x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Dr Sulaiman al Jassim: from student to university vice president

Hard work, determination and a great deal of travel have seen Dr al Jassim rise from his studies at Khor Fakkan to second-in-command at Zayed University.

In the village where Dr Sulaiman al Jassim was born and raised, most people's ambitions did not extend beyond learning to read and write.

Several hundred residents in Murbeh, near Fujairah, had a Quranic school, but not one run by the Government. That meant Dr al Jassim had to live with his grandmother in Khor Fakkan to attend lessons. The contrast with today could hardly be greater. There are now hundreds of government schools and universities, of which Dr al Jassim heads one of the most significant. As vice president of Zayed University, he spearheads the development of a federal institution with about 5,000 Emirati students and, thanks to a recent decision to open the university to international students, a small number of expatriates.

Next year, Zayed University moves into a vast new campus with a dramatic sculpted exterior as futuristic as the schools of Dr al Jassim's childhood were simple. The design, noted Dr al Jassim, is symbolic. "We need to see Zayed University in the top-listed universities in the world," he said. "We need to move our education to the new era." Born in 1954, Dr al Jassim's enterprising father ran a shop in his village of "farms and fishermen".

At Al Muhalab School in Khor Fakkan, the teachers were mostly from Egypt. Dr al Jassim remembers the high esteem in which teachers were held; it was this reverence for learning that left an impression on him. "When the teachers went to market, they were considered elite people," he said. "It was something like being a doctor. "Our dream was to be teachers. It was the maximum you could reach. There was no other career available."

Before he could become a teacher, Dr al Jassim had to be sent further afield to continue his schooling. He lived in Sharjah with a group of fellow teenage students and attended school in Dubai. He would see his parents only every few months because the journey between the east and west coasts was a hazardous one. "We passed through deserts and wadis and mountains," Dr al Jassim said. "This was risky, so when we studied in Dubai, we came only once every four or five months [to the east coast]. We couldn't come every weekend because it took five hours and was risky."

Dr al Jassim later worked as a teacher in the very school he attended as a child, Al Muhalab. But his varied career then took him to Egypt after the late Ruler of Fujairah, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad, who was close to Dr al Jassim's father, selected the young teacher and his brother to study in Cairo. He took a course in public administration before working as an attache in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On secondment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr al Jassim also spent 11 years as the chief of the Emiri court of Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed after he became the Ruler of Fujairah on the death of his father. But as someone who, from an early age, was shown the importance of education, Dr al Jassim felt the urge to return to his studies. He earned a bachelor's degree in public administration sciences at UAE University in Al Ain, while continuing to work, before heading overseas again. This time he was destined for Exeter University in south-west England, where he secured a master's degree and a PhD, writing a thesis on the development of manpower in the UAE.

Dr al Jassim's family - he has four daughters and one son, all of them university graduates - travelled with him to England and settled into local schools, ultimately in the seaside town of Torquay. "We had a good relationship with my neighbours," he said with a smile. "My education has given me more chances to meet people from different nationalities, different cultures and I raised my kids with different cultures."

After returning to his home country, from 1990 to 2006 Dr al Jassim was director of community relations and manpower development at the Higher Colleges of Technology - all the while earning higher qualifications. In 2006, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, who is also president of Zayed University, selected Dr al Jassim to replace Dr Hanif Hassan as the university vice-president when the latter was appointed Minister of Education. Under Dr al Jassim's watch, the institution has continued to develop rapidly, adding men and international students, as well as master's degrees.

Dr al Jassim is keen for the university to strengthen its research output and believes it could eventually offer doctoral degrees. "We need to be proactive in bringing new programmes that meet new challenges in our economy, in our society, in our thought," he said. @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae For more profiles, visit www.thenational.ae/people