What I Taught in the Emirates — and What It Taught Me

The UAE hired Westerners to teach nationalism to students while dismissing instructors from the Middle East

What I Taught in the Emirates — and What It Taught Me
Men Performing Traditional Dance In The United Arab Emirates / Getty Images

Teachers do not get enough credit for their role in history-making. The job of an educator is more than teaching reading, writing, math and science; it’s a position of power in which an adult helps youth learn who they are and where they come from. Teachers also shape citizenship, and they do so as essential components of the state, gently pushing students toward a version of themselves that identifies with a flag, a culture and a place in history.

I did not always see the field this way. I was to elevate students, not assign society’s roles for them. But experiences both at home and abroad, and in particular in the United Arab Emirates, taught me otherwise.

My role was humble, but from 2009 to 2013, I helped reshape the UAE’s national narrative for a new generation — a narrative that would emphasize a nationalism that would see the UAE deploy its youth to far-flung battlefields in Yemen and plunge others into 21st-century economics and international culture. During those years, I worked in the equivalent of an Emirati high school — part of a grand national strategy to pull the country, in some cases reluctantly, into a modern world in which oil mattered less, Iran mattered more, and the UAE’s rulers navigated the future unchallenged. And while none of those grand geopolitical imperatives were written down in our curriculum, they always lurked, implicitly, behind our drive for higher test scores, enforced by an increasingly competent security state.

After two years of training at Arizona State University, I was ready to jump into a high-needs classroom. I had wanted to follow through on the advice of then-President Barack Obama, who had spoken at our graduation in May 2009 to tell us that we should seek out the challenge of impoverished and high-needs schools in the U.S. I could not have agreed more; I was after a mission to fulfill the reason why I’d become a teacher to begin with.

But that was not to be. The Great Recession had gutted the overbuilt suburbs of my home state of Arizona and teaching jobs were hard to come by. I’d also applied for jobs in Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago, hoping these hard-up districts would have me, but the country as a whole was subsumed in the financial crisis and districts were either fighting desperately to keep jobs or laying people off. Disappointed that the United States apparently had no need for my skills, I began to submit applications abroad. With a longstanding academic interest in the Middle East, I tried Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon and Afghanistan — to not even a “no thank you” email. I began to think I might have to wait a full year before I might start working as school budgets recovered. Then in mid-July 2009 I’d found a simple posting on a very bland recruiter website advertising jobs in the Middle East — and was shocked to get a phone call just a few hours later. While the rest of the world was firing, someone in the Persian Gulf was hiring.

It was the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), an Emirati government agency set up, ostensibly, to speed run the country’s schools into the 21st century. The screening call reeked of urgency but nothing untoward: I interpreted this as a good sign, as if the recruiters were connecting with me because they could sense that I was eager to attach myself to a mission, and at this point, it hardly mattered which country’s mission that was. I accepted an interview a few days later with ADEC advisers who just happened to be swinging through Phoenix.

The interview also felt like it was hurried; they mostly seemed like they were sensing if I had the bare bones of teacher training, rather than detecting if I was a good fit to throw into the deep end of the Emirati public school system they said was deeply underperforming. After a few back and forths — I asked if the students spoke English well (“You’d be surprised,” one said, and I sure was, but not in the way they suggested) — they offered me a job on the spot, well above Arizona’s typical teacher salary, with all the typical perks of the UAE’s pre-VAT glory days: a rent-free apartment, full insurance, no taxes and a service bonus at the end of my contract. I accepted a few days later.

I did not hear anything from them for weeks after; by mid-August, I was not even sure if I had a job. Then one afternoon, I got a phone call from a busy-sounding man who asked me if I was still coming. I replied yes; he said “good” and then hung up. My plane tickets arrived not long after.

When I arrived, I discovered I was but one of hundreds of fresh-faced teachers all just glad we had secured a job in this economy — a cohort of sorts, referred to as “waves,” of teachers meant to staff up Emirati schools. Over the next chaotic week, we were given the full spectrum of Abu Dhabi’s public relations arsenal: We toured exhibits that showcased plans for museums, zero-carbon Masdar City, and future public schools draped in carbon-sucking plant life. Emirati speakers gave us their optimistic version of the UAE’s history, which pointed us toward the glorious future that we would play a critical role in. It was clear early on that we were to only speak of the country in glowing terms, which in those early weeks was easy to do, as they shuttled us from modern wonder to modern wonder like the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi.

