When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became a nation in the early 1970s, there were few signs of the Islamic Golden Age that put the Middle East at the global forefront of education and intellectual innovation hundreds of years earlier. The small nation of just a few million Emiratis, in fact, had neither a formal education system nor a university to call its own. Flash forward to today, however, and the UAE has a primary and secondary school system for both boys and girls, and new private and public universities have sprung up across the emirates.

While national investment in schools and universities continues, the UAE sees a larger role for itself as a promoter of peace and economic development through education, according to Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, the UAE’s minister of higher education and scientific research who is also chancellor of two of the nation’s three government-sponsored higher education institutions (United Arab Emirates University and Higher Colleges of Technology) and president of the third (Zayed University). In an interview with Knowledge at Wharton, Sheikh Nahayan discusses various UAE education initiatives, the impact of technology in and outside the classroom, and what he would envision to be an ideal education system.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: Sheikh Nahayan, thank you so much for joining us today.

Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Knowledge at Wharton: You have taken such a vital leadership role in education initiatives such as the Festival of Thinkers and Education Without Borders. I wonder if you could tell us a little about your philosophy of education and how these initiatives contribute to it.

Sheikh Nahayan: Thank you. First, these student gatherings — we call one the Festival of Thinkers and the other Education Without Borders. We also have another that is called Women as Global Leaders. The reason I support these initiatives and these gatherings is that [the world is] getting smaller and smaller. It is not just that we’re saying it; it’s literally becoming “a village” to the extent that when there’s disease, environmental crisis, conflicts or financial crises everybody gets affected. There are no boundaries and no barriers between countries. You cannot isolate yourself from what’s going on in the world. Since the students are going to be the future leaders of this world, it is good to interact.

And what amazed me during these conferences is the interaction between students based on human principles. They don’t think of what religion they are or what background they come from, what culture, what country. With the purity of human principle comes an action. They interact with each other and relate to each other on issues which concern [the entire] world, whether it is environment, which we’ve seen, and now we’re going through swine flu, which in a few days spread like fire in the forest around the world. The financial crisis in the United States in no time affected everybody else in the world. So nobody is immune. These conferences will contribute to creating this interaction between the future leaders of this world. We live in an age where we are fortunate to have technology and the Internet to maintain this link and to also make the world smaller. We know what’s going on now if somebody falls from a tree in a remote area of China.

I think it is only through education that we can eradicate poverty. We can eliminate diseases. If we invest now in education the world will be a much better place for our children and grandchildren. And actually it costs less. If we wait until the problem arises and we try to solve it, then it is too big. The cost would be much higher. If we invest in education in a third-world country in particular and also where there’s lack of education, lack of health care, they will be able to culture themselves. They will be able to protect the environment. It will also create new markets [which] will sustain the economic development and growth all over the world. But the world has to realize that together we can do many things. And we all are affected. We all should be concerned. That’s why we invest in education here and that’s why I think the quality of life, the sustainability of our growth and economic development, will solely depend on human resources in education.

Knowledge at Wharton: How do you view the role of technology in education? I believe you initiated mobile technology used in education. What is your thinking and strategy?

Sheikh Nahayan: We started it because we should break the barriers that you only can study in a confined area or you have to study with a big computer that you cannot carry, or in a lab. It should be easy, as easy as texting or talking on the phone. The mobile [technology] could be anywhere else. People very much feel friendly with the technology. They can use it easily. [Because of such] technology… for the first time in human history the individual has been empowered. Now, if I have a cause or an issue I want to present to the world, literally in a few hours it will be all over the world. So if I have a good cause, I can get to people. If I have a problem, my government cannot stop me. My students can’t stop me. My people can’t stop me. I can get through. That’s also why we have to empower them. We can use this technology to enhance the quality of life for people who are less fortunate than us because through it they can educate themselves. They can interact with the world.

I remember we were in a village in Pakistan where we go hunting. We introduced the GSM [global system for mobile communications] service there and it has changed their life. Why? Because before the farmers used to cut their crop, wait until the people came from the city to purchase their crop, and sometimes leave it too long. If they need medicine, they have to go all the way to the city. Now with GSM, collectively they interact with each other. They say, “Okay, is your crop ready? My crop is ready.” Then [they] call the people from the city to come and take it. It became more efficient. The quality of life became better. If they need something from the city collectively, they interact with each other and they order what they want. So that has made their lives much easier and trading much easier.

