x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

UAE's student pioneers of the 1970s

In the early years of the UAE, dozens of young Emiratis set off on a great adventure - to study in the UK and learn the skills that would help their nation grow. It was an experience that changed their lives...

Abbas Al Khoori, third left, is one of a group of shy young Emiratis who arrived in London in July 1972 to begin their overseas education. Four decades later, having built successful lives and careers at home, they recall their hopes, fears and experiences in those heady days. Focus, a16. Courtesy Abbas Al Khoori
Abbas Al Khoori, third left, is one of a group of shy young Emiratis who arrived in London in July 1972 to begin their overseas education. Four decades later, having built successful lives and careers at home, they recall their hopes, fears and experiences in those heady days. Focus, a16. Courtesy Abbas Al Khoori
"I remember it very clearly, I arrived with my suitcase in May 1979 and was met by the BP training manager, Bill Simpson.
"He welcomed me very patiently and said, 'Adel your training starts now. Take this £10 note and buy us two single tube tickets from Heathrow to Liverpool Street.' That was my first time on the tube."
Adel Alkaff Al Hashmi, now 52, was one of dozens of Emirati students sent to the UK in the 1970s and 1980s when local universities were still very new.
Mainly oil and gas workers, they were sent straight from school, some aged just 17 and 18, to study at British colleges before returning home to work in some of the country's largest - and now most successful - companies.
Mr Al Hashmi, now a father of seven and a vice president of Abu Dhabi Gas Industries Ltd, left for London after finishing school at 17.
"After I arrived, Mr Simpson took us to a hotel in Liverpool Street, a Victorian building," he says.
"He told me to rest and then come down for dinner. When I did, he said 'lesson two starts here'. They gave me 10 pieces of cutlery and I didn't know where to start. I told him that normally, Emiratis used to eat with their hands, I just need one spoon. He spent 10 minutes explaining."
Mr Al Hashmi was enrolled on a one-year English course in the Essex market town of Saffron Walden. His English-language skills were already good after spending childhood holidays in London with his parents, so his tutors recommended he only stay for a few weeks before being transferred to the Falkirk College of Technology in Scotland.
The students usually travelled in groups of about seven and enrolled on the courses together.
The UAE companies had contacts at the British institutions and BP, who helped them to settle in. Each one was given a list of families prepared to host foreign students, and then left to their own devices.
"The college services gave us a couple of addresses of families that were prepared to host an Arab," he remembers. "I selected one of them and moved. I didn't have a car so I had to go by bus everywhere. I had to learn the bus system. That was quite a challenge and even worse in winter when it was freezing cold.
"The difficulty was the first couple of weeks with the family, for both sides. For the family it was: 'This is an Emirati, he prays five times a day and we have to watch that he doesn't eat pork or drink alcohol'. For us, it was a long way from home."
Mr Al Hashmi lived with two families during his three years in Falkirk, which is about 40km west of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.
He was the only one of the group that opted to live in a family home rather than in an apartment.
"I was concerned if I went with them I would have lovely Emirati dishes and friends but I would waste a lot of time," he says. "I would have to do cooking and cleaning and not concentrate as much on my studies."
Living so far away from home at just 19 was difficult for the students, not least because keeping in touch with friends and family at home was a challenge. There was no internet or email, post could be notoriously slow and unreliable, and phone calls were expensive.
Mr Al Hashmi rented a small television to keep in his room to try to stay up to date with news from the Gulf - and also catch the latest episodes of his favourite British television show, Fawlty Towers.
"I wrote letters and took the bus every Saturday morning to the post office," he says. "As a student we couldn't afford to phone, so I really cherished the letters. I was missing the social gatherings."
To go some way to filling the gap in their social lives, Mr Al Hashmi and some of his fellow students set up a UAE-Scottish Friendship Society, made up of students, teachers and embassy staff, which met every six months in a rented hall.
"I was very proud to be part of it." he said.
As a devout Muslim, Mr Al Hashmi had to find ways to fit his religion into his new way of living. There was no mosque in Falkirk but about once a month he and some friends would take the bus to Edinburgh to attend the Friday sermons, delivered in English and Arabic.
Ramadan, he says, was by far the most difficult time.
"The family was very respectful and every night they brought me my own meal at 8pm. They looked after me as one of their family members.
"I personally didn't feel a lot of hardship being Arab or Muslim or a foreigner in their culture."
After completing a Scottish Higher National Diploma in computer data processing, Mr Al Hashmi moved to London to complete a master's degree in business systems analysis and design at The City University.
"They didn't accept me at the beginning because I was too young and had no experience," he says. "They said they had one exception, and that I needed to go for an interview and meet a panel of experts.
