for some of the modules and, for other modules, the students who start in France and Singapore travel to Abu Dhabi. The sections that start in each of the three campuses are therefore recruited globally, by the same staff and with the same procedures and standards."
Abu Dhabi has certainly taken some significant steps in its mission to raise standards, but is it enough to be a credible player on the global education map?
"I believe Abu Dhabi already offers a unique, world-class education system," says Prof Fouache.
"If most global academic centres in the world are several centuries old, what Abu Dhabi has achieved in such a short time sets a unique precedent in the region, and in my opinion is nothing short of incredible."