Is there a doctor in the house? Answer carefully

Last year after writing We have our own heroes, we don't need other people's in The National I received an e-mail from a director in the Watani programme that began: "Dear Dr Sultan". I must admit that I thought it was a nice compliment, but the thought stopped there and I promptly emailed him back, thanked him and pointed out that I do not have a PhD.

More recently, one of my students from the Dubai Men's College invited me to lecture at a young professionals network he is part of at a real estate development firm. I decided to focus on ethical and moral dilemmas in life and in the business world such as the "Trolley Dilemma" - look it up on Wikipedia.

The truth is there are plenty of moral dilemmas that confront us in the UAE, many of them dealing with education and credentials. For instance, an acquaintance of mine had casually purchased his degree from a foreign university and is currently running a branch of a major financial institution. Should I inform the authorities and "do the right thing" and potentially harm his young family's interests? There is no easy answer.

One of the most embarrassing moments in the first administration of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came when the country's parliament voted to impeach the former Interior Minister - the former head of the very same ministry that announced Ahmadinejad's recent "landslide victory". The minister, Ali Kordan, was accused of lying about his credentials and holding a fake degree from what he called "Oxford University in London".

The most notorious case facing the UAE was when The Spokesman-Review, a newspaper based in Washington state, exposed more than 9,600 people who had purchased their degrees from a fraudulent diploma mill. The list included dozens of individuals based in the UAE. These "students" had names that appeared to be Arab, European, African and Asian and they may or may not be currently employed in the UAE or in the region, possibly in influential positions.

A total of 68 Emiratis were among these naive "degree holders" as well as scores of other GCC nationals. These young Emiratis may have travelled abroad with the intention to study but in some cases found themselves spending too much time basking in their freedom. With limited follow up from their families or their embassies abroad, particularly in large countries such as the US and Australia, it would not have been difficult to succumb to this temptation.

This is by far not a challenge specific to the UAE. Last year Singapore announced that it had caught 400 locals and expatriates working there who had falsified their degrees. According to a report published in The Straits Times of Singapore, there are three groups of people who resort to buying degrees. The first is young people who were not successful in their studies and want to prove that they have achieved an academic qualification to get a job and support their families. The second group is comprised of employees who seek to get a raise at their current job or who are trying to find a new one. The third is a group of businessmen - who are already successful - who want the prestige of a qualification that can also help them in their business dealings. For instance, recently The New York Times profiled a UAE personality who had been referring to himself as a doctor. The newspaper discovered that the university where he studied does not even offer PhDs. His spokesperson said that even though he might not have a PhD he does in fact have two MBAs.

In the UAE the greatest danger of the practice of buying degrees is in the fields of construction and medicine. A few years ago I was looking to hire a project engineer for a construction project and the gentleman I interviewed seemed to be very capable and possessed the right qualifications. I was surprised that he was willing to leave a reputable firm to work on a relatively small project. I called his firm one day and asked for the engineering department in that construction firm. I was told that although a person with that name worked in the firm, this gentleman wasn't a project engineer at all but had a much more junior position. I thought to myself how potentially dangerous it would have been had we hired him to oversee a project for which he wasn't qualified.

Buying degrees can be very lucrative but very dangerous in the medical industry. Many people in the Gulf succumb to what amounts to witchcraft and sorcery but feel comforted in being told that these sorcerers are qualified doctors who can cure them from a disease or can save a loved one. Many victims of these tricks are too shy to admit that they have been paying for ineffective medicine. They choose silence over unwanted publicity.

So sadly, in the UAE this practice can still pay.

Article originally published in The National on Sunday, June 21st 2009.