"I put on a nice suit and tie, and passed with flying colours. They said I was the only Arab and Emirati that they had admitted to the degree." The course turned out to be the toughest year of his life, he says, and half of his class failed.
Mr Al Hashmi spent more than five years in the UK before returning to the UAE, marrying a few years later. Life, he says, was different then and his own experiences would be very different from students going there today. He would not, he admits, feel comfortable allowing his own children to travel so far to study.
"It was very small. People were very close to each other and very courteous. It was a good time, people were very humble," he says. "I am very thankful to God and for my parent's prayers that we enjoyed a wonderful time of study, but it is different now. There are many more distractions. It is not so simple now."
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At precisely 1.15pm every Tuesday, Abbas Al Khoori would take his sandwich to his Ford Capri, which was parked outside his workplace, and sit alone eating lunch.
This ritual happened every week for a year while he was doing a work placement in Hayes, west of London, directly underneath the Heathrow flight path. "At 1.30pm every Tuesday I watched Concorde take off from London to New York, I never missed it," he recalls.
Mr Al Khoori, now 59, moved to the English capital in 1972, just a year after the UAE was created.
Then just 19, he left his family home in the Al Falah area of Abu Dhabi island with six compatriots to study engineering.
Excited but nervous, he opted to live with a friend, Murshid, at the home of a British family in Morden, south-west London, while attending the local technical college to earn a National Diploma.
"They made us live with a family, Mr and Mrs Taylor. The first night we arrived, we both cried in our room," he recalls with a laugh. "The second thing I remember was Mrs Taylor making a big lunch on a Sunday with Yorkshire puddings, meat roast and custard pies. We joined them for dinner and the first time, I spilt water on the table three times. I wasn't sure of the etiquette. We didn't have knives or forks or napkins. I didn't know how to sit.
"I remember a phrase [from a British TV advert]: 'Mr Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes'. I would say Mr and Mrs Taylor were an exceedingly good family."
Another of his lasting memories, he says, was when the family dog died and Mrs Taylor didn't cook for three days. "They were too sad. It was a big, fatty dog. She was lovely, so Mrs Taylor was sad."
Mr Al Khoori's mother had passed away in the late 1960s, so he was keen to live with a family rather than alone in an apartment.
He was sent to Britain by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which paid him a stipend to live on.
He attended college five days a week but was free at the weekend.
"Every morning we walked to college," he says. "Sometimes the English boys and girl teased us, saying 'foreigners'. We didn't let it annoy us. We used to pass by our friend Ahmed's house and walk together.
"The weather was fine. In the winter, Mrs Taylor gave us an electric blanket and a hot-water bottle. Every bed had one. They treated us like their own family. Mrs Taylor played piano in church and I went to pray in church one day."
After two years at Morden Techonology College, Mr Al Khoori and his friend, Murshid, moved to Hayes, near Heathrow Airport, and lived with another family.
The Dharamsis had moved to the UK from Uganda and spoke English, Hindi and Swahili. They had two children: Ali, 7, and Aliya, 8. "I taught both of them how to swim," says Mr Al Khoori. "I used to take them to the local swimming pool. They were a lovely family."
It was here that Mr Al Khoori met Naido, a Fijian student who became one of his best friends - and his driving instructor.
"Naido wanted to buy a Ford Escort but he was short £500," he says. "I told him I would lend him the money providing he teach me to drive going to college and going back from college. I had an L plate!"
He still has his British driving licence, which expires in 2024, and used this to get his UAE licence rather than taking a test in Abu Dhabi.
After passing his test he bought a second-hand Ford Capri for £1,200, and used it to ferry his friends around to enjoy some of their favourite British pastimes - football, greyhound racing and horse racing.
"We went to Wembley Stadium and I saw Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham football teams play. It was great. And the greyhounds, I loved. It's similar to Salukis. We liked the horse racing too. It was like home.
"I still watch the Premier League on television with two of my sons."
Unusually, Mr Al Khoori also became fond of the food, hardly something Britain was renowned for at the time. "I had beautiful cod and chips," he said. "I still eat it now. They gave you real chips, not the small sort."
For many of the men who spent a significant portion of their young-adult lives in the UK, life when they returned was invariably different, especially within the cities which had not only grown in size but also in character, Mr Al Khoori says.
"I remember one time I came back in a taxi from Abu Dhabi airport and I couldn't find my house because it had changed so much.
"But it was good for me. I made British friends that I send cards to at Christmas, people I used to play football with. I liked the British culture very much - I think I can safely say I'm half British. If you tell me a meeting is going to be at 4pm, I'm going to be there at quarter to four, that's definitely a British thing."
 
munderwood@thenational.ae