Islamic Lifestyle

INTERVIEW-My goal is to unleash youth’s potential, our economy’s ’petroleum’ - STEM educator Dr Lamya Al-Haj

The oil-exporting countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are working to diversify their economies away from a high dependence on petrochemicals and fossil fuels. Educating and empowering the younger demographic is seen as critical to the future prosperity of the region.

Dr Lamya Al-Haj, Assistant Professor at Oman's Sultan Qaboos University, talks about her approach to education and motivating today's young minds to drive the GCC's future. If you can't access audio, the full transcript is provided below. 


Emmy Abdul Alim (EAA): Thank you for listening to Salaam Gateway. You’re listening to our interviews with Islamic economy people from the Global Islamic Economy Summit that was on October 30 and 31 in Dubai.

Welcome, Dr Lamya Al-Haj, thank you for joining us on the Salaam Gateway podcast. My name is Emmy Abdul Alim, I’m the editor for Salaam Gateway. We are here today in Dubai at the Global Islamic Economy Summit 2018 and you’re here to talk about being a social influencer. But beyond also being a social influencer, Dr Lamya, you’re also an academic, a scientist, a mother, a social worker, a motivational speaker... Could you give us a little bit of a background about what you do?

Dr Lamya Al-Haj (LAH): Thank you very much, Emmy, for having me and thanks for the invitation, I’m really glad to be here today. Thanks for the kind intro. A little bit about my roles probably, which will help later on to talk about how the roles align with the goals is that I am an Assistant Professor at Sultan Qaboos University. I teach Biology and Genetic Engineering. I am also a researcher; we have some research on biofuel production from date seed waste material and also some high-value products from algae. I’m a mother of three boys, a wife, daughter and a sister, and I’m very proud of that as well, which I think is a very important role. Also, I am a motivational speaker. I have a company called Coach for Change, where I try to drive positive change and influence in society and in the world as a whole, insha’ Allah, and a social worker as well.

EAA: Before we get to how you fit all of that in – because that seems like the work of 5 people – being a part of the Islamic economy, living in Oman in the GCC, you’ve spoken before about your work with young people in the region, and in the wider region as well, going down to South Africa and Pakistan. What exactly do you do with them?

LAH: Okay, the actual inspiration came in my classroom. I have been teaching for more than 10 years and I noticed that the students are more interested in the side talks that we have in the classroom. Rather than knowing how the DNA folds or the protein is synthesised, I would find their attention is captured when we talk about life, life skills, and finding your goals and aspirations.

Actually, the students were my inspiration to start Coach for Change, because there was so much demand on, you know, we want more of these talks. I started doing more local events, where I would have audiences of 50 to a 100 and when I see the impact, I thought I need something more sustainable and more structured, so I started Coach for Change.

That went from doing some jobs for MIT, I gave a talk for Harvard Crossroad Conference; recently, this year, I have been to Pakistan and South Africa.

I am very close to the youth just because I really, really believe in their powers and I really believe that they are the petroleum of our country. We come from the Gulf and we are heavily dependent on petroleum for our economy, but I really think the youth are going to be the group that drives the economy. So my aspirations or my goals are to get them all hyped up, all inspired, finding their goals because they are amazing. I have been working with them for tens of years, and they just need a little bit of a pat on the back and they really will explode with their talents. So really, they inspired me to be an inspirational speaker.

EAA: So we hear a lot about motivational speakers and inspirational speakers. How do you measure your work and your success? What is success to a motivational speaker like you?

LAH: That is a very good and very important question, because I always used to think, ‘What is my KPI? How do I know that what I am doing is successful? How do I know I am doing the right thing? Am I actually touching upon the points that I am targeting?’

To me, to be honest, it is as simple as being able for them to see their potential. So my goal is to unleash their potential. I am not instilling any skills in them, I am just literally making them realise the skills that they have.

When I get feedback, whether from social media or emails or letters or people coming into my office, saying, ‘We’ve changed our way of thought...’ ‘We’ve developed this program…’  ‘I actually decided to do my PhD…’ ‘I opened a business because of such and such a thing that you said…’ and I am thinking, ‘Okay, if simple words with a few minutes a day with these youth can actually unlock these potentials, then I need to do more of that.’

So it’s really direct feedback that I get from the youth on a daily basis that keeps me going, because it makes me feel like I am making a difference. And it is very rewarding. I must thank them for allowing me to feel good about inspiring them.

EAA: How does that compare with your work being an Assistant Lecturer, a teacher in a university? It sounds as if you get a lot of meaningful interactions with kids when you do motivational speaking. What about as a teacher and a lecturer? Do you get the same kind of feedback?

LAH: Yes, actually, as I said, the inspiration started in my classroom in the university, because again, these are the target age group. And I studied in the same university that I am lecturing in. So I tried to fill the gaps that were there when I was a student and I am thinking, ‘I know how these kids are suffering. I know what they need. They just need a little bit of a pat on the back, people to really believe in their talents.’

