Four youngsters show that contrary to creating 'expat brats', the UAE is a place that can make children socially aware, open to new cultures and eager to make the best use of the opportunities available to them.
Teenagers put paid to the myth of 'expat brats'
From other shores, bringing with them their own cultures, customs and, of course, children, expats make up more than 85 per cent of the UAE population. Ever since moving here, I've heard the offspring of this demographic referred to, rather scathingly, as "expat brats". "Brat" by definition means unpleasant child, so it was with some trepidation that I set out to discover what this generation is made of.
Far from discovering an underbelly of little monsters, I was met by articulate, well-educated and emotionally intelligent young people who compare favourably to their counterparts in some other countries.
Louise Maister, 28, a teacher from the UK, used to work at a school in Liverpool before she came to teach in Abu Dhabi, and believes children here are better behaved than at home.
"The children are amazing and require very little discipline - a few stern words keeps them in line," she says. "It's not seen as cool to behave like a rebel, in fact quite the opposite is true. Back in the UK, it's a very different story. It's becoming increasingly difficult to manage the larger classes and some teachers genuinely have to worry for their own safety."
Certainly, in less strictly governed societies, multicultural melting pots can lead to all kinds of conflict, but here in the UAE, with its low crime rate and sunny climes, children soak up the influences of different cultures and enjoy varied social activities originating from all corners of the globe, including wakeboarding, skiing, kickboxing and any number of after-school groups, from good old Scouts and Brownies to the Emirates Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Such diverse influences and opportunities are set to pinball these kids towards exciting uncharted futures, but where exactly is this über-generation headed? I met four so-called expat brats to find out.
'I want to be an engineer'
Australian Laura Worger, 16, moved to the UAE when she was 10. The architecture of the region is among the inspirations that make her want to become an engineer
All parents like to think of a daughter as their little princess, but Laura Worger's composure is such that I'm actually reminded of the few times I've been in the presence of the British Royal Family. She is graceful, engaging and relaxed as she tells me about her national identity.
"My lineage is a bit confluent, to be honest," she admits, and I'm left wondering if I've ever heard anyone below the age of 40 use the term "confluent". "I identify as Australian," she tells me, "but I was born in Scotland to English and Rhodesian parents. We moved to Australia when I was a baby, so before living here that was where I called home."
As Laura talks about her many travels afforded by now living in a far more central location (she most recently returned from a charity expedition in Nepal), I'm reminded of a famous quote by TS Eliot: "... the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." Or as Laura eloquently puts it: "Moving to the UAE has not only allowed me to experience Dubai and many other places, it's also allowed me to experience Australia, as I can now truly appreciate its cultural differences."
When she arrived in the land of landmarks, she was instantly struck by the UAE's feats of engineering. "So many things about the region fascinate me," she says. "For example, the lighting and sound rigs at various theatres and seeing the construction of Dubai's Metro - I can't stop myself trying to figure out exactly how everything works."
In preparation for her future career as an engineer, Laura has completed a Design and Technology GCSE, and is studying Physics and Mechanics at AS level at Dubai College. "This should set me up for a good university placing come 2013," she says, thinking ahead in a way that children often don't. "Though it sounds clichéd, I'd really like to work on resolving our energy problems by developing more efficient wind power, or work in automotive engineering to create a more eco-friendly, aerodynamic hybrid car."
Surprisingly, at the school Laura attends the traditionally male career pursuit of engineering is as popular with girls as it is with boys. "If being a female engineer is seen as unusual or a difficult path for a woman to follow elsewhere in the world, then I'm even more motivated to do it and do it well to prove that I can, regardless of gender," says the dedicated 16-year-old, who limits herself to just one hour of TV each evening. The educational MythBusters is her favourite show - she just can't get enough of the "engineering face-offs".
'I want to be an entrepreneur'
Rohit Zachariah, 16, born to Indian parents in Saudi Arabia, considers the US tycoon Donald Trump among his role models
Rohit Zachariah is headstrong and single-minded. The first words he says are: "Donald Trump says, 'What matters most is where you want to go', and what matters to me the most is becoming an entrepreneur." He looks like he means it.
"As a young child, I became interested in the business world through my family's ventures," explains Rohit, who would regularly read out the day's business headlines to his grandfather and organise the family collection of Business Week magazines. "I was amazed at how simple ideas like the Post-it note could be transformed into multimillion-dollar businesses."
Until he arrived in the UAE, Rohit's exposure to business, beyond that provided by his family, was limited to watching his hero, Trump, tutor apprentices on his hit TV show. But when Rohit's family moved to Dubai all that changed. Entering GEMS Wellington International School, Rohit came under the tutelage of Sajid Hussain, an innovative curriculum leader for the Business Studies and Economics Department.
Hussain selects entrepreneurial students from Years 10 to 13 to showcase, market and sell products to the public at the handmade goods market ARTE (Artisans of the Emirates), allowing students to experience all facets of a real business environment. The project has been a huge success with students and shoppers alike.
"Back in March, I experienced my first real business venture at ARTE when I took charge of my Year 10 business group, Chillax," says Rohit. "Our idea was to help people relax by selling them coconut water and customised stress balls. Some saw our business idea as bizarre and risky, but taking risks and having faith in yourself are cornerstone characteristics of being an entrepreneur. The risk paid off as we not only made a profit, we also won the Best Stall Design award."