It was a stark contrast with home, where construction sites had gone still, friends fretted about layoffs, and the political system seemed, despite Obama’s decisive victory in 2008, trapped in endless debate. The more I saw of the UAE, the less I liked the U.S.

And urgency underlay every part of orientation: Oil was finite, Abu Dhabi was a desert, and inevitably these two factors would overwhelm the nation as it existed and return it to the coral huts of yesteryear. Ostensibly, we were to prepare the youth of Abu Dhabi for the post-oil world to come. For me, it was a fresh narrative: As the U.S. dithered through the Great Recession, the authoritative, modernist tone of the Emiratis was more than welcome. I was a believer. I had found a mission at last — one that let me actually have a savings account as well.

Further context for ADEC came out through rumor and half-whispers. The teaching mission was not meant to begin in 2009, but a year later: Advisers said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto leader of the UAE, had decided the job was too urgent to slip another year. Hence the reason we seemed to be recruited in haste. Others whispered that the only reason we were using the Australian curriculum — and not, say, the United Kingdom’s, given the country’s colonial history and still-friendly relations — was that some Australians had simply gotten to the crown prince first with their pitch. None of these particularly fazed me at the time. It was refreshing to have a top-down approach, as opposed to the U.S. system in which bickering among administrators, politicians, parents and unions could bring change in schools to a standstill. More important, I figured that if it was not top-down — if the crown prince’s authority was not so well entrenched — few Emiratis would ever support a cockamamie scheme like bringing in hundreds of non-Arabic speaking teachers into their classrooms.

I loved the boldness of it — and the speeches by the advisers seemed to indicate it was warranted. The advisers made it clear the problems with the Emirati school system were complex: The school system was dominated by expensive, tuition-based private schools that used U.S., British or another international curriculum as Emirati parents lost faith in the public schools. National identity was slipping away in these places, while the public sector languished, dominated by untrained officials and using curriculums decades out of date. Too often, former public school students would spend years in remedial classes after graduating from high school to make up for the lack of prior progress. To hear it put this way, a giant sledgehammer of change was just what the doctor ordered.

But there were red flags, though I did not quite recognize them as such at the time. At least two teachers were quickly deported, supposedly because they did not pass health care screenings. Another I knew had a family crisis at home but found ADEC an impenetrable bureaucracy when he asked for guidance and aid; he left before setting foot in the classroom. Rumors multiplied, and while some were true and others demonstrably not, they underlined a simple reality: There were no unions to beg for help, nor would embassies step in if we ran afoul of Emirati authorities. Expatriates quickly learned that if they were to complain, they had to be careful who was listening. And when they spoke of the UAE itself, it was best to be positive.

The advisers were also mum about previous reform efforts. I later learned the UAE’s education system had been constantly under reform since the country was founded in 1971. The success of these reforms often hinged on whatever the government thought was the important issue of the day, and so in the 1980s, when the Muslim Brotherhood seemed dangerous, particularly after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the Emirati government had allowed individuals associated with the Brotherhood a fair amount of influence in the education sector as a compromise. As I learned about these other half-hearted reforms, they revealed the deeper, unending priority of the Emirati state: In this top-down system, the top set about finding ways to keep itself there.

Yet at first glance, the new reform effort felt aboveboard: It looked like we were being dropped into low-performing schools with unlimited political capital and funding in a stark contrast with the cash-strapped teaching experiences many of us had prepared ourselves for back home. The curriculum was called “inquiry-based” and heavily emphasized critical thinking — it had little explicit content to teach but rather a series of skills, as was in vogue in a number of countries at the time, including the U.S. So rather than teach, say, the present tense, we were asked to teach how to critically examine a short article. That phrase kept coming up: “critically think,” a buzzword phrase that’s hardly unique to the UAE. It implied we would be working to teach students how to examine bias, sourcing, media and even themselves. Great change seemed possible with such guidelines. But teachers work within and for systems; they rarely change them. Over time, the system steadily revealed its red lines.

