Beautiful minds converge to inspire Nobel prizewinners of the future

Arab nation aims to light a beacon for education at the third Festival of Thinkers. Matthew Reisz reports

November 12, 2009

The first ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan, once described education as "the lantern which lights our way in the dark".

Last week, the current Minister of Higher Education, Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, declared that the United Arab Emirates - of which Abu Dhabi is one of seven federated states - was "on a mission to become a leader in creating a knowledge society".

He was speaking at the third biennial Festival of Thinkers, which brought together more than a dozen Nobel laureates, including the now frail and deaf figure of John Nash, the American game theorist immortalised in the Hollywood film A Beautiful Mind (2001).

There were also current or former heads of state, business leaders, humanitarian activists, sporting heroes, vice-chancellors and others declared by the organisers to be "world thinkers".

The oil-rich state laid on a gala dinner at the Emirates Palace, which included performances by the flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes, Japanese drummers, a Bollywood dance troupe, a choreographed version of Ravel's Bolero, horses on stage, fireworks and an acrobat emerging from a balloon.

The event opened with Sheikh Nahayan expressing the hope that the festival would "inoculate future generations with the value of deep thinking". He was followed by a keynote speech from Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and human rights campaigner who, in 2003, became the first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Prize, in the Peace category.

To the obvious discomfort of some listeners, she attacked the sexism, literacy levels and waste of talent common in a number of Islamic countries. "No society can achieve its potential for political and economic progress if half its members can't contribute," she declared.

"We women must not put our books aside and stay at home as housewives."

Big thinkers require big themes, and panel discussions focused on "moving beyond the economic crisis", globalisation and the struggles for peace and an end to poverty.

World-class athletes offered stories of how they had overcome adversity, found the right role models and disciplined themselves to achieve their dreams.

The debates were followed by round tables, which brought illustrious delegates face to face with local students keen to offer their own ideas.

Simon Jones, director of the Abu Dhabi Men’s College, said the festival was "a unique event in bringing world-class thinkers and intellectuals into contact with young minds".

He added that it helped to "sow the seeds of new ideas, bring in fresh international perspectives and give young people a sense they can change, too".

One US-based academic in attendance, Funmi Olopade, director of the Centre for Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago, described growing up in Nigeria, where she said many students felt its government had "frustrated their ambitions to be great".

Praising the festival organisers, she suggested that, had Nigeria used some of its oil wealth to "bring in Nobel laureates to inspire local students", it would not have suffered such a catastrophic brain drain.

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