For their second ARTE fair, Rohit and his team created Smart Cards, a trivia card game with an eco theme designed to spread awareness of global issues - they're pursuing an international patent. In the meantime, Rohit has been appointed assistant managing director of Young Business Minds, the student organisation responsible for running business ventures. "Honestly," he says in earnest, "to achieve what I have in the last few years in the UAE is absolutely astonishing for me and I'm honoured to be part of such a forward-thinking school."
'I want to be a politician'
James Bonner, 15, from the UK, has already won awards for his commitment to charity. He volunteers for the UAE's Mission for Seafarers' Angel Appeal, and his ambition is to improve life for other people
James' parents have a mantra: "You can be whatever you want to be." Having taken this advice to heart, their son has decided to aim high - he'd like to return to the UK some day to take over from the British prime minister.
"Given the chance, I'd do all I could to make sure that every person in this world gets a fair start to life - an education, medical treatment, clean water - no matter where they're from or what religious beliefs they hold," he promises with utmost sincerity. "Then, I'd do all I could to prevent climate change, to make sure that sulphur and carbon dioxide emissions remain low, and to find alternative energy resources to crude oil so our great grandchildren and theirs can live in a clean world."
It's a fairly rousing political speech, albeit one we might have heard before, but James isn't merely spouting hot air like so many politicians. He's already dedicated much of his youth to making a difference, and he credits his move to the UAE for his greater understanding of the world's demographics.
"Living in the UAE has greatly affected me. There's such a brilliant blend of religions and cultures here, it's impossible not to be influenced," he admits. "There are loads of different nationalities in my peer group and over 80 different nationalities in my school. I'm not bothered where my friends are from or what religion they practise, and I have no time for people who think otherwise."
Last year James was honoured with an award by his school, Jumeirah College, for contributions to charity, and in November he received the Chief Scout Gold Award bestowed by the Consul General at the British Consulate on Remembrance Day. To achieve such an accolade, significant contributions to charity must be made.
James says his most successful event to date was a fund-raiser that included everything from table-top sales to raffles and raised more than Dh5,000 for the Angel Appeal launched by the Dubai branch of the Mission to Seafarers to build the world's first seafarers' support boat. The boat visits vessels anchored offshore to provide unprivileged crews with supplies and internet access so they can contact their families - a rare treat for seafarers who can be at sea for long periods on poorly equipped boats.
The event was more than a financial success, says James. "In raising this money, we brought together so many people from the community - not just Scouts, Cubs and Guides, but also parents, siblings, friends and passers-by - all with the common goal of wanting to help raise money for charity.
"Often, when I'm visiting the UK, I'm shocked by people's opinions on other religions and races. Living here I've learnt an incredible amount about other cultures, which has helped me understand people from all backgrounds - it's an opportunity that should be cherished by everyone lucky enough to live here; it will aid us all enormously in the future."
'I want to be a teacher'
Robyn Leigh Glennie, 13, from Zimbabwe, was voted by her peers as the person they'd be most likely turn to in times of hardship and trouble. A nurturing role in teaching spells out her perfect future
Robyn is from Zimbabwe, where career aspirations for young girls are virtually nil. As Robyn's mum, Crystal, points out: "We Zimbabweans don't expect too much from life - just food on the table, petrol for the car and hopefully good health."
However, just as Robyn bid farewell to her Year 5 schoolmates before leaving for the UAE, she received a goodbye note from her teacher, Miss Beecher, who said she expected to see Robyn working for the United Nations one day. The message struck a chord with Robyn and has fuelled her career aspirations ever since. Now in this land of opportunity, she's working towards her goals.
"I'd love to be a teacher," enthuses the fresh-faced, freckled 13-year-old, whose popularity with her peers can be measured by the fact she was voted the person they'd be most likely to go to for help. While Robyn appreciates the level of education afforded to the middle classes in this part of the world, the sensitive teen is also aware of those less fortunate.
"Living in the UAE, I've seen just how many people of all different nationalities need education but can't afford it," she says. "So, when I'm older, I'd like to travel around this continent and my own to help educate people in any way possible. I was born in Africa, so it's really close to my heart and would mean a lot to me to make a difference there."
On reflection, Robyn sees other benefits to her UAE education: "Since attending school [Jumeirah College] here I've made friends from lots of different cultures and nationalities and I think it affected my social development because I've learned how to mix with others and not be racist."
Like most UAE teenagers, Robyn likes Facebooking with friends; she also enjoys wakeboarding, dancing and playing hockey, but while most kids her age would credit Lady Gaga or the Jonas Brothers as their idols, when asked whom she admires most in the world, Robyn says her ex-teacher Miss Beecher gets her vote.
"She was very 'out there'," recalls Robyn, "but she was a great teacher and a lot of fun. I see myself working with the children of Asia and Africa in the same way, making sure they have a really good education, and, maybe a little later on in life, working for the United Nations just as Miss Beecher told me I would."
Styling by Nadia el Dasher; hair and make-up by Carolyn Gallyer. All girls clothing courtesy S*auce, Marina Mall, 02 681 8650; Village Mall, 04 344 7270; Dubai Mall, 04 339 9696. Special thanks to Christian Louboutin, Mall of the Emirates, 04 399 0998