Investment in education in the Gulf countries has seen a dramatic increase in recent decades. Governments have engaged in highly ambitious projects to put themselves on the global education map: building new schools and universities; substituting English for Arabic as the medium of instruction; and importing British and Australian teachers, advisers and professors.
But these policies have had little impact on the quality of education and the prospects of graduates. Education has simply been commercialised, with degree mills becoming the norm, and the Gulf states have produced few noteworthy original writers or scientists with strong regional recognition.
Why the failure? Education remains poorly understood: there is still a strong merchant mentality in the Gulf countries, which means that people fail to understand that top schools cannot be erected like concrete buildings in 24 hours and that education is an accumulation of experiences. The latest computer gadgets and foreign expertise can serve only as a support for policies that require diligence, discipline and, most of all, a merit system that goes against the tribal traditions of these countries. What is needed is a change in the core components of the educational culture.
Thousands of students have been sent abroad through government scholarships to little end result because the students lack the necessary educational foundations and because the programmes, which are poorly and inefficiently supervised, are based less on merit and more on wasta (who you know) connections.
Gulf students tend to read very little. The oral tradition of the culture remains an obstacle towards moving from poetry to critical reasoning. Moreover, education is largely equated only with obtaining a diploma, and there is little concern about the journey. Students are continuously looking for loopholes and shortcuts to a degree - a final product that is associated with prestige rather than content.
The absence of motivation is the main obstacle towards improving education. Ensuring that students are interested in learning rather than just graduating cannot be achieved by spending without clear goals. Gulf countries are much more concerned with projecting a rosy image to the outside world, which they go to great lengths to accomplish, than they are with confronting these problems.
Several studies point to the severity of the problems facing higher education in Gulf countries. Cheating and using outside help to graduate has become a common practice. The Gulf News claimed in 2008 that 80 per cent of United Arab Emirates undergraduate students cheated in their exams. Because of the tremendous pressure on teachers and administrators, high schools tend to inflate grades to avoid any hassle with students' parents. Universities lower their academic standards to keep up the flow of new entrants and to avoid being blamed for failing students. It is safer to allow the graduation of illiterates than to get sucked into difficult political debates.
Education begins at home. Individuals lacking a proper sense of responsibility, motivation and perseverance cannot become future scientists, writers or leaders. Education needs to be depoliticised, and educators need to be empowered to do their job properly. Gulf countries must take a hard look at themselves and realise that education is a unique form of enterprise in which only students who are imbued with the eagerness to learn can succeed.