A day-long series of lively debates at Dubai’s Madinat Theatre on 19 November 2008 drew an audience of 300 people, most of them university students. The forum was the culmination of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise outreach in the region over 15 months, including the 13th international Awards ceremony.

Panellists included former and current Rolex Awards Selection Committee members and one past Award winner and their regional counterparts. “These 16 exceptional individuals are here today to share their insights and knowledge during three plenary sessions on issues pertinent to the Arab world,” said Rolex Awards director Rebecca Irvin in welcoming the audience.

Dubai, 19 November 2008, ©Rolex Awards/Kirsten Holst Signature Forum, (from left): Kathryn Sullivan (2000 & 2008 Rolex Awards Jury Member), HE Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, UAE Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Rebecca Irvin, Director of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise

The state of science and innovation in the MENA region
“I think it is particularly important in helping children learn the sciences to actually listen to and let them express what they currently understand”.
Dr Kathryn D. Sullivan, panellist and 2000 & 2008 Rolex Awards Jury Member

One of the main conclusions of the first panel discussion was that young Emiratis and others in the Middle East and North Africa must be encouraged to think more for themselves. With an impressive 90 per cent of UAE students going into higher education, there was a need to “retool” our educational system, said Dr Tayeb A. Kamali, UAE Higher Colleges of Technology vice chancellor.

World-renowned heart surgeon professor Sir Magdi Habib Yacoub similarly stressed how more originality of thought and centres of excellence, such as the one he has spearheaded in his native Egypt, were required, while scientist Dr Kathryn D. Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, challenged the young population to follow their dreams and dare to break barriers.

Preserving the natural environment and cultural heritage
“If we destroy our nature, our biodiversity, it’s like destroying… hundreds, thousands of libraries, because these are repositories of information, of knowledge, much of which we still haven’t discovered”.
Geh Min, panellist and 2008 Rolex Awards Jury Member

This panel took into account both the region’s unparalleled construction boom over the past 20 years and the demographics of the UAE, where expatriates comprise over 80 per cent of the population. “Marrying conservation and business is a real challenge here,” said Abdul Aziz Al-Midfa of the Sharjah Environment Authority. “People must understand why it is important to save sand dunes rather than converting huge tracts of land into golf courses.”

The six panellists agreed that both a “top-down” (governmental) and “bottom-up” (grass roots) approach to conservation were required. “In Oman, we have a clear directive to preserve the environment,” added Colonel Sulaiman Mohamed Albusaidi, adviser to the Omani environment minister. The solution, he said, was public awareness, especially among children.

The role of women as forces for social change
“I think women really are the secret weapon of every country if they want to develop in a sustainable, pro-growth way”.
Dr Kanwaljit Soin, panellist and 2000 & 2004 Rolex Awards Jury Member

The third panel spurred intense questioning by the many young Emirati women attending. “Women here adapt to modernity, while holding on to Arab customs,” observed Singaporean surgeon Dr Kanwaljit Soin. “They are the key agents for sustainable development.”

Dubai, 19 November 2008, ©Rolex Awards/Kirsten Holst Signature Forum, Panel three (from left): Farkhonda Hassan (2008 Rolex Awards Jury Member), Kanwajit Soin (2000 & 2004 Rolex Awards Jury Member), Yolanda Kakabadse (2008 Rolex Awards Jury Member), Fatma Al-Sayegh, Najla Al-Awadhi, George Kordahi (Moderator)

Editor of the Journal of Social Affairs, Dr Fatma Al-Sayegh, noted that education had been the cornerstone of change for local women. Najla Al-Awadhi, a member of the UAE Federal National Council and deputy CEO of Dubai Media Inc, urged the audience “Don’t compromise. Keep going and be passionate about what you want”.

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