By Dr. Nir Boms
The new sounds of “tolerance, peace and prosperity” that come from the Gulf are often treated with suspicion – a cliche aimed at obfuscating the newfound autocratie in the region. However, while slogans might be cheap – actual changes made on the ground should be noted. The United Arab Emirates moral education curriculum reform is telling of the vision that the country’s leaders have for the future. Beside bolstering schools with state of the art technological and infrastructural backgrounds and offering the most up-to-date scientific knowledge as part of current curricula, teaching values to students has been a key part of this shift. The message is clear. Moral values are just as important in the long-term development of the country as material improvements made.
As The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se)—a leading authority in educational research which analyses school curricula across the Middle East—revealed, the UAE has effected significant positive change since 2010 to promote values of acceptance, empathy, and non-violent conflict resolution in its public schools. Moral education was first being promoted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai and the Vice President of the UAE, as part of the “UAE Vision 2021” national agenda. Today, it also features among the priorities of the UAE’s “Vision 2030” plan for the building of a “highly skilled, highly productive workforce.”
Moral education and the promotion of values of peace are strategically important for the Emirates. As for its domestic environment, the UAE is among the most ethnically diverse nations of the world. A staggering 88.5% of its population is made up by an expat community, whose members come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Iran, Egypt, China, and numerous other states. In the long run, the country will have to tackle the difficult and sensitive issue of equal rights for all, including expats and non-citizens. The educational system seems to have taken the initial steps on this long road. Undoubtedly, keeping this diverse amalgam together as one functioning nation requires a great deal of ideological cohesion and direction. Evidencing the UAE’s success on this front, however, is the fact that it has consistently ranked among the safest countries in the world, and even attained the second spot in recent rankings.
Achieving a peaceful society that embodies the values of tolerance and cooperation seems to facilitate the UAE’s domestic as well as foreign objectives alike. As detailed by IMPACT-se’s report, the UAE’s moral education curriculum spans 12 grades and provides theoretical as well as practical knowledge to students, emphasizing the value of multiculturalism, encouraging respect and empathy for others—be it strangers within the UAE or nationals of other countries—as well as providing empirical skills of conflict resolution. Students in the UAE between the ages of six and 18 not only learn about the importance of tolerating the differences between themselves and others, and respecting people regardless of their nationality, race, gender, religion or social status, but also receive practical tools that can help them resolve interpersonal conflicts in the future.
This type of so-called values education—besides traditional education that teaches about social, scientific and historical knowledge—influences how people develop as moral human beings, and what they consequently consider positive norms and behaviours. This should not be understood in an abstract and subjective sense alone. Education has multiple benefits, including important economic ones. Tolerance, acceptance and cooperation have an economic utility by ways of building stronger societies.
This is something that the United Nations has also recognized as part of its Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 4, pertaining to education, encompasses many different aspects. Beyond the base goal of achieving universal primary and secondary education for all by 2030, the development goals also take note of attitudes of global citizenship as an important prerequisite of building a sustainable future. Respect for human rights, gender equality, an appreciation for cultural diversity, and the promotion of the dual goals of peace and non-violence are all listed as furthering the creation of a more equal and more efficient world economy.
The UAE has been among those spearheading efforts to transform the Middle East, a region that has been ravaged by multiple decades of economic inefficiency, military interventions, wars, civil wars and other internal strife.
As the first in the Arab world to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in almost three decades, the UAE has provided additional proof that it is not interested in peace on a merely rhetorical level, but is willing to back up its statements by concrete action. While Israel had peace treaties in effect with Egypt and Jordan since 1977 and 1994 respectively, they can only be characterized as a “cold” peace. In contrast, the relatively recently concluded normalization agreements between the Jewish state and the UAE—as well as the Arab states of Bahrain and Morocco—are based on more proactive and enthusiastic intentions. People to people programs between universities and other institutes of further education will be instrumental as part of these efforts.
Education is one facet of the UAE’s overall strategies of working towards its own development goals. As stated in the forth principle for UAE’s recently launched 50 year plan:“Developing the educational system, recruiting talent, retaining specialists and continuously building skills will be key to ensuring the UAE remains the most competitive national economy.” As already seen in the classrooms, this vision is not just material. “World peace lies in respecting and accepting the contradictions between us” states a moral education book for grade 6. The association between moral education, tolerance and economic prosperity offers a refreshing approach to a challenging issue in the Middle East. The lead taken by UAE will hopefully serve as a model for others to see and adopt.
Dr. Nir Boms is a member of the Board of Directors of IMPACT-se and research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University and co-founder of CyberDissidents.org, a Middle East blogger network that focuses on freedom of expression and the promotion of dialogue. He was vice-president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).