x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

It's sad how little UAE students know about local history

On the islands, in the deserts and in the mountains of the UAE, there is a world of wonders, of history and of nature, awaiting to be discovered.

In this space two weeks ago I praised the Qasr Al Hosn festival in Abu Dhabi for encouraging greater awareness of the nation's history. I also argued that there are many other places around the country, some seemingly insignificant, that are also important in terms of national heritage.

A couple of days ago, I went to talk to some secondary-level students, in years 7, 8 and 9 at one of Abu Dhabi's best private schools. These students, boys and girls and mostly Emiratis, were starting a project that will last all of this week, to teach them about the country's past, present and future.

Outings will include visits to the Heritage Village on Abu Dhabi's breakwater, to the Dubai Museum and to Masdar, to provide them with a look into the UAE's future in terms of energy.

My talk was supposed to focus on the past - to introduce the students to some aspects of the country's long and fascinating history.

I started by asking a few questions, to gauge their level of knowledge. Did any of them know when settlement first began in what is now the UAE? Or where there had been a Christian monastery before the coming of Islam? None did, although one student knew that there were Christians here before Islam.

I talked about some of the places that are relevant to the country's history, focusing on the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. I talked about the area's earliest stone-built houses, over 7,000 years old, on the island of Marawah. Did any of them know where Marawah was? No. Or Dalma? No - though I found, to my surprise, that two students were from a family that has traditionally been based on Dalma. Did any of them know the UAE's largest island, Abu Al Abyadh? No, once again.

The teacher put up a map of the UAE, so I could explain where some of the islands were, and to talk about other aspects of history, such as the fact that the rolling sand dunes between the coast and Liwa (they all knew where that was) meant that it was too difficult to reach Liwa before the camel was domesticated, a little more than 3,000 years ago.

Or the fact that sailors from Dibba, in what is now the UAE, were trading with China 2,000 years ago. I talked about the country's industries before the coming of oil, such as copper-mining in the mountains, which began around 5,000 years ago and lasted until a few hundred years ago, and about the pearling industry, which began over 7,000 years ago and faded away only after the Second World War.

Most of that was new to them, but facts like these, I told them, show that the UAE has a fascinating history, one that's well worth studying. I urged them to make the best of their project week, and perhaps more important, to talk to their parents and grandparents, getting their memories of life before the arrival of the oil industry and, with it, the rapid development that has created the city and country that we know today.

I hope that the students will now want to look at a few books about UAE history, and to ask a few questions. Whatever their plans for the future may be, it is important that they have a basic grounding in the history of the country. As the wife of a Scottish clan chieftain put it recently "If you don't know where you've come from, you can't know where you're going."

The school I visited has taken the sensible step of reaching out beyond the Ministry of Education's curriculum on UAE social studies and history, through methods such as this project week, to teach students about the geography and history of the country and how the way people lived here in the past was affected directly by the nature of the local environment.

By the end of the week, the students to whom I spoke will know much more than they did on Sunday. They will also, I hope, have developed a desire to learn more, much more.

Not for the first time, though, I was amazed by how little students here, even Emirati students, know about the country's history and the key figures and places in its past.

Children and parents: there's more to life than shopping malls and television and computers, important though those may be. On the islands, in the deserts and in the mountains of the UAE, there is a world of wonders, of history and of nature, awaiting discovery.

It's a pity - and a shame - that so few venture into that world.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture