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Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba Delivers Commencement Address to NYU Abu Dhabi Class of 2016

May 23, 2016

In his keynote address to the New York University Abu Dhabi class of 2016, UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba praised graduates for their bold thinking, willingness to take risks, and openness to other people and perspectives.

Ambassador Al Otaiba emphasized how this forward-thinking outlook will create a more positive future for the region and the world. “You have a responsibility to be an advocate for the values that you’ve embraced here at NYU Abu Dhabi – the very same values that will move the world forward,” he said.



See below for Ambassador Al Otaiba's full remarks as prepared for delivery:


Thank you, President Hamilton.                                             

Let me begin by thanking a few people.

First, I want to say thank you to the NYU administration and faculty who believed in this important academic endeavor and brought it to life. Thank you to every single staff member in this amazing facility.

Second, thank you to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and John Sexton for believing in this ambitious dream and sticking to it.

And thank you to Charlie – for making John Sexton who he is today.

I also want to thank all of the students.  You are the reason we are all here today. 

But a very special thank you belongs to the parents. It's the parents who deserve much of the recognition today.  Not only for their support and guidance, but because they agreed to send their children to an institution that's only been around for 6 years.  An institution that is competing with the Harvards, Yales, Princetons, and Stanfords of the world.  And that takes courage.

Last and certainly not least, I especially want to thank the class of 2016.

Thank you for simply being who you are.

All of you are setting an example for others to follow. And you deserve a big round of applause on your graduation.

My talk to you today can be described in two ways.

1.         It will be short.

2.         And it will be uninspiring.

Why short? Because our collective attention span is getting smaller by the day.

Why uninspiring? Here, I have a theory I’d like to run by you.

I could very easily stand up here and tell you to seize the day; live your dreams; seek adventure; and never back down.

And that would be normal. That would be par for the course.

But here’s the catch – you’ve already done all of those things!

So, instead of me trying to inspire you, I’d like to take a few moments to tell you how you’re inspiring me.

There are three things in particular that stand out.

First, you inspire me by being bold and innovative thinkers.

The very fact that you decided to come to Abu Dhabi and be a part of this new school shows an appetite for seizing opportunities and creating change.

At a time when far too many people are stuck looking backward, arguing about the past, you are challenging assumptions and looking to a new future.    

That approach to life has been an integral part of your experience–  through internships at places like IBM, TwoFour54, and Amazon,

through your participation in the Drones for Good Awards and the AngelHack competition, and in countless other ways.

Innovation is not just a buzzword, it’s a mindset and a culture that shapes everything you do.

It is the key ingredient that has moved society forward throughout history.

The telescope, the compass, the steamboat, the airplane, the internet…

These all came about thanks to people who saw the world not as it was, but as it could be.

Solving the problems your generation faces will depend upon your ability to think and act with bold creativity – whether it’s on a Mars mission, on a movie set, at the UN, or in the lab.

Second:  you inspire me by embracing and sharing an attitude of tolerance and openness to others.

At a time when so many forces in the world are seeking to create and deepen divisions, you’re proving that when we engage genuinely with people from other backgrounds, we learn and we grow.

We become better for it – as individuals and as a society.

It’s something that is second-nature to you. You’ve experienced this during conversations over meals in the dining hall, games on the soccer field, or late-night chats in the dorm.

This power of connection is a crucially important lesson that too many people seem to ignore.

Here in the UAE we’re seeking to create a place where people from all backgrounds, faiths, nationalities, and perspectives can join together to learn, to engage in artistic expression, to exchange ideas.

And yes, to disagree. It’s ok to disagree, respectfully.

This sense of mutual respect and warm hospitality, these are Emirati values!

So, I don’t care what passport you carry; you’re all Emiratis now!

You came here from every corner of the globe, but for the last four years this has been your home.

Know that it will always be a home for you.

And wherever life takes you, keep this community and the lessons you’ve learned here as your north star – a guiding light in both good and tough times.