This became clearer once I entered a classroom. I was assigned to Al Ain, a desert oasis on the border with Oman. We learned from the local, mostly Arab expatriate staff that there had been mass layoffs to free up jobs for us. I never knew exactly who, but the rumors suggested they were mostly Palestinian, largely because they had no embassy to push back against sudden layoffs. The remaining Arab expatriates were nervous we’d come to take all their jobs, and our relationship was, initially, poisoned by this assumption. In the early months, they rarely shared insights about the system with us.

I naively believed we were simply being brought in because our training was more aligned to the new curriculum. But the Arab expatriates knew better; as I got to know the remaining staff, they became more forthright with their worries, that we were part of a purge of Arabs seen as potentially disloyal, and they’d often throw up their hands at the end of their complaints and say something along the lines of “What can we do?” It was an appropriate phrase that many Westerners, including me, adopted. No unions existed to appeal for aid; no embassies would involve themselves in disputes between the UAE and the teachers it had hired, regardless of their country of origin. We Westerners had walked in believing we had the backing of the Emirati government to enact deep change; we quickly learned we were just as much a subject of the monarchy as the Arab expatriates who had been there before us.

Over time, I learned we had helped the UAE achieve one of the crown prince’s strategic objectives: a subtle purge of Muslim Brotherhood influence in Emirati schools. Back in the 1980s, the Emiratis had brought thousands of teachers and professors from countries like Egypt and the Levant to staff their schools; many had Muslim Brotherhood ties, which, in the 1980s, was considered relatively harmless by UAE authorities. That had changed by the time I was there in 2009: The crown prince saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a direct challenge to Emirati stability and wanted to push their influence out of the country; the schools themselves were just one target. It was not necessary to fire all the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated teachers at once, simply to send the message that one could be fired for such an association — and that the replacement could well be a non-Muslim Westerner almost assured to have no Muslim Brotherhood sympathies. In a way, it was functionally similar to how U.S. schools tried to purge communist teachers after World War II. Like the U.S. during the Red Scare, the state relied on the chilling effects of mass layoffs and rumors that filled in the gaps as to why it seemed so many Palestinians and Egyptians had been let go. Meanwhile, rhetorical and topical red lines were shifted or given new emphasis, aimed toward reducing the influence of the Brotherhood — and politics in general.

I learned that the hard way. I was deeply interested in the country’s history and wanted to use that interest to build a bridge between myself and my students. I learned about the disputed islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs off the coast, which were seized by Iran in 1971 despite being claimed Emirati territory. I hoped to use them as a lesson to talk about identity and geography. But my students sat uncomfortably as I tried to draw ideas out of them. “Why are the islands important? What happened to them?” They stared blankly, and I figured it was because the lesson was dull rather than controversial.

I was hauled in before my department head, a Syrian, who quite politely explained I had veered into dangerous territory. There was no reason to talk about Abu Musa or anything to do with Iran; Iran was the enemy, that was that. I tried to explain that I was not taking an anti-government line by any stretch of the imagination, but he let me know that did not matter. The very subject was mamnoua, not allowed. What the teacher told me may not have been true everywhere; Emiratis are allowed, even encouraged, to talk about Abu Musa and to celebrate as the first Emirati martyr a local police chief who died as Iran seized one of the islands on the eve of the UAE’s formation. The warning by the Syrian was probably exaggerated, but it reflected the environment of fear created by either clear red lines or sheer ambiguity.

I did not talk about the islands or Iran again, but that did not mean I steered free of trouble. When trying to teach a lesson on leadership, a formal part of the curriculum, I asked students to nominate different leaders they could think of. Typical ones came up: Sheikh Zayed, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, even Aisha, the Prophet Mohammed’s youngest wife and later a military leader. One student called out “Saddam Hussein!” To critically examine a subject, one needs good and bad examples, I figured, so I put his name down on the board. As we came to Saddam, the same student shouted out, “Saddam was good! He killed the Shi’a!” I merely shook my head, since the student was clearly not being serious, and the statement, while offensive, was not something I wanted to try to bring to the attention of the administration, in large part because I knew I was on thin ice with them already, worried as they were about the classroom management of every Western teacher.

I did not know how close I got to being fired because of that incident until much later. Weeks after, I learned that another student had reported the Saddam moment to the administration. The student who had made the comment was reprimanded harshly; the UAE, after all, had fought against Saddam in 1991, and sectarian sentiment of any stripe was absolutely forbidden in the Emirates. The student, angry but without recourse against the administration itself, decided to blame me: I later learned he launched a complaint against me at ADEC, saying I was to blame for the outburst. A formal investigation cleared me, in large part because the incident had happened while my advisers were observing the class. But I had dodged a bullet fired by the government against even immature jokes about sectarianism. The rest of the school knew exactly who it hit. The student in question did not joke after that.

