I am often asked about the history of arts education in UAE public schools. Few are aware that mid-20th century Arab geopolitics played a role in such a seemingly harmless subject. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser launched a severe crackdown on his once-allied Muslim Brotherhood organisation, resulting in a significant number of the group members relocating to the Gulf states.
Brotherhood members who settled in the Gulf benefited from both Abdul Nasser and later president Anwar Sadat’s animosity towards the Gulf states, who tolerated their activities and even allowed their Gulf disciples to enter into politics in Kuwait and Bahrain.
In the UAE, where no political activities are permitted, the Muslim Brotherhood established an offshoot social organisation known as Al Islah in 1974. Al Islah included Emiratis who were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood during their studies in Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s as well as by those who studied under Brotherhood members in the Gulf.
The country’s federal Ministry of Education quickly became a stronghold of the organisation that initiated what UAE Political Science professor Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla calls an “Islamisation” curriculum. The UAE textbooks that were initially based on the more liberal Kuwaiti counterparts, gradually adopted a more conservative style.
It is also widely believed that scholarships to study at foreign universities were prioritised to students who had undergone one of the Al Islah youth camps that included sports activities in addition to religious seminars and studies. When I attended the trial of the UAE Islamists in 2013, I noticed that a significant number of the defendants stood up and announced that they were the very first citizens to graduate from a certain reputable college or with a certain notable degree in the 1980s and 1990s.
By the late 1970s, Al Islah, which by then included a number of known public figures, was able to introduce “reforms” into UAE society, such as obliging female teachers to cover their hair.
Gradually, the black abaya and hijab had replaced the more loosely worn Gulf sheila that typically hung over a woman’s head and did not wrap around the neck. Colourful women’s dresses and even skirts that were common across the Gulf during the era of the secular pan-Arab nationalism disappeared altogether. And finally music and art education in UAE secondary schools ceased entirely by 1979 and were not reintroduced until September 2014.
Mohammad Ahmad Ebrahim, a respected Emirati artist born in 1962, belongs to the generation of Emiratis who were affected by the changes introduced by Al Islah associates into the education sector in 1979.
“During my secondary education, we were informed that art and music are now no longer part of the curriculum,” he says. “After graduating from high school, the following year, my university scholarship application was denied, they [the UAE Ministry of Higher Education] told me ‘We no longer offer art scholarships’.”
Ebrahim spoke of his “disappointment” and recounted how a friend in the United Kingdom had sent him books on art and art history. “I had to go to India and Pakistan in order to learn about art. I visited the museums and temples as well as Mughal palaces,” he added.
I harnessed the power of Twitter and got in touch with the UAE’s Minister of Education, Hussain Al Hammadi, who told me that fine art is now treated as a core subject in UAE schools. The minister praised a new project that offers additional art classes after school for several hours a week. Teachers, he said, were encouraged to “infuse art and creativity into other subjects they teach”. Al Hammadi stressed on the fact that the UAE is going beyond implementing the US-initiated Stem education system (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), which aims to prepare students for high-technology jobs, to Steam, which includes arts education. “Without art, a child loses creativity,” said Al Hammadi.
Today, the UAE is at the forefront of Middle Eastern cultural development. The UAE capital of Abu Dhabi is slated to open a branch of the Louvre in the next 12 months and is planning a Guggenheim outpost, even bigger than the one in Bilbao. Dubai has had a successful art fair for the better part of the past decade and is constructing an opera house on the footsteps of Burj Khalifa. Sharjah has hosted an art museum and a critically acclaimed art biennial since the 1990s.
However, what sets the UAE apart from its regional peers is the sheer number of expatriate Arabs who are studying here. Twenty per cent of all public school students come from Arab states according to the Minister of Education. Thus the benefits of art education, especially at this time when much of the region’s culture is threatened by terrorist groups and civil strife is exponentially greater than elsewhere in the region.
Emirati arts curator Noura Al Mualla said: “Raising a generation of students on beauty and creativity through art education will certainly have a positive impact on their personality.” The variety of fine-art works that are included in the new curriculum is also significant. In addition to acclaimed Emirati artists like Abdul Qader Al Rais and Abdul Raheem Salem, students are exposed to Arab masters such as Iraq’s Dia Al Azzawi, Tunisia’s Nja Mahdaoui and Syria’s Fateh Al Moudaress.
The works of western artists — including Vincent Van Gogh, Frank Stella and Wassily Kandinsky — are also highlighted in the teachings. Al Mualla would, however, like to see more Arab pioneer artists included. “It’s a good beginning,” she says.
Dr Abdulla, the Political Science professor, calls the removal of music and fine arts education from the UAE national educational curriculum in the 1970s “a huge setback for national, rational and artistic values in the whole society that (lasted) three decades. One whole generation.”
I asked Ebrahim, the artist who now relies solely on his income from art sales, if he welcomed the decision to reintroduce fine art education into secondary schools: “Definitely” he replied.
This article was originally published in Gulf News on May 13, 2015.