The world is becoming ever more interconnected and interdependent. You are a perfect example of that.

But for some reason, people are still promoting hatred, prejudice, and division.

You are the antidote to that hatred.

This brings me to the third reason you inspire me: You are creating and living a culture of hope.

At a time when people from Asia to the Middle East, and from Europe to America are resorting to extremism, you’re showing that there is another way forward.

Rather than looking at others to see what divides us, you look to see what we have in common.

Rather than sticking to who you know, you’ve lived and learned with classmates not like you at all.  And today you call them your friends.

Rather than sticking to what you know, you leave your comfort zone every day.

On his recent visit here, Vice President Joe Biden praised the UAE for its vision.

He was talking to a group of young Emirati entrepreneurs when he said something that stuck with me.

He said, “you give us hope.” And he’s absolutely right.

You give us hope.


NYU Abu Dhabi was an experiment that brought together some of the most visionary leaders in government and education to create a truly “global” university.

To say that experiment has been a success is a profound understatement.

It’s pretty remarkable what has been achieved in just a few short years.

Six Rhodes Scholars in three graduating classes. An alumna who has been named Minister of State.

The class of 2015 went on to jobs in finance, the arts, engineering, consulting, journalism, and teaching.

Others are pursuing graduate degrees in the sciences, law, international relations, and medicine.

The class of 2016 is bound to do even better.

You are more than 130 students hailing from nearly 60 countries.

On average, you speak two to three languages. Almost all of you spent a semester studying abroad.

You explored professional fields ranging from neurology, psychology and energy, to journalism, education and the arts.

You learned theories and then observed first-hand how they apply in the real world.

You’ve come together from every corner to create something truly special.

From here you will go on to become leaders in your fields – as business people, writers, teachers, or elected officials.

And if none of those work out, don’t worry, there’s always diplomacy to fall back on.

At the end of the day, the road ahead isn’t just about you, or NYU Abu Dhabi, or even the UAE for that matter.

It’s much bigger than that.

It’s about the kind of world you will create and live in together.

Just as you have been instrumental in making NYU Abu Dhabi what it is today, you will shape the world of tomorrow – in your words, in your actions, and in the choices you will make.

So that piece of paper you’re about to receive is pretty important. And you’ve earned it.

But the experience you’ve had here is equally as important.

You have a perspective, and a level of insight and understanding that are unique to this campus.

Now don’t think just because I am saying how much you inspire me that you’re getting off the hook. Oh no.

I'm giving you an assignment.

You have a responsibility to be an advocate for the values that you’ve embraced here – the very same values that will move the world forward.

Innovative thinking, tolerance, respect for others, hospitality, and a culture of hope.

If you help build a foundation for the future based on these principles, you will lead the world in the right direction. More than that, you will write the next great chapter in the history of human endeavor.

Or as Charlie would say, play another octave on the piano!

Today, in the palm of your hand, you’ve got smartphones and Snapchat and Netflix. All of those started as ideas in the minds of people just like you.

Which one of you will pioneer the next great step in technology? Or in medicine? Or in transportation?

Which one of you will create the next Uber or Tesla?

Today, we face the horrifying realities of extremism, climate change, and forces that seek to divide us.

Which one of you will come back here in 20 years to give the commencement address to the class of 2036, and talk about how you overcame these challenges and created a different kind of world?

A world where people choose books over guns.

A world where people innovate and look forward instead of looking back.

A world where people focus on what brings them together, not what drives them apart.

A world where people build bridges, not walls.

Don’t ever stop being bold. 

Don’t ever stop embracing other ideas.

Don’t ever stop embracing other people.

By choosing to come here, you’ve already taken a big leap. 

Let it be the first of many more.

Go show the world that we are so over conflict, hatred, and extremism. Show the world that over here, we’re all about tolerance, innovation, and hope!

I told you that this was going to be short.

And as for the uninspiring part… I’m the one who is inspired by you.

Congratulations, and good luck!