DUBAI // While many people look to travel from the UAE to Lebanon for its culture, history and entertainment, Lebanese student Obeida Takiiti chose to do his degree at the American University of Dubai.
The 22-year-old digital production and storytelling student is in his final, fourth year in Dubai. Obeida could not find the course he wanted at any of the many universities at home in Beirut.
"Some of the degrees in Lebanon are very good in certain fields like science but not in media," he says.
"It really depends on your field of study. There was more choice for me here than in Lebanon. Back home it was more focused on traditional journalism or even in film, it's more about theatre and plays than filmmaking."
He won a scholarship to study at the university's media and communications college, and the thought of coming to the rapidly developing city excited him.
"There was such glory that you can see on television and the internet on how Dubai evolved over recent years, how it's become an interesting tourist place," Obeida says.
When he first arrived, imagining something more traditionally Arab, he was surprised at the international feel of the city and the campus.
"I love living in Dubai. Even when I leave to go home for the summer, I still look forward to coming back after the break," Obeida says.
"Even in some of the breaks I don't go back home. I sometimes stay and do internships or volunteer work."
He hopes that will stand him in good stead to stay in Dubai after he finishes his degree.
"There's more opportunities here. There are so many film festivals, the Dubai and Abu Dhabi ones, the Gulf film festival. I've never heard of a Beirut film festival.
"The industry is growing here. Even if I was thinking of directing a film in Lebanon, it would be a case of collaborating with a company here, not just in Lebanon."
Obeida's group of friends is more diverse than it would be on a Lebanese campus, he says, as is his social life.
"There, you will just go to shisha cafes and the beach but here, there are so many events instead of just things revolving around eating. It's much easier to reach different places too."
And compared with the turmoil back home, the Emirates is a safe place to live.
"The last two to four years it's been really intense," Obeida says. "If I'm planning on having a successful business, the security here really helps."
Now when he goes home his family, who wanted him to stay closer to home, see changes in him, from his long hair to his maturer, more independent personality.
"They think I'm some kind of alien, but being here has helped me grow and change."
DUBAI // Tunisian student Afnan Laamari, 21, has been in the UAE for 10 years.
She came here with her family when her father got a job.
When the time came to go to university, despite having the chance to go back home or elsewhere, she chose to study in Dubai.
“I’m too attached to my family,” she admits. “I’m also used to living in Dubai and the comforts I have here. I have a car, things are easy. Other countries are just for holidays.”
Afnan studied at the Lycee Georges Pompidou in Dubai and wanted to expand her education to a third language, already bilingual in Arabic and French.
“I didn’t want to go back to Tunisia and do my studies in French,” she says. I wanted that other language. I wouldn’t find a university like this in English for this kind of subject. It would all be in Arabic and French. The universities there are good but there isn’t that same kind of diversity.”
She chose to study at the branch campus of the UK-based Middlesex University in Dubai. “Everyone usually goes to the American system but for me, this subject was more practical at this university, more hands-on.”
Conscious of her of future employability, she is studying media. “This degree mixes three disciplines, media, PR and advertising so it gives you more opportunities.”
Already, the internships the university has helped to arrange have shown her how much opportunity there is on her doorstep.
“I wouldn’t get these back in Tunisia. There are not the same internship chances as there are here.”
Many of her friends did choose to go abroad and study. “Most of them have lived here their whole life so haven’t experienced the freedom of western countries, but they mostly come back. They can barely survive over there. Living alone was very hard and the lifestyle was so different.
“Some of them still felt conscious of being an Arab in a western country. Here, it’s more like home. There isn’t that feeling at all. It has that thing that keeps you attached to it and it’s hard to express.”
Students at the Dubai campus have the option to transfer to the UK for their third and final year, to give them that international exposure.
“I know I don’t want to already,” she says. She knows all too well the privileges she has here are nothing like student life in the UK, where it is rare for students to drive cars and be able to socialise in the kinds of places students can afford here. Many of her fellow students around campus are decked out in designer attire and drive brand new cars.
“I want to come back here after anyway. You get used to the lifestyle here too. I have everything I want here.
“It’s not like I have strict parents. I’d have no curfew there but I have so much freedom, my own car, I don’t feel like I’d have anything like that there. I love Dubai as much as I love Tunisia.”
DUBAI // For Bahraini student Fatima Al Hajj, Dubai was only meant to be a trial run for moving abroad to study.
The 20-year-old business student, now in her third year at the American University in Dubai (AUD), came to the UAE thinking it would be a one-year preparation for going further afield, perhaps to the US or Canada.
“I wasn’t sure if I could stay so far from home, so I came here for a year because it was closer to home,” she says. “But I really liked it and ended up staying, even though I got into the universities in the US that I wanted.”
Although there are more universities in the UAE than Bahrain, she was wary initially about coming here, having heard stories about universities lacking accreditation or not being of a very good standard.
“The problems were the same here as in Bahrain,” she says. However, she adds that with AUD it was not an issue. “I can take this degree back to Bahrain and it’s recognised. It’s a respected degree.”
The city won her over, too. “I loved the environment, the people. It’s close to home and it’s not really too different to Bahrain,” she says.
“Bahrain is more traditional but here, I like the fact that it’s so multicultural and we can do what we want without anyone judging us.”
She moved into dorms when she arrived which gave her a sense of family, getting to know friends from all over the world.
In addition, she has joined clubs such as the girls’ football team and the Khaleeji club. “There’s so much to do here and we really have that freedom to do what we want.
“If I’d have stayed in Bahrain, I’d have only focused on the academic work like when I was at school, but here I can experience a different form of life and the whole university experience, doing that with people from all different backgrounds.
“It’s so interesting. I’ve improved my football and met so many different people along the way.”
She admits that if she were back home, she would still be as dependent on her family as she was before she left.
“I wouldn’t do anything without them. I was so connected to my family, but here I am different. At home I only focused on my school life, but here I’ve done things outside of that and it’s something I’ll remember forever.”
Through the Khaleeji club she has maintained a connection to her culture. “We get to do so many events and show people our culture because the Khaleeji cultures are all the same. It helps me keep my identity. Because of this club, people know we’re all one and that we’re all the same.”