I had students who went from getting Fs to As within Test 1 and Test 2, which is really saying a very strong message, is that: ‘You are capable, but it is all a mindset.’ So I try to do that with the students that I teach on a daily basis, to try to make them realise their potentials, and unleash their potentials, and then I carry that message along with all the youth.

Because basically, all the youth, not only in Oman or in the Arab world, all the youth in the world – actually, not only youth, everybody needs a pat on the back.

I know millennials want a little bit more than others, you know: ‘Oh, you’re awesome, you can do this!’ But actually everybody needs a pat on the back.

EAA: Are you conscious of the Islamic economy, the different sectors of the Islamic economy, and the Muslims that work in the economy and benefit from that? When you go to the university and you teach students and when you are a motivational speaker, how does that come into your professional framework and how do you see yourself giving back to the Islamic economy?

LAH: Well, to make it very clear, I have absolutely no economic background at all. I am not very aware or familiar with the Islamic economy, but what I can say is that I believe the youth are the economy.

They are going to drive the economy of the Muslim world and that is what I try to make them understand, is that: ‘You play a very important and vital role in accelerating the economy of Oman.’ If I am in Oman or any country for that case that I am speaking in.

They need to believe that they are a part of accelerating the economy of Oman. I have a TEDx talk, ‘Youth of today, leaders of tomorrow’ and I talk exactly about that, about how they are going to be the petrol and the driver force for the Muslim economy.

EAA: Because you are here speaking about social influence, I’m just wondering whether you have a bigger picture of what you do and how that fits into the Islamic economy with regards to Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia… Do you see a clear link or results from your teaching and from your motivational work to how the Islamic economies of the Gulf countries develop, in that sense?

LAH: I believe that every big achievement starts with baby steps. So if I am going to be asked about my input, I would stay that I am in the baby steps input, because I am working at the inspirational level. So it’s basically the launching or the beginning or the start of where people can actually contribute to the Islamic economy.

So I would say that it all adds up.

Maybe it will start with provoking an idea. Students will come and say, ‘I never thought of starting my own business; I always thought I should finish university first’ or they would say, ‘Oh! Can I really turn my skill into a business model?’ Of course you can! We do that in biology, I actually have something called ‘Bio Got Talent’, so I introduced a 5 percent out of the assessment, so I’m like, ‘Guys, I am sure everybody has a talent, so I want you to use your talent in serving science.’ And they’re like, ‘But I rap!’ I’m like, ‘Perfect! Then design a rapping song that raps about how biology is or how the DNA is synthesized.’

So we get them to use their skills and think with a creative manner and utilising those skills to get something tangible. I have a student who actually now designs iPhone covers with biology themes on it. So I don’t strictly teach biology, but I also try to link it to something that is more applicable in the real world. So maybe I would say that is where I kick in and fit in the Islamic economy.

EAA: In the Islamic economy and in the real world, we have a bit of a problem with regards to the Sustainable Development Goal #5, which is gender equality. You’re a woman and a mother, you’re obviously a very successful professional, you have a PhD, you’re a scientist, and we have a huge gap with regards to women being in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Do you take it upon yourself to proactively be that kind of a role model for girls and women?

LAH: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s really interesting how this topic comes back over and over. I think this is the sixth interview only this year talking about how I work as a female role model in STEM education, because as you said, there is a gap. But although I see the gap closing really fast, at least in Oman. My three direct bosses are female. I report to the HOD, who is a female, who reports to the Dean, who is a female, who reports to the DVC, who is a female.

So in Oman, it’s amazing. We have two female… the Minister of Education and Higher Education are females.  So we have good role models in Oman and that is really rewarding and that is what I want to be for the next generation of the youth to say... I am closer to them probably in age so like, ‘Oh! That’s not that big of an age difference, so maybe I can be that and better!’

And I tell them, ‘I want you to be better’. So we need more female role models in the fields of STEM education or leadership, inspirational figures, because we are talking about 50 percent of the society that takes care of the other 50 percent of the society. So we’re actually talking about almost a 100 percent of the society. I am actively taking a role on being a role model, insha’ Allah, in this field.

EAA: Insha’ Allah. Final question before we let you go, because we know how busy you are. If you were running the world, what would be the first thing you would want to change about it?

LAH: Wow! I never thought of running the world. That’s exciting, already!

I would actively try to make sure that every single person tries to use what Allah gave them, skills and talents and invest that in doing what they do best. Because if everybody does what they do best, then we are all going to reach to a better world much quicker. Instead of competing with each other, everybody has their unique skills. And if everybody focuses on that, and complement each other’s jobs, then we all, the whole world will rise at the same time. And that’s something that I would like to do.

EAA: That’s lovely. Thank you very much, Dr Lamya.

LAH: Thank you very much. Likewise, I enjoyed this. Thank you.

(Interview by Emmy Abdul Alim;

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