ABU DHABI // The Emirati men and women who became Abu Dhabi's "ambassadors" last week had one thing in common: a realisation they did not know their country as well as they had thought.
Numbering 84, they were the fourth and largest group to complete the 10-week training programme organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA). They were taught how to promote their country, how to speak about Abu Dhabi's treasures and how to provide the curious with an understanding of Emirati culture and traditions.
"To be honest, I learnt so much about my own country that I was never aware of before," said Abeer Al Hosani, a senior training coordinator at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Company and one of the graduates.
"I had no idea I could actually see the humble home of our father, Sheikh Zayed, and that his palace in Al Ain has become a museum that we can visit," she said.
This was a sentiment shared by all the graduates: surprise that so many cultural and historical locations were on offer for a visitor wishing to learn more about Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and the surrounding regions of the emirate.
"We were taken to the usual attractions that draw tourists, like the Emirates Palace or the Yas Marina Circuit, but we were shown them in a new light," Ms Al Hosani said. "We can speak of these places now with pride and with facts and information that will show how interesting our emirate is."
But the focus of the programme is not just to churn out a bunch of Emirati tour guides; they are not guides at all, said Nasser Al Reyami, the director of tourism standards at ADTA.
"They are the face of Abu Dhabi, they are ambassadors of their country and their culture, able to speak of all that Abu Dhabi is, and in any setting," he said.
The graduates will go back to their jobs in the private and public sectors, and will be able to use what they learned in their interactions with visitors and expatriate residents.
"My job is to organise and host events, and deal with people from all over the world," said Ms Al Hosani. "I was able to network through this programme, and improve my communication skills and learn how to present myself and my country's attractions to anyone with a question."
Mouza Al Mansoori, a culture guide at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre, found the benefits of the programme innumerable.
"We have hundreds and sometimes thousands of visitors come to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, and it is our responsibility to impart to them the beauty of our culture and traditions through the little time we have with them touring the mosque," she said.
"I am so much more aware of the emirate following this ambassador programme, and I am using the information I learned every time I conduct a tour."
Ibtissam Al Naqbi, a librarian, and Farah Al Suwaidi, branding and advertising specialist at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, said the experience gave them confidence.
"It's not just about knowing that we have a wonderful oasis in Al Ain or that falconry is important in Emirati heritage," Ms Al Naqbi said. "It's about knowing how to present ourselves in any situation as the face of our country."
Visitors to the library always have questions, Ms Al Suwaidi said, and the staff were not always able to find answers.
"That's all changed now," she said.
The programme also included etiquette classes, to teach the graduates how to conduct themselves abroad.
"We learned how to read tourists better, how to approach them depending on where they are from, how to reach out to them," Ms Al Suwaidi said.
Sultan Al Mansouri, a senior at Abu Dhabi University pursuing a degree in human resources management, said every graduate now had a duty to use what they learned.
"I have been using it in everyday life, even educating my own family and friends, because if I didn't know so much before I started this programme, then they don't know everything about Abu Dhabi either," he said.
The graduates will be called upon by the ADTA at least three or four times a year to take part in events such as the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, or at international exhibitions abroad.
"I don't plan to wait until then to act as an ambassador of Abu Dhabi," Mr Al Mansouri said. "I will be an ambassador every day, in every way I can."