So that’s what happened to one village. Imagine what happens to many villages if we introduce the technology. And the technologies are becoming very friendly for users. You don’t need to have electricity. In this village, they use small gadgets you wind to create energy for recharging the phone. We have to invest in human resources because no matter how much money we will have in the near future we will lack human resources. You might have the best hospital in the world, with the best equipment. You will not have the people to man it. You might build it, but it doesn’t mean you’ll have anyone to run it. So we have to invest in the human. That’s our future. And the comparative advantage of any nation [will be] the quality of education.

We have to create a good education system and use it as an investment for the future. Here in the UAE we are very close to India. India is very close to us. We have 1.4 million Indians who work here, who work in different professions, labor or whatever. To my amazement, the fact is that the whole of India is over 1 billion. Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) number maybe 20 million or 25 million. [The state of Kerala has] spent a third of its budget on education. It has no illiteracy…. Here, two-thirds of [NRIs] are literate and they own the professions. They earn every day hundreds of millions [in income], literally. Isn’t that an investment? You don’t have to maintain it. You don’t have to supervise it. You just have to invest in the human intelligence and the human brain. There’s a saying that you need energy to fuel it, you need someone to man it. The return on investment is very high. So from whatever way you look at it, there is no substitute or alternative for education if we want to have a better world in the future.

Knowledge at Wharton: Could I ask one last question? In trying to create the education system of your dreams, not just in the UAE, but in this region, what is the toughest challenge you have faced, a leadership challenge you have faced? How have you overcome it and what have you learned from it?

Sheikh Nahayan: At first you have to be working for a goal and not be worried about your own position or your own job. For that reason, I will see where the best practice is and how many we can learn from and get the best, regardless of where they come from. I try to bring the best people to train. I’m not claiming that I am a genius at doing it, but maybe I can bring the best people. I am not looking for a person interested in fame. As long as I’m contributing to making a better world for my people, and for this region of the world hopefully….

We face difficulties. And I think difficulties and problems make it more interesting and more exciting. We should thrive. I believe my intentions are good and have nothing to hide. So I can face these challenges. Sometime people use religion against you if they lose their job. Every time you bring change, the change curve always goes down first before it starts going up. So you have to have a commitment and the assurance and confidence that you will stick to this change until it starts getting better.

I have just been talking to some people. Somebody said, “Oh, no, we’ve been making a few changes again and I’m sure it’s going to create an issue.” …But when you’re in charge, you can take on these issues. And in the end you say, “If I am in this position, this is my responsibility.” I should be honest and do what I think is right after studying the issue. If I’m wanted, then I’ll do it. If I’m not wanted, then I leave. So I’m never afraid of losing my job. I never wanted to get anything from my job. I just wanted to do what is good and help countries that will invest more in education to make [the world] a better place for everybody.

Now of course we will see in Pakistan — if you read the latest reports — protests and militias are springing up because the government cannot provide education. The many people who are now in these militias have nothing to [learn] because the people in charge of them have nothing to [teach them about] what’s going on in the world. … [It’s] isolationism, fundamentalism. But if we want to spend money and build a school for them, their parents would rather see them in school. And we [should] try to give incentives to these people to go to school….

Look how much it cost us for one incident. 9/11 to me has created a new era, like before Christ and after Christ. Now you talk “before 9/11” and “after 9/11.” It is disgraceful, and of course everybody deplores it. But look how much it has cost us. Had we tended to the Afghanistan problem after the Russians left it in chaos, [the terrorists] would not have had the [ability] to organize themselves — [for example, if] we had a Marshall Plan like they did for the Germans after the Second World War…. So the Taliban became stronger. Had we invested even then in the infrastructure, in education, we would not have this. There’s no word in the dictionary that can [capture] the importance of education for the individual, the families, the community, the country and the world.

Knowledge at Wharton: Sheikh Nahayan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Sheikh Nahayan: Thank you very much.