Libya's interim prime minister, Abdurrahman Al Keib, a former professor at the American University of Sharjah, is 'a natural leader', say former colleagues.
The long road from Sharjah to Tripoli
ABU DHABI // Dr Mohamed El Tarhuni, the head of electrical engineering at the American University of Sharjah, met an old friend and colleague in Dubai on Friday.
It was good to catch up. It had been a few months since they last saw each other and more than a decade since they worked together at the university.
They had plenty to talk about. Their country, Libya, was in the throes of revolution, its dictator killed barely a week before.
And his friend, Prof Abdurrahman Al Keib, was in a unique position to talk about the situation back home. Just three days later, a minute before midnight on Monday, he was named interim prime minister of Libya.
Dr El Tarhuni was not entirely surprised by the announcement. By Friday, it was clear his friend was a "strong candidate" for the leadership, and Dr Al Tarhuni had seen him take an increasing role in politics in the past six or seven years. He led a Libyan community group in Abu Dhabi, and in April made the trip to Benghazi, where he met the National Transitional Council.
As a Libyan himself, Dr El Tarhuni admits one challenge facing Prof Al Keib, who has lived away from his homeland for more than 25 years, will be to win the hearts of the masses. "He's very well connected both in Libya and with Libyans outside the country. Those who are expected to help lead the country and work with him, know him, but it will be a challenge to expose him to the Libyan people, to show his abilities and style of government," he said. Still, he said: "The Libyan people trust the NTC, who appointed him."
To many other former colleagues, who had viewed Prof Al Keib as a man whose deepest commitment was to academia, the announcement came as more of a surprise.
Until early summer he kept his role as head of the electrical engineering department at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi.
And when Dr Ioannis Economou, a professor of chemical engineering at the institute, learnt Prof Al Keib was about to return to his home country, he assumed he would be taking up a role as an academic.
But he is hopeful for Prof Al Keib the politician. The experience of living in the UAE, he said, would only enhance the natural leadership and passion of a "kind, eloquent" man who was always looked up to. "In the university alone, we have over 20 nationalities, which will be of great benefit for him," he said.
Prof Al Keib graduated from the University of Tripoli before going to the US to study in the 1970s, eventually becoming professor of electrical engineering at the University of Alabama. He joined AUS in 1999 - just days after Prof Nasser Qaddoumi.
"I can't believe I knew him all this time and never realised he had political ambitions," said Prof Qaddoumi yesterday. "I knew he wanted to see his country free and spoke a lot about that. He spoke of his dream being to see Libya living in peace like other countries."
As a senior academic with decades of research and teaching experience, Prof Al Keib was looked upon with respect by his younger colleagues such as Prof Qaddoumi. "I learnt a lot from him," he said.
In 2003, he was elected to the board of the Sharjah-based Arab Science and Technology Foundation. The foundation's president, Dr Abdalla Al Najjar, was also surprised by his former colleague's elevation, warning the transition from academia to politics would not be easy. But he had little doubt Prof Al Keib would have great support. "He cares so much about Libya," he said. "It's a very personal thing for him."
Prof Hassan Ashash, from AUS, said Prof Al Keib's many years of teaching experience would stand him in good stead. "Being a professor means he's in touch with the young generation, which gives him an advantage over other politicians," he said.
Dr Wael Saleh, 31, a teaching assistant under Prof Al Keib, was so inspired by his boss that he named his own son after him.
The man who hired him at AUS recalls the strong-minded academic who sometimes made his own rules. "Dr Al Keib has two sides," said Dr Yousef Al Asaf, dean of the college of engineering. "As a person he is very nice, very generous, down to earth ... when it came to work, he was very dedicated and even tough, even to the point where he wouldn't consult people.
"He did things because he was passionate about what he did but to the extent where he sometimes didn't allow others their opinions.
"He wanted to go there desperately," recalls Dr Al Asaf. "He was outspoken about the fact he was against the regime ... but never showed any signs he was doing anything to end it."