There were other, more passive examples of how the schools were incubating a new national narrative. In May 2010, Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish-led humanitarian flotilla trying to break the Gaza blockade; it provoked widespread international outrage. I remember Arab expatriates being extremely agitated and affirming their support for the Palestinian cause. I remember the Emirati students saying nothing. It could not have been only fear; the Arab expatriates were very publicly shouting about the event, and the UAE’s official pro-Palestinian stance encouraged them to do so. Rather, I tend to believe it was apathy — apathy because the Palestinian cause was distant and old, yes, but also because Emiratis had been taught not to have political opinions. This was just the logical conclusion of that. It was foreshadowing for future events, too. When people ask what ordinary Emiratis think of the normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel, I tend to believe they intentionally do not give it much thought.

I heard stories about similar experiences elsewhere. Teachers had near misses with social and political red lines frequently in the early months of the project. Teachers who complained to ADEC had to do so in the established, Bedouin way, waiting patiently for officials to come to them and hear their grievances. Some Westerners, used to activism and protest, found that unacceptable; I had once heard a group tried to camp out at ADEC to get better housing and instead were swiftly deported. Not for asking for new apartments — people who waited long enough could get that. But because they had made their dissent public, embarrassing even. That was not the lesson we’d been hired to teach.

As for the lessons we were supposed to teach, I soon saw during exam season how seriously the system took them. After months of warning my students of the difficulty of the English exams, I was shocked by how widely tolerated academic dishonesty was; students openly passed notes and whispered answers, and while some of the faculty tried to tamp it down, including me, if we tried to remove a student for cheating, or even ask them to retake the exam, the administration brushed off the event, warned the student and let them finish up the compromised exam. It became clear that students’ actual academic skills did not matter much; what did matter was they’d gone through the school system, been exposed to the state’s red lines, and not crossed any of them.

Over time, I learned the rules too. I did not talk about current events, or even use news articles, in lessons. As the curriculum itself advanced over the years, I focused on what compelling parts I could find: My favorite was the concept of “civilization,” but there was also climate change, natural disasters, good study skills, community volunteerism and important Emirati holidays. I learned how to approach topics that might have been controversial in the U.S. — like climate change, which continues to be the subject of widespread denial in the U.S. — with the same top-down, answers-already-decided approach the Emirati system expected. Climate change was bad; community service, especially service as part of the country’s build-up to its 40th anniversary in 2011, was good. None of these concepts could be examined “critically” — I could not ask students to weigh opposing views of climate change, plentiful though they were, to help them learn how to evaluate sources and use English to conduct the scientific method. For the most part, it helped that I agreed in principle to the scripted answers, but it was proof of the unseriousness of the educational aspect of the reform: Students were memorizing “correct” concepts rather than examining them.

The Arab Spring tested this budding nationalist narrative in a way that could not be ignored. In December 2010, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia; by spring of 2011, civil wars in Libya and Syria and revolution in Egypt had seemingly broken the old political order. Nearby Bahrain marched and fought, and my family back in the U.S. asked me what my exit plan might be.

But nothing ever came of it. In the schools, except for the animated debates my Arab co-workers had, it was like the Spring was not even happening. The students did not mention it to me. No one dared teach anything about it. And that turbulent year passed by, revolutionary sentiment swirling about us even in nearby Oman, and I never heard a whisper of protest or sympathy for the Spring. Nor, importantly, did I hear anti-Spring sentiment either. For all of us, each with the story of a rumored or real deportation in mind, the safest thing to say in the schools was nothing at all.

Events beyond schools hammered in the message in the classroom. In 2011-12, the UAE was shocked to see its security forces round up dozens of dissidents, including, reportedly, a member of the royal family that ruled Ras al-Khaimah; they were held up as public examples of what might happen to those who talked too supportively of the Spring. Expatriates were hardly immune; one high-profile example was Matt Duffy, a professor at the prestigious Zayed University, who pushed for press freedom and was promptly and publicly deported in 2012. Expatriates and locals alike took these lessons to heart. (He wrote about his experience in the country for the American University of Cairo’s Arab Media and Society journal in 2013.)

