There is no question that the United Arab Emirates are poised to transform and reinvent their national economies for the purpose of gaining a stronger foothold on the global stage. In the case of Dubai, for example, rulers have seen the writing on the wall with regard to the finite nature of oil resources, and they have set out to create an international business hub using the riches they have accumulated from exploration and production of hydrocarbons. Dubai makes frequent news headlines on financial publications that report on the Emirate’s transformation, which is sometimes characterized as extravagant, but there is another Emirate that has been gradually emerging as a key economic player in the Middle East.

Ras Al Khaimah used to be considered a low-profile Emirate when compared to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but that has been drastically changing in the 21st century. This part of the world flourished during the medieval era, a time when it was one of the most important trading spots in the Arabian Peninsula. After decades of British rule, which had a very difficult time controlling piracy, there were high hopes for Ras Al Khaimah in terms of oil exploration; alas, that never came to fruition, and the former economic glory of the Julfar period, which rose to prominence during the Islamic Empire, was lost until the 20th century.

Despite the lack of vast oil reservoirs, Ras Al Khaimah is quickly catching up to other Emirates, although in a more relaxed and methodical manner. Under the leadership of His Highness Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qasimi, the people of RAK now enjoy greater quality of life thanks to a process that has involved economic diversification. The process started about 40 years ago when RAK Ceramics was established to take advantage of the abundant presence of fine clay materials in the Al Wadi desert; at the same time, foreign direct investment was encouraged and enticed with the creation of several free trade zones. The tourism industry was also fostered to provide an interesting alternative to Dubai, a place that may come across as being too fast-paced for some international visitors, and the next step in the economic expansion of RAK consisted in formulating plans to increase academic formation along with research and development.

In September 2019, the Al Qasimi Foundation published a research paper authored by Marvin Erfurth from the University of Muenster about the current strategy being applied by RAK as well as Dubai and Abu Dhabi in relation to higher education. These three Emirates have opted for what is known as creating an educational hub, which means that rulers establish universities with curricula to provide educated and skilled workers in a relatively short amount of time. This is a reactionary approach from an economic point of view; one that has been applied in jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, but Professor Erfurth argues that this effort may not provide the best outcome for the UAE.

One of the problems with education hubs is that they are too closely tied with business models, which means that institutions will at some point start seeking more opportunities to profit, thus leaving some sectors of society right at the edge of an economic situation they cannot attain because of their financial status. Another issue with hubs is that their role in producing employees will leave educational regulators open to copying foreign models for the purpose of catching up; what they should be doing instead is figuring out how they can better serve the needs of their communities.

Even though educational hubs can help regions achieve socioeconomic status similar to Silicon Valley for technology, Miami for international finance, and Boston for prestige academic formation, Professor Erfurth believes in the adage of “you should not go to school to learn how to make a living but to learn how to live your life.” A better future for higher education in the UAE would come not from educational hubs but from careful policy research that addresses the ultimate goal of improving quality of life. This does not mean that the hub idea should be abandoned, but it should also be balanced with other educational opportunities that are not necessarily focused on sharpening the economic edge of the region.