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Harvard students' visit to UAE focuses on government innovation

ABU DHABI // A group of 30 Harvard University students visited this country last week to learn about the country’s best practices in government innovation.

The objective of the Emirates Leadership Initiative, funded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, was to help support capacity building of future Arab leaders.

Every year, 10 Arabs, also known as Emirates fellows, and 20 foreigners with an interest in the region visit the UAE as part of the programme that is in its third year.

The students meet ministers and organisations and give them ideas on any policy challenges they might face.

“I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to be a student once again,” said Najla Al Kaabi, an Emirati who works for the UAE Government while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. “This opportunity would add a lot to our experience in terms of building needful skills in leadership, designing governments and shaping policies. What is fascinating in HKS is that the learning experience is not bounded within the walls of the classrooms and the instructor. I learn a lot from my classmates — they come from around the world, from different backgrounds, and different interests. Nevertheless, we all agree on our global responsibility in making our governments work better and making this world a better place.”

The group comprises students from 18 countries and the initiative covers an annual full fellowship for 10 students from any Arab states to pursue graduate studies at HKS. It also includes an annual research fellowship for six postdoctoral fellows from any nationality that are interested in pursuing research relevant to the Middle East.

Hamada Zahawi, from Iraq, said she was grateful for the eye-opening trip to the UAE and felt proud to be affiliated with such a quantum transformation. “As part of the UAE trek, I was truly excited to discover the incredible wealth of cultural, political and economic innovation taking place from heritage museums to thriving accelerators, award-winning government agencies to Mars space dreams,” she said. “What was truly astounding is how the UAE is setting global benchmarks in all sectors and exceeding them year after year.”

For Abdi Ismail, a Somali, the trip to the UAE was “incredible”.

“The main highlight for me was all about seeing Emiratis sharing their country’s essence with great hospitality and generosity,” he said.

Claudia Ng, a Harvard student from Hong Kong and speaks nine languages, said she aspired to work at a multilateral organisation focusing on development, with a particular interest in the Middle East. “I am very grateful for this opportunity to learn about the successes of public sector innovation from high-level government officials in the UAE,” she said. “I intend to draw upon [them] in my future career as a model for innovation and development for the rest of the region.”

Ruba Al Hassan, senior adviser at the UAE embassy in Washington and leader of the delegation, said the programme was about building bridges with different countries. “But we also want our own government to benefit,” she said. “If they have a policy issue, it’s remarkable to have a hand-picked group of people with an interest in the region to be available to you. You also have people who had complete misconceptions about what this part of the world is about and they saw the reality.”

She said the exchange of knowledge and education was vital in fighting terrorism, violence and extremism. “It’s critical we get to know other cultures and understanding we all have shared values,” she said. “Education is the core and key to fighting extremism.”

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