Governments across the Gulf region are reforming their education systems in an effort to promote greater economic diversification. While Saudi Arabia continues to focus on state provision, the UAE is leading the way in attracting foreign investment and encouraging private sector competition in order to raise standards. This is creating commercial opportunities for schools and universities around the world, while in a win, win situation for students, local institutions are being forced to rise to the challenge.

While the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have promoted economic diversification for many years, they have done relatively little to encourage it. Many possible measures have been ruled out because of the impact on existing social structures and religious life but most governments now recognise that more people need to obtain a university education if new sectors of the economy are to emerge and prosper. At the same time, greater control can be exerted over the education of their citizens if they attend institutions of higher education locally, rather than in the US, UK, Australia, or elsewhere in the world. The UAE is enjoying particular success in attracting new investment but Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are also keen to see new higher education institutions emerge to educate the workforce of the future.

It will be interesting to see whether this latest drive for university education is followed by parallel movement in favour of vocational educational. There are many skilled jobs that could be undertaken by Gulf citizens, particular in countries with larger populations, such as Saudi Arabia, including plumbers and electricians, jobs that are currently dominated by foreign workers. However, even if progress is made in this direction, restrictions on the freedom of movement of female Saudi Arabians will continue to restrict the proportion of the population that could exploit any training opportunities.

Demand for educational services is rising in the UAE on the back of population growth from both UAE nationals and foreign residents. According to the UAE’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), there are now more than 225,000 students in the country’s private schools, up from just over 100,000 in 2003. This growth is mainly the result of greater local interest in private education, as the proportion of Emirati citizens attending these schools has increased from 34% to 56% over the same period.

The Authority, which is tasked with regulating the sector, seeks to balance the demands of a modern economy with the country’s much more conservative social attitudes and culture. It predicts that the number of students in the country’s schools will reach 315,000 by 2019. A wide range of local and international education providers are setting up schools and universities, as the sector becomes increasingly globalised with curricula from the UK, US, Australia, India and Germany being followed by different institutions. Although new schools are being set up on a regular basis, a record 90% of student places were filled last year, with British and Indian schools proving most popular.

At the same time, government policies aimed at increasing the participation of Emiratis across all levels of the economy have increased demand for technical and scientific undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses. Many industries, including the oil and gas sector, have traditionally relied on foreign workers, but the government hopes that their own citizens will fill a growing proportion of skilled positions in the future. Some educational establishments have been set up specifically to serve the country’s main economic sectors, such as banking, tourism and hydrocarbons.

For instance, Hamdan Bin Mohammed e-University has established the new Dubai Centre for Islamic Banking and Finance with government support, to provide qualified employees for the growing Islamic banking industry. In addition, Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University, based in Edinburgh, which is heavily involved in the Scottish energy sector, has invested £16.9m ($28.22m) in its new Dubai offshoot campus. The average fee for university courses reached Dh35,000 ($9,497) last year, which is low by international standards, although the government does not regulate rates and allows them to be set by the market.

Dubai reforms

In a determined effort to ensure that scale does not come at the expense of quality, the Dubai education sector is to be reformed in an effort to improve standards. Teachers, who must already hold a university degree, will also have to possess a UAE teaching licence from 2015. The requirement will be imposed in both the private and public sectors, although some very experienced teachers may be exempt. The undersecretary in the Ministry of Education, Marwan Al Sawaleh, likened the process to that of registering as a medical practicioner. “If you come to practice here in UAE, there is a certain regulation. So, for teachers this will now be the same as for doctors. Education is a key for this country. Our aim is to provide a high standard of education system. We will not allow just a standard teacher to come and teach our kids, our future leaders. “

New private school legislation is also being drawn up in an effort to improve the teaching of Islamic studies and Arabic, as standards in both areas are considered to be too variable. According to Dubai’s Ministry of Education, 17 different curricula, including Dubai’s own, the English and the American, are currently being taught in the country but the Minister of Education, Humaid Al Qattami, insists: “Private education in the UAE has good infrastructure and an international open system.”

