Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was the Ruler of Abu Dhabi between 1966 and 2004 and the first President of the UAE. Sheikh Zayed, who was successively elected by his peers as president for almost 33 years, is credited as the founder of the UAE. He, and Dubai's Ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, united the seven Emirates into their present-day federation in 1971. Born in 1918, this year marks his 100th birthday and has been declared the Year of Zayed.
With no access to modern schooling as a child, the official biography of Sheikh Zayed tells the story of a man who travelled into the desert of Al Ain to quench his thirst for knowledge.
Years later, Sheikh Zayed would famously be quoted as saying, “The real asset of any advanced nation is its people, especially the educated ones, and the prosperity and success of the people are measured by the standard of their education.”
As president of the UAE, Sheik Zayed is said to have prioritized a vision of education, employment, and equal opportunities for all Emiratis. This educational vision was one of renaissance and rapid progress.
When he took up office, there were sparsely 74 schools in the UAE. Adult literacy rates were relatively low with literacy around 54% among men and 31% among women. By 2014, the number of schools, both public and private, ballooned to 1,174. And today, the UAE boasts the highest number of international schools globally and a literacy rate exceeding 91%.
The state provides free compulsory education up to secondary level for all Emiratis, and in 2017 the federal government allocated 20.5% of its budget toward education. Vision 2020, developed by the Ministry of Education during Sheik Zayed's reign, seeks to further improve the education system and enhance the competitiveness of UAE schools internationally.
The first and oldest state-funded university is the United Arab Emirates University and was built within Sheik Zayed's first five years as president. It offers post graduate and undergraduate programs in each of its of nine colleges and has six smaller campuses around the UAE. It remains the leading university in the UAE on global rankings.
The largest higher education institution was built just over 10 years later. The Higher Colleges of Technology was founded in 1988 with four campuses. It now offers more than 80 technical and professional degrees with 17 colleges in the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai, Fujairah, Madinat Zayed, Ras Al Khaimah, Ruwais, and Sharjah. Of the 23,000 students enrolled in the academic year 2016-2017, more than 14,000 are female.
One of the most significant legacies of Sheik Zayed is his empowerment of women in the development of the UAE. Sheikh Zayed recognized the importance of women in the development of the society and the economy. The President of the American University of Ras Al Khaimah (AURAK), Hassan Hamdan Al Alkim, noted Sheikh Zayed's commitment to women's education. Alkim told TBY, “While other countries were denying women, Sheikh Zayed empowered them. All of this would not have been possible if it was not for education, which is the main pillar for the government.”
Today, modern schooling is compulsory for all girls, and 95% of them go on to pursue higher education after finishing high school. In 1998, the federal government opened the first internationally accredited university in the UAE. During its first 10 years, the aptly named Zayed University accepted only Emirati women.
The recognition of Sheikh Zayed's contributions extend to institutions abroad such as the London School of Economics, which has a lecture hall in his name, and the Sheikh Zayed University in Afghanistan. Also building Ras Al Khaimah's international profile is the academic zone of the Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (RAKEZ). The RAK academic zone operates under the umbrella of Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (RAKEZ), and was established to oversee and monitor the education sector in the Emirate. The RAK Academic Zone offers a community and legal environment dedicated to attracting the best programs and education providers as well as training centers and education services to the Emirate. It supports qualified educational institutions and service providers that are committed to delivering market-driven, educational, training and professional development services that benefit Ras Al Khaimah, the UAE, and the broader Gulf region. The academic zone applies worldwide quality assurance scale by cooperating with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) of UK and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) of Australia. As of today, the academic zone successfully attracts four well-known universities: from the UK, the University of Bolton and West London University; from Switzerland, Swiss Business School; and from Pakistan, the Sarhad University for Science and Information Technology.