United Arab Emirates

MiddleEastMap1.JPG uae_map.gif
(maps from http://printable-maps.blogspot.com)


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven emirates - Abu Dhabi, Ajman. Dubai, Fujaira, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.

It has the worlds sixth largest oil reserves (Central Intelligence Agency, 2010) which has allowed it to become one of the most developed economies in West Asia and be classified as a high-income developing economy by the IMF (Wikipedia).

The 2005 UAE Census (National Bureau of Statistics, 2005) gave the population as 4106427 with over 66% based in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. However, almost 80% of the population is expatriate.

Abu Dhabi is the largest and wealthiest emirate in the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi city, although smaller than its neighbour Dubai, is the seat for the UAE's government and a political, commercial and cultural centre.


Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have a modern communications infrastructure capable of meeting the demands of e-learning courses. The quality of infrastructure outside of the main centres is variable. The United Arab Emirates are ranked 31st and 29th in the world respectively for infrastructure environment and personal usage (see figures from //Global information technology report 2009-2010//).


Education at primary and secondary level is compulsory for all students up to ninth grade. This takes place in a four-tier process over 14 years: 4 to 5 year-olds attend kindergarten, 6 to 10 year-olds attend Cycle 1 schools, Cycle 2 caters for children aged between 11 to 14 years, and 15 to 17 year-olds attend Cycle 3.

All Emirati secondary school graduates are eligible to apply for enrolment in one of the three federal institutions of higher education in the UAE – the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) and Zayed University (ZU), or study abroad with all expenses met by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. UAE students who achieve high GSC scores can apply for a scholarship to pursue tertiary studies abroad (National Admissions and Placement Office, 2010).

As well as the federal institutions of higher education, a growing number of western universities now have a presence in the UAE including the London School of Economics, the New York Institute of Technology, New York University and Paris Sorbonne University.


Despite the apparent ease of access to conventional tertiary education there is still a demand for e-learning courses in the UAE. In 2005, the Minister for Education, speaking at the e-Merging e-Learning Conference in Abu Dhabi said that “the UAE is aiming to become the foremost centre for e-learning in the region” (Shamseddine, 2005). The opening of Dubai’s Hamdan Bin Mohammed eUniversity in 2009 shows that progress has been made. Catering mainly for Emirates (80%) and other GCC and Arab nationalities, the university is licensed by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research of the UAE and offers blended learning programmes (HBMeU, 2011). In January 2012 it will host the 5th Conference on eLearning Excellence in the Middle East.
The existing universities recognize the need to embrace technology. A 2009 report from UAEU said that it would “substantially upgrade” their capability to access scholarly information and collaborate worldwide and would make “aggressive use” of new communication and computational technologies (United Arab Emirates University, 2009, p. 7).
A simple internet search will reveal a huge range of e-learning courses targeted at potential students in the UAE. The generous funding for education applies only to UAE nationals leaving a huge market of expatriates who must pay for their own education and frequently want to study while in full time employment. For the purpose of this study, and especially in relation to issues surrounding culture, it is the local Emirate population that will be discussed.


As might be expected from a nation in which 80% of the population is expatriate, the UAE is a diverse, multicultural society. Islam is the state religion and Shari’a or Islamic law is used in judgements on inheritance, divorce and certain criminal acts. However, the law are far more liberal than countries such as the neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE has secular courts to rule on criminal, civil and commercial matters.
Emiratis commonly wear traditional dress with men wearing a white kandura or dishdasha and women wearing a black abaya with their head covered, Some women also choose to cover all or part of their faces.
Preservation of traditional Bedouin culture is seen as important.

Viewing through Hofstede's Cross-Cultural Dimensions;

(description of dimensions here or click each title to view Hofstede's figures)

Power Distance Index (PDI)

Arab countries are given a very high PDI indicating that there is a high acceptance of an unequal power distribution. Relationships between students and teachers are assumed to be inequitable. Teachers are subject matter experts and students are not expected to question their knowledge. Halstead (2004) writes of the gulf between western liberal education ideology and Islamic views. The higher-order thinking skills of questioning, verifying, criticizing, evaluating and making judgements, valued in the west are played down in favour of uncritical acceptance of authority and the inherent truth of the written word in the Islamic epistemology. Recent education reforms in the compulsory education sector in the UAE are intended to change the didactic teaching style of local teachers. The progress is slow.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)

Arab countries, although ranked in the middle of this index, have a reasonable high UAI. This indicates a preference for maintaining strict codes of behaviour and a belief in absolute truths. This fits well with strict Islamic codes embraced in the UAE.
According to Edmundson (2005) students in this culture prefer a structured learning environment, precise objectives and strict timetables. “Arab students prefer prescriptive learning environments where they are told exactly what to do and directed along a single path, thus the active learning and role of the teacher as facilitator, (which is currently being promoted in the HCT), often produces anxiety and disengagement amongst them” (Richardson, 2004)

Individualism Index (IDV)

Again Arab countries rank just below the mid-point on the Individualism Index but with a relatively low score indicating a tendency towards a collectivist society. This means that people tend to integrate in cohesive in-groups and display "un-questioned loyalty". This fits well with the concept of 'wasta' observed in the UAE. Wasta roughly translates to influence or 'who you know'. In western cultures it has negative connotations but it is an accepted way of life in the Arab world. The wasta or connections you have the easier it is to get things done.
Richardson (2004) comments that “Due to the tribal nature of Arab society, individuals typically subordinate personal aspirations for the good of the collective”.