The narrative-shaping went beyond politics into the social realm, then being stage-managed into Abu Dhabi’s definition of modernity. Once, one student approached me and tried to solicit advice on how to deal with his family’s pressure to commit to an arranged marriage. Colleagues whispered that he might also be gay. As soon as I realized what he was suggesting, I grew deeply uncomfortable. Some of that was helplessness; I had no way to advocate for him as I might a student back in the U.S., being as I was an outsider and non-Muslim with no cultural standing to weigh in on such matters. But it was also just the listening: If someone found out I had listened and reported, that could be enough to send me home. I had to cut him off before he could say too much and advise him to simply talk to his family about the situation. He seemed to understand and let me off the hook. Even as bars as brash as those in neighboring Dubai kept popping up and the government began hosting Israeli athletes, grassroots social change could not be countenanced. Whatever social changes were to happen, they came from the top.

There were everyday reminders of this social change, as well. Each morning, groggy students shuffled into the school courtyard for announcements, a reading from the Quran and the national anthem. Like at so many teen assemblies, the boys usually talked over the announcements and even ignored the Quran readings. But the moment the national anthem came on, they would freeze in place, regardless of where they were standing, and come to attention, knowing that if they did fall out of line or crack a joke at this moment it would be met with severe retribution, either in public or later in the principal’s office. I had been initially shocked to see that they did not do the same for the Quran, but the reasoning was clear: The UAE was de-emphasizing Islam in public life, refashioning it as less central.

In 2013, I left the UAE for a private school position in Qatar, which had its own red lines and a security state willing to enforce them. But they mattered less in a private school, where the vast majority of the students were international and the Qatari parents who sent their students there understood they’d probably interact with European teenagers with vastly different values. Thanks to a different student body and an entirely different curriculum, I was able to explore more topics than in the UAE and deeply push genuine critical thinking skills. But that was because the school had few people who wanted to report me to Qatar’s security services, not because Doha had embraced the liberal vision of education ADEC promised but never delivered. At least one story, in 2013, emerged of a teacher arrested for “insulting Islam” — a catchall accusation for dissent in Qatar as much as it was in the UAE.

I also began writing about the Gulf, teaching and geopolitics online. Part of it was therapy. The only way the Gulf made sense to me was to put the actions of the states there into a geopolitical context. The widespread academic dishonesty made more sense to me then. The Emirati government did not benefit from a widespread, sudden crackdown on cheating, because to do so would mean to hold thousands of students back in high school. That would anger their families, who were expecting degrees that would lead to comfortable public sector jobs. To me, that anger could engender dissent and become part of the nucleus of true political opposition. In that sense, it was much better to just let students cheat and pass them along. Loyalty, not efficiency, was the currency of the realm.

It also helped me cope with a teacher’s role in any given system. The UAE wanted loyal citizens above all to preserve its political model; that primary lesson filtered down, even if it was not written in the curriculum itself, in the ways that some rules were enforced and others were not, why some people were deported and others worked for decades in the same school. When I returned home to the U.S. and began teaching in New York City in 2014, the political model changed but my role as a teacher inside a system did not. Instead of pushing the authoritarian edicts of the sheikhs, I became an enforcer of a system that wanted to maximize the economic value of every student.

My geopolitical writing eventually found an audience; one member of that audience helped bring me into the career I now have. I now monitor the UAE, Qatar, and the rest of the Gulf Arab countries for signs of social instability amid change; my time in Emirati classrooms anchors how I view the news reports and analysis that emerge from there. That Emiratis and Qataris and others in the Gulf who have copied aspects of their nationalist narratives have rarely displayed dissent makes perfect sense to me. That narrative, the one that causes citizens to rally to the flag, started in their schools. And even if they did not agree with it, they learned early on not to say so.

How long this narrative can survive remains to be seen; it has passed the test of the military fiascos in Yemen and Libya and international criticism of the UAE’s human rights record and the setback in the 2017-2021 blockade against Qatar.

But as history unfolds, and young Emiratis become old, their experiences may cause them to question what we taught them. And it may be that Emiratis being born now grow deaf to the nationalist narratives still entrenched in the schooling system, as patriotism becomes, as it did in the U.S., passé, a relic of older generations.

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