October 31, 2001 1 min read

Travels in the Gulf

Vincent L. Ferrandino won’t be going back to the United Arab Emirates any time soon.

Vincent L. Ferrandino

Mr. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, traveled off and on over five years to consult in the Persian Gulf federation, which has 2.4 million people in seven loosely affiliated emirates.

Three schools, run privately but overseen by the government to ensure Islam is taught, were seeking accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. As a former executive director of the association, Mr. Ferrandino was asked to evaluate them.

Although the UAE recognized Afghanistan’s Taliban regime during that time, and three of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States were reported to have had ties to the country, Mr. Ferrandino says he saw no hint of extremism in his travels. People seemed to be most interested in commerce, education, and Islam, he said in an interview this month.

The UAE has since broken with the Taliban. Mr. Ferrandino’s visits were paid for by the UAE’s ministry of education.

“Everywhere you looked, there was a building going up,” he said. “You’re dealing with a country that 30 to 40 years ago didn’t exist. So now they’ve gone from a society composed mostly of nomadic tribes to one where you see people carrying cellphones on camels.”

Most teachers in the UAE’s private schools, which are reserved for the richer segments of the population, wore Western-style clothing. The schools boasted swimming pools and lots of computers.

“Most of their workers were civil servants, they weren’t professionals, and government officials wanted to change that,” Mr. Ferrandino said of the private schools’ efforts to introduce an international or American- style curriculum. “Pretty much, the schools relied on strict memorization before.”

The other defining feature of the two emirates he visited was Islam. Classes were broken up several times a day for prayer, and girls and boys are separated starting in the 3rd or 4th grade.

Given the political instability in that part of the world, Mr. Ferrandino doubts he will return soon.

“I expect they won’t ask me,” he said of UAE officials. “But I’m certainly interested in going again.”

—Mark Stricherz