The traditional life for residents of this tiny island is changing, but a special centre aims to build a bright future for a new generation by turning them into tourism guides.
As old trades fade, Dalma has a plan
DALMA ISLAND // Heather Read stood at the front of the class grilling a group of young Emirati women, dressed in neat black abayas, about geography.
Three globes, the size of beach balls, sat on the table next to the girls. "The Mississippi River," Mrs Read said in a booming voice. "Can she get the Mississippi River?" Sheikha al Ali, a soft-spoken 23-year-old woman, approached the map and placed a red dot on the river. Mrs Read smiled. "For four points, who can get the Gold Coast?" she asked. The young women are part of a diploma course launched two months ago by an arm of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) - the organisation charged with a number of large-scale plans aimed at raising the profile of Abu Dhabi. Projects include bringing the Louvre and Guggenheim museums to the capital.
In 2008, TDIC opened the Desert Islands Education Centre, a work training facility geared toward preparing Dalma's youth for jobs in the public and private sector. "We started by providing the locals with vocational training courses in English, soft skills, computer skills," said Waseem Manla, the head of the centre. Officials at TDIC hope a new government-owned luxury resort run by the Anantara group on a neighbouring island will open up opportunities for the residents of this small island off the south-west coast of the UAE.
"Really TDIC believes that the best people to tell the story of the culture are the people of the culture - the Emiratis," said a spokesman for the Western Region at TDIC. It is the hope of TDIC that residents of Dalma will work as guides at the Desert Islands Resort and Spa on Sir Bani Yas Island. The island was made into a wildlife sanctuary in 1971 by Sheikh Zayed, the late President of the UAE.
TDIC hopes Dalma residents will want to work at the resort due to its close proximity to home. A century ago, Dalma was a hub for pearl divers and its elderly residents still wax lyrical about the days when their grandfathers scoured the murky green waters in search of pearls. More recently, Dalma's residents have fished and grown hay for the animals that were brought to Sir Bani Yas Island by Sheikh Zayed.
But today, young people on the island are turning away from traditional trades in favour of government work. They are also leaving the island for jobs on the mainland. Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed, a 67-year-old fisherman, has seen two children move for jobs on the mainland. Juma al Qubaisi, another fisherman, whose daughter, Ayesha, works at the centre, said that young people wanted jobs where they can earn a better living.
"This job is not enough anymore and the money you make from it is not enough," he said. "This kind of profession does not provide enough profit. The young Emiratis now study abroad, have a degree, want comfortable government jobs." Mr al Qubaisi is hopeful that tourism projects such as the Desert Islands Resort and Spa will provide more jobs for the young residents of Dalma. Mrs Read's class is the first of seven courses required for the diploma. Most graduates from public schools finish high school weak in English and students had to take language courses before starting the diploma programme.
"The names of the places we know in Arabic - but in English it's a little hard," said Wafa al Mehairbi, a 20-year-old student at UAE University (UAEU), who joined the course this summer to see if tourism might be a good career path for her. "It's an easy class." Mariam Mohamed, a 23-year-old graduate of UAEU, signed up for the course because she could not find a job after completing her degree in January. Ms Mohamed said jobs on the island were scarce and though she is willing to move to the mainland, she has not found a job there either.
"Many companies want students to have at least two years' experience," Ms Mohamed said. "But how do you get experience if no one will hire you?" She hopes the TDIC diploma in tourism will help her to secure a job. The centre has given Ms al Ali the chance to do something outside of her parents' home. "Before I didn't do a lot, I just took special lessons at home," she said. Ms al Ali, who started the programme in the spring and will be its first graduate, has already interned at the resort.
As a lifetime resident of the island, Ms al Ali has limited experience with people from outside the Gulf and Asia. Not many Europeans or Americans came to Dalma Island, she said. "It gave me more confidence in dealing with people," she said of her time at the resort. "I worked with different people, with expats. I learned a lot. It was my first time in a real workplace." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org