MADINAT ZAYED// When Bakhita Al Mansoori wanted to go to college, she had one option: leave home. The rural area where she lived had no educational opportunities beyond high school.
With the support of her family, she studied at Al Ain Women's College. But when she came home after graduation, she faced the same problem. "All the jobs I was getting were in Abu Dhabi," said Ms Al Mansoori, 29, who lives 150 kilometres away in Al Gharbia.
Choices were limited in the past, but development is bringing opportunities to Al Gharbia's youth. After a year-long job search, Ms Al Mansoori's luck changed in 2006. The Higher Colleges of Technology opened a campus in Madinat Zayed, and she found a job as a human resources officer. The new college marked a turning point for many local women, whose families sometimes prohibit studying far away.
"I was so happy to hear," said her colleague Afra Mohammed, 30, who was unemployed for four years before the new college enabled her to study in her home town. Ms Mohammed started her first job last week as the campus receptionist.
The Al Gharbia Development Forum today will highlight ambitious plans for the region, the swath of desert west of Abu Dhabi. But to the young residents of Madinat Zayed, the results are already clear.
"Madinat Zayed has changed," Ms Mohammed said.
Anwar Abdi Suleiman, 20, has watched the shift during his lifetime. "A lot of things are coming to Al Gharbia," he said. "I think in the future it will be better."
Cranes loom over a construction site on the outskirts of town, the future location of new colleges and institutes. A banner near the Western Region Development Council office announces that Starbucks is coming soon.
The biggest change, Ms Al Mansoori said, is the growing number of Emirati women in the workforce.
"Before, you know, it was quite sensitive if you are working in a section and males are there," she said. "But now if you go in every place, they are all working."
Make no mistake: Madinat Zayed is still a small town. The city centre is a strip of low-rise buildings. There is no cinema. And many young people still leave to seek their fortune in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.
"The education, the shopping and the facilities - so many things are missing," Ms Al Mansoori said. "Even though this region is developing … it will take time."
Ms Al Mansoori loves the quietness of Madinat Zayed, where the desert is never far away. But for some young people, it can be stifling. Yousef Bootan, 22, who came to Madinat Zayed from Somalia as an infant, cannot afford to attend college and works as a supervisor in a friend's construction company.
"The situation is not good," he said. "But God willing, I will go after one year to India to go study in college there."
"I don't want to stay here," he added.
Even for young people who can pursue higher education in the region, the limited choice of subjects and the lack of facilities are challenging.
"Some of them are forced to come here to enter any programme, even if they are not interested in it, just because they cannot travel," Ms Al Mansoori said.
"We have chemical engineering students but we don't have any laboratories for them," said Nial Farrell, acting director of the college. "So they study at Abu Dhabi Men's College on Saturday."
Attracting men to the campus is difficult. "They are motivated to start earning as soon as possible," Mr Farrell said.
Mohammed Al Hammadi, 20, a high-school graduate, said it was easy for him to find a job with an oil company. He plans to attend college in Abu Dhabi eventually. But he is certain he will return to Madinat Zayed.
"We were born here," he said. "The seed of love has been planted in our hearts."
Mr Suleiman, who is unemployed and harbours dreams of becoming a famous singer, has more complicated feelings.
"I want to move to Abu Dhabi, actually," he said. "I don't know, really."
But he defended his home to a visitor.
"It's not just sand," he said. "There is a very, very deep meaning in this place. You have to know about it."