In addition, reform of higher education will include the introduction of a university ranking system for the whole of the UAE. The vice-president of the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Professor Badr Abu Al Ela, said: “The UAE is the front runner to produce such a classification in the Arab world. We are confident that this ranking will provide the most detailed information in areas of central importance to decision-makers, leaders of higher education institutions, students and the public at large. The ranking will measure each private and government higher education institution in the UAE in terms of teaching quality, human and physical resources, academic reputation, student’s achievements, active participation and social interaction.” The government is particularly keen to see the private sector play a much bigger role in investing in university research and believes that a ranking system will help to identify the country’s most likely opportunities.

New framework for Kuwait

Other governments in the region are also seeking to clarify the investment regime for private companies. Last November, Kuwait’s Education Minister Nayef Al Hajraf said: “The National Curriculum Framework will define national education standards, the objectives of each subject and consequently the required teaching hours. The national framework will enable the Ministry and the National Centre for Education Development to gauge the efficiency and the outcome of the educational system.” Private schools will also be required to follow the existing national guidelines for public schools, including with regard to curricula and exams, although it remains to be seen what impact this will have on the adoption of foreign curricula in the country. The proportion of students attending foreign schools in the country has increased gradually over the past decade and has now reached 40%.

E-learning and other forms of remote learning could also play a bigger role, particularly in more remote areas, or among sections of the population with restricted freedom of movement, while the government is keen to use e-learning to provide courses to state employees. The line between the public and private sectors could also be blurred following a government decision to outsource administrative tasks in state schools to private companies in order to free up teachers for teaching by reducing their bureaucratic burden.

The formation of Gulf campuses by foreign universities also gives students the opportunity to study in other countries for part of their degrees. For instance, the Dutch Stenden University has set up a university in Qatar that allows Qatari students to spend a year of their study in the Netherlands. Speaking in June, the Vice President of the Executive Board of Stenden Netherlands, Laas-Wybo van der Hoek, said: “This is in line with our philosophy to prepare our students for a future in a world that keeps changing and a career in an international industry that embraces different cultures and nationalities…Stenden has developed close ties with Qatar Tourism Authority, offering our expertise and applied research to help steer Qatar to great success. In association with UNWTO we are planning new events that will put the spotlight on Qatar’s achievements while keeping pace with the latest developments in travel and tourism round the world.” The Qatari campus specialises in tourism, hospitality and business management.

Education City is the centrepiece of higher education in Qatar, housing both foreign universities and the country’s main higher education institution, Qatar University. The latter is currently expanding its campus at a cost of QR500m ($137m) in order to cater for 25,000 students within five years, up from 15,000 at present. Male and female undergraduate campuses are segregated, so some facilities have to be duplicated. This division has proved popular with many in the country but others argue that it takes away part of the student experience away from young Qataris.

Saudi promise

The region’s great untapped market is that of Saudi Arabia. Around 12,500 Saudi students graduate from US universities every year, split about evenly between undergraduate and graduate degrees. This, of course, gives students invaluable experience of life in the West but is chiefly the result of them having somewhat limited limited opportunities at home. However, in May, King Abdullah announced investment of R80bn ($21.33bn) over the next five years, over and above the country’s usual education budget, in order to improve education in the country. The 2014 education budget stands at R210bn. The money will be used to construct new facilities and improve access to IT at all levels, from nursery education up to and including university research. In particular, the government is keen to promote university education in science, law, medicine and engineering. The sector has traditionally focused on Arabic and religious studies, which may help to support the country’s established culture but is of less use in promoting economic diversification and growth.

Neil Ford

The Middle East Magazine posts a small selection of articles monthly on the website. However, to read the magazine in full you can subscribe to receive the magazine by mail details of which can be found on the home page of the website


  1. There are various schools in UAE which are introducing great reforms for the betterment and effective growth of your child. Schools/ Institutes like Indian School AL-Ghumbra provide great learning opportunities to children across the globe. Read more about the school and his founder Dr P Mohamed ALi on

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