Masculinity Index (MAS)

The very low Masculinity Index score for Arab countries indicates what Hofstede describes as a feminine culture, one in which men and women are more likely to have similar roles. This seems to conflict with the strict gender segregation and expectations imposed by Islamic traditions. Nevertheless Hofstede's contention that in a low MAS culture, teachers and students have more relaxed expectations agrees with observed classroom practice in Abu Dhabi.
The work of Richardson (2004) in a study of students at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi highlights the difficulty in imposing western teaching ideologies onto an Arabic culture. The study found that “high power distance and low individualism means that the ideas of those in authority are rarely publicly criticised” and so education programmes that required students to engage in reflective practice, to debate and question were difficult for Emiratis to embrace.


The UAE is determined to compete on the global stage. It clearly wishes to reduce its reliance on oil revenues and expand into other sectors. Education is seen as crucial in this endevour. In his welcoming message on the website of the Abu Dhabi Education Council, the Director General states “Our graduates should be independent thinkers with the ability to create, innovate, and support the economic and social progression of Abu Dhabi.” and “if we want Abu Dhabi to take its place as a leader on the world stage and if we want our citizens and residents to have the necessary skills to compete in an international marketplace” (Al Khaili, 2010)
The spread of English appears inexorably linked to globalisation to the extent that English is now the dominant language for education (Gray, 2002).
In the UAE opposing views on teaching in English have been voiced on local television and in newspapers. An article in The National, a leading English language newspaper in the UAE, led with the headline “Being taught in English 'undermines local identity'” (Ahmed, 2010) and went on to quote several local educators who denounced the recently announced proposal to use English as the language of instruction for English, Mathematics, Science and ICT in Abu Dhabi schools. Their objections included undermining the Arabic language and a consequent loss of identity as well as the cognitive challenges faced by children attempting to learn in a foreign language. The following day a letter to the editor (Syed, 2010) promulgated an alternative viewpoint under the heading “Learning English will not dilute Arabic culture”. The writer’s argument was that Arabs would never let go of their culture and that by being able to communicate effectively in a global language they, as Muslims, would be better able to promote the spread of Islam. Furthermore, the learning of English was necessary to compete globally.
Living in the UAE one is led to believe that Western culture has a reasonably harmonious existence alongside the local Islamic and Arab culture. Godwin (2006) sums up the situation with the statement “Cultural imperialism as a Western ideology has not destroyed UAE traditions, it has instead, blended into the Islamic and Arab culture of the gulf region”.


Ahmed, A. (2010, 6 October). Being taught in English 'undermines local identity', The National. Retrieved from http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/education/being-taught-in-english-undermines-local-identity

Al Khaili, M. K. (2010). ADEC -welcome from the Director General Retrieved 27 March, 2011, from http://www.adec.ac.ae/English/Pages/DirectorGeneral%27sMessage.aspx

Central Intelligence Agency. (2010). CIA world factbook. Country comparison: Oil - proved reserves Retrieved 8 September, 2011, from https:www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2178rank.html

Gray, J. (2002). The global coursebook in English Language Teaching. In D. Block & D. Cameron (Eds.), Globalization and language teaching (pp. 151-167). London: Routledge.

Halstead, J. M. (2004). An Islamic Concept of Education. Comparative Education, 40(4), 517-529.

HBMeU. (2011). Hamdan Bin Mohammed e-University Retrieved 5 September, 2011, from http://www.hbmeu.ac.ae/

National Admissions and Placement Office. (2010). Your guide to higher education. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research Retrieved from https:www.mohesr.gov.ae/en/Documents/napo1.pdf.

National Bureau of Statistics. (2005). Census 2005. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: National Bureau of Statistics Retrieved from http://www.uaestatistics.gov.ae.

Richardson, P. M. (2004). Possible influences of Arabic-Islamic culture on the reflective practices proposed for an education degree at the Higher Colleges of Technology in the United Arab Emirates. International Journal of Educational Development, 24(4), 429-436.

Shamseddine, M. (2005, 20 November). UAE aims to become key e-learning centre, Gulf News. Retrieved from http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/education/uae-aims-to-become-key-e-learning-centre-1.445301

Syed, I. (2010, October 7). Learning English will not dilute Arabic culture, The National. Retrieved from http://www.thenational.ae/news/learning-english-will-not-dilute-arabic-culture

United Arab Emirates University. (2009). Creation of an internationally recognized, research-intensive university for the UAE by transforming the United Arab Emirates University: Action steps and necessary investments. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: United Arab Emirates University.

Wikipedia. United Arab Emirates Retrieved 8 September, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Arab_Emirates