A softening of attitudes in the US towards Arabs and Muslims has helped to fuel a sharp rise in the numbers of Emiratis choosing to study in America. According to experts, the reversal of public opinion - which had become hostile following the attacks of September 11, 2001 - combined with an increase in student scholarships, has seen enrolments rise by almost a quarter.
"I think it's that America is becoming friendlier towards the Arab and Muslim world," said Dr Rima Sabban, a sociologist at Zayed University. "[Previously] Even we as academics didn't want to go through the hustle and problems of going through Customs." Last week the Institute for International Education (IIE), a New York-based organisation that tracks foreign students studying in the US, said the numbers were up by 23.9 per cent on last year. That was the biggest annual jump since 1980.
Of the 1,218 Emiratis now at US institutions, 60 per cent are undergraduates, with the rest taking graduate courses. The Middle East overall saw a rise of 17.7 per cent in enrolments in the US, with Saudi Arabia breaking into the top 10 list with 12,661 students. However, there are still far fewer Emiratis studying in the US than in the UK. According to the British Home Office, there were 2,310 UAE students studying there last year.
The IIE surveys 3,000 accredited universities in the US, and promotes exchange programmes with the Muslim world, something it said was crucial to rebuilding relations between the Middle East and the US. "Educational exchange is a critical component of promoting closer relations and dialogue between the people of the Middle East and the United States," said Alan Goodman, the chief executive of the IIE.
The increasing number of students going abroad, however, had not resulted in fewer Emiratis enrolling at UAE institutes, said Ali Shuhaimy, the vice chancellor for enrolment management at the American University of Sharjah. "There is a spike [in US enrolments] because of the increase in the number of students getting scholarships," he said. AUS saw almost three times as many Emiratis applying for scholarships in 2008 compared with 2007, and the number had also risen slightly this year, he added.
The proportion of UAE nationals in the home student body increased from early this year, when they made up 19 per cent of students, to 22 per cent now, he said. In addition, organisations such as the IIE "want to advertise the changes that are taking place" in the political climate to entice more students to go to the US, said Mr Shuhaimy. Such moves gave "a feeling of trust on both sides that things are getting better".
Mr Shuhaimy echoed experts' opinions that the September 11 attacks had a noticeable effect on the number of Emiratis choosing to study in the US. "The situation was not normal, and the political situation affected the numbers. But it is changing and this encourages students to go, as well as the families. "Families used to be worried about sending their kids. A lot of students were also worried because some of them would come back on holiday and their visa would not be renewed and they'd have to enrol at a local university," he said.
Most Emirati students who earn degrees from western universities do return to the UAE, said Mr Shuhaimy. "The country has good opportunities," he said. "Many come back to guaranteed jobs and good living standards. "The country definitely benefits from them, which is the goal. It's a great leap forward for the country's institutions in general." Compulsion plays a part, too; many students have contracts with UAE sponsors that require them to come back to a job after they have graduated, he added.
For those students who do choose to go to the US to study, most have found the experience a positive one, said Dr Sabban. "Emirati students in general do adapt to a new atmosphere as easily as other international students, because they come from an open society where they deal with many nationalities." The only hardship, she said, was leaving the "secure, comfortable, pampering family atmosphere". But students often came home with a deeper appreciation of traditional values, she added.
For one Abu Dhabi-born student, Maha al Fahim, the hardest thing about studying in the US was being away from her family. "Especially now that Eid is coming," she added. The 18-year-old is in her second year of a public policy degree at the University of Michigan. Miss al Fahim said she had found a warm welcome in Michigan. She said the state was reminiscent of Dubai, where she had previously studied, in that it was diverse. "In general, people are very, very nice here and they are very accepting," she said.
She felt that teaching standards in the US were among the best in the world. "I think, in general, it has the best education system. The UK has Oxford and Cambridge but, in general, the US has better schools." However, she does intend to return to her home country once her studies are complete. "I'd certainly like to come back and work in the UAE, particularly in Abu Dhabi, my hometown. "It would only make sense for me to go back to my country. There's a shortage of females working in certain fields, so I'd love it if I could go back to my country and fill in that gap."