Oiling the learning machine

The huge expansion of higher education in the Gulf offers major opportunities for UK academe. But, as John Gill reports, there are also challenges

August 21, 2008

“Education, education, education,” reads the speech bubble over a cardboard cut-out of the country’s beaming leader. So far, so familiar. But the smiling figure is not Tony Blair in his pre-Iraq pomp, when the full force of his evangelical zeal was aimed at raising Britain’s educational aspirations - it is the bearded ruler of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.


That Sheikh Mohammed has borrowed Blair’s famous phrase is no surprise to those who have followed the burgeoning educational revolution in the Gulf, as the process has bought and borrowed heavily from the West throughout, and continues to do so.

It is not only our inspirational slogans that are in demand, but the expertise and experience of our academics, universities and higher education system as a whole.

While in recent years there has been an explosion of economic activity in such areas as construction, tourism and healthcare to mitigate the looming threat of dwindling oil supplies, the Gulf’s inadequate education system has long been a blot on its expensive copybook.

The reasons are numerous: some historic, some recent, some social, some political, and there are considerable obstacles in the way to overcoming them. But things are changing, or at least the Gulf rulers are trying to make things change. Last year Sheikh Mohammed gave £5 billion to set up a foundation to promote education in the Gulf, one of the largest charitable donations in history, while others are using their financial muscle to secure international assistance.

Christopher Davidson, from Durham University’s School of Government and International Affairs, is an expert on higher education in the Gulf, having taught at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and worked as a consultant to Dubai’s Ministry of Education.

Despite all the money “sloshing around”, he says, funding for higher education in the region had been notoriously bad for decades. “Plenty has been spent on defence, internal security and industrialisation, but education has always lagged far behind. It’s picking up now as people are realising that something has to be done about it, and across the whole Gulf there’s a changing mood, that education has to come first.”

This drive to improve education, and its chances of success, are linked to a whole raft of factors, among them the influx of foreigners into the oil-rich region. In many of the Gulf states, foreign nationals are now in the majority, so young nationals face tough competition for private-sector jobs.

“Let’s say you’ve got a 21-year-old national of the United Arab Emirates,” Davidson explains. “He will have to compete with expat Arab nationals or Indian nationals who will probably work for less, will be bi- or trilingual and will have good qualifications. The Gulf states desperately need more of their young nationals to play an active role in the future of the economy. If things continue as they are at the moment, they will be left as bystanders on the sidelines of their own countries’ development.”

A complicating factor is that Gulf nationals have traditionally sought employment in the public sector, an increasingly saturated labour market.

The guarantee of “free jobs” was a fundamental part of the bargain struck between rulers and citizens, but as the economies develop and populations grow, there are not enough public-sector jobs to go around. This adds to the Gulf’s urgency to upgrade its education systems: for the first time, its nationals need the skills offered by high-quality higher education to compete for jobs in their own countries.

The challenge was exacerbated, says Davidson, by what is known as the “rentier” mindset, a lack of ambition engendered by the distribution of wealth by the state. “The population hasn’t needed qualifications and hasn’t needed jobs; they could laze around and still be OK because the social security system is so generous there aren’t the incentives to pursue higher education. You can walk into a shopping mall during the day when everyone should be at work or college, and find legions of perfectly able-bodied young Gulf Arab men drinking coffee and playing video games. They don’t need to study or go to university.”

Robert Springborg, a political economist from the School of African and