UAE: Maintaining cultural identity

UAE: Maintaining cultural identity
By David Westley
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Many people come to the UAE with a timetable of "one to two years". In many, many cases that timetable extends - and extends - with a significant number of residents putting down roots in the country well beyond those initial expectations.

While parents often have good reason to do so, one area of worry remains the notion of national identity for their children. Parents have made their choice to stay, but by doing so are they taking away that same choice for their kids? A lingering fear for many parents is whether their children, by living outside their home country for so long, will still feel at home when they return.


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I am worried if I keep my children in school for the duration of their school career, then they will lose contact with own country, and will be less likely or able to 'fit in' when they do inevitably go back. Is this a legitimate concern?

Mike writes: This is a concern expressed by many parents over the years and, without a doubt, the connection to the home country will be ‘softened’ the longer one is out of the country. One should ask the question: Is this a bad thing when compared to the advantage of living in the UAE with its positive, cosmopolitan and safe lifestyle where youngsters experience different cultures, religions and ideas?

Another concern is whether UAE children are less ‘street-wise’ by not being in the home country. Some parents address this by arranging for their son or daughter to return to their home country for the final two years of school-based education.

Both concerns essentially lead to the question of: Will my child fit in when he or she returns?

As a Headteacher, it has been my experience that the youngsters who grow up in the UAE are socially more adept and confident in their ability to relate to many different people at different levels and ages. I have found that these youngsters are generally polite, thoughtful and respectful: all values that the schools promote. As they get older, I have also noted that they may not be as street-wise as some of those who join our schools from overseas, they may not have that same aggression that some of the new admissions come with, but, it does not mean that they are not ‘savvy’. These older students generally make well informed decisions when presented with choice, particularly, those exposures and choices more associated with adolescence.

As a parent, you would not wish to wrap your youngsters in ‘cotton wool’ as they grow up as they do need to learn about social attitudes and behaviours, how to read body language and the signals others show. The youngsters can learn these successfully in the UAE. In this, my concern would be more for those youngsters who are hooked on their video games and the Internet for their social outlet. These youngsters are not learning how to behave socially and are not making the mistakes in this where they learn to read and respond to the signals of others as they grow up. It is these young people who may struggle on their return to their home countries for university.

Should I consider boarding school in my home country? 

Mike writes: Home country boarding school options tend to be the preserve of certain cultures where others would be horrified at the thought of sending their child away to school. This is therefore a personal and family matter as there are excellent schools in the UAE to which a youngster can go, unlike thirty years ago when the choice and option for secondary schooling was limited.

In many countries, there is a wide range of boarding schools that offer great opportunities for the students that would cover ranges in nationality and the spectrum of ability or social needs. Some also offer home country ‘connections’ that the students carry throughout their life.

There may be a family connection to a school with boarding being the only option to maintain that tradition. However, the boarding school option will be an expensive one and the ethos of the school and its appropriateness to your son or daughter’s learning and developmental needs must be given full consideration as an unhappy child is not the way forward. Our advice, as with schools in the UAE, is visit them with your son or daughter if you have the chance as, if the school is not known to you, it will give you a sense of the school and its appropriateness.

Is it really that expensive compared to the UAE?

William writes: Yes and no. Top line it certainly looks so. The average cost of a UK boarding school for example is now £7900 per term at senior school (around £5500 for junior levels). This equates to 150,000 AED per year. However this includes all activities, food, trips, etc - leaving the parent with little or nothing to pay outside of holidays. Compared the most expensive schools in the UAE, factor that in and it may even be a cheaper option.

That average cost will of course vary between schools.

For those parents where your company pays school fees, cost is not an issue either way.

Does the WSA team have experience of the boarding school option, and can they share?

William writes: Actually the WSA team, in totality, has experience of the boarding school option, keeping their kids in the UAE and as a head teacher with responsibility of looking after 1000s of children in the UAE over the years. Each brings their own perspective, and we see the benefits of each option.

Specifically for the boarding school option, one considerable advantage only hinted at so far is the network of friends taking this option gives. If your child spends their early student career in the UAE, and then moves to his/her country of origin they will be blessed with friends and a foundation of support quite literally around the world. This can help significantly when there is the inevitable step - either post secondary to university, or post university to a wider world. There are many stories of successful UAE students going to universities abroad, and returning after their first or second year because they could not, for whatever reason, make it work.

It's worth noting that the multicultural nature of the UAE is actually mirrored in most boarding schools, certainly in the United Kingdom, so this advantage is not lost.

For a student perspective on the boarding school option, go here.

Where will they get the better education?

William writes: A very interesting question and here at WSA we could spend hours debating it. It also depends on how you define education - living in the UAE with its broad, multicultural environment is an experience you could not buy for example.

That said, what would statistically be true is that the average grade of a good UAE private school will be significantly higher than the UK average grade for schools. However, the best performing private schools in the UK will undoubtedly get a higher average score than the best academic school in the UAE.

We would imagine this would be the case for most countries/nationalities represented in the UAE.

If I don't want to send my kids back to their home country, how can I better instill national identity. Do UAE schools help with this, or is it down to me as a parent?

Mike writes: Schools that base their curriculum on a national system often have elements of that home country in its curriculum content and the cultural and extracurricular activities taking place in the school. These schools will often tend to attract large cohorts of a particular nationality relating to that curriculum and home country. In this aspect alone you are starting to build that ‘connection’ to a national identity. However, it is important to note that, apart from the UAE state schools, all national system schools in the UAE sit an international context with some embracing this aspect more than others.

For the nationalities with a high level of representation here in the UAE, you will find social and cultural groups that reflect the national cultures. In other cases, there may be a cultural section to your country’s embassy that promotes your culture. Also, we must not forget the positive side of the Internet where a little research could generate options to support and instill national identity.

This is not a full answer as it is being written by someone who feels that, the advantages of growing up in a cosmopolitan community, offers a real benefit to the youngsters. I feel that relating to one’s home country will come naturally if this is a strong characteristic in the family.


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