ABU DHABI // They lean over their books, figures of concentration, students who are learning the finer points of global economic policies.
Later on, they might tackle immigration patterns, international history or cultural differences. These young people are the UAE's diplomats of the future, possibly ambassadors one day, who will represent the country around the world. And they are being taught the skills to achieve these goals at Diplomatic Academy. Twenty-two students are studying a dedicated master's course at Zayed University, the first of its kind in the region and one which the students hope will be the foundation for a career in the higher echelons of diplomatic relations.
Launched last year, the course was set up following a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for staff to be trained at home rather than being sent to foreign institutions, with classes tailored to the needs of an Emirati diplomatic corps. The academy, set up in 2008, previously offered only two-month programmes for trained diplomats about to be posted abroad. The students in the master's programme, however, are here for the long term, studying everything they will need to prepare them for the global stage.
Even as they continue their academic training, nearly all have full-time jobs as diplomatic attachés at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which funds their course. They study 10 courses of six weeks per topic, a combination of compulsory and optional courses ranging from the international political economy to public diplomacy and history, immigration and international law. The aim, says Dr Federico Velez, the course co-ordinator, is to arm the students with a wide range of skills and a broad knowledge base, especially as the UAE opens more embassies around the world.
"We want to prepare the students with the skills to deal with the challenges of 21st-century politics, people who understand the complexities of world politics today," Dr Velez said. Modern politics, he said, are more practical and less ideological than those of 20 or 30 years ago, in the days of the Cold War. "Now, it's about the environment, global migration, security," he said. "As such, you need well-trained diplomats and people who can represent their government well. In these students' cases, to represent what the UAE is."
Rashid al Mazrouee, 25, a diplomatic attaché in the department of legal affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is one of the first crop of students on the master's course. The ministry sponsored him to study in Melbourne before bringing him home after his graduation. "Whether it's here or abroad, I want to help my country," he said. "Our country is so young but has such big visions, from the time of Sheikh Zayed."
He said that initiatives like the International Renewable Energy Agency, based in Abu Dhabi, "show what great progress we are making around the world". Jamal al Musharakh, 22, said his parents always told him he would have a career in the diplomatic field. He was exposed to foreign affairs even as a child, having attended schools in the UK and US before returning to the UAE for his undergraduate studies.
An attaché based in the European Affairs department, Mr al Musharakh said that diplomats "go on the global stage for the UAE", making them particularly important for a young country. Mr al Musharakh, who is due to be among the first students to graduate from the master's programme next year, said the course has already helped him on the job, giving him the knowledge and confidence to perform at a higher level.
All but one of the students is from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but as time goes on the programme will welcome students from around the Emirates and the region, Dr Velez said. Dr Velez gained his PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston. While there, he met students from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. "What we're doing here is providing human capital," he said. "In time, we want these students to be coming here.
"It will be good for the dynamics of the class to have more people from other countries as well as the private sector in the UAE. It will benefit the country to be a regional centre as well as benefiting the students to have international dialogue while they study." As the programme matures, Dr Velez would like to see students take field trips, as part of their course work, to institutions such as the International Court at The Hague in the Netherlands and the UN in New York.
Noura Mohammed Juma, the UAE's consul general in Shanghai, recently completed the two-month intensive course at the academy. Current ambassadors in countries including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, France and Australia are also academy short-course graduates. Classes focus on topics specific to the nations in which the ambassadors will serve. For Yousef Saif al Ali, the current ambassador to Afghanistan, Dr Velez said that training focused on the country's collapse and the implications of that upon the region and in particular the UAE; security issues in the country, a perspective of Nato, the economy and foreign aid.
Ms Juma was the first woman to go through the intensive course. "Women all over the world are only just starting to break through the glass ceiling in this field," said Dr Velez, who has four females amongst the 22 master's students. New challenges lie ahead for the would-be diplomats on the master's course. Recent events, such as the economic situation in Dubai, have led to negative publicity for the country, but it is these events which the future diplomats see as part of the challenge.
"It's our job to paint a positive image of the country. Every country has misperceptions," said Mr al Mazrouee. "This country is seen as a dream land to many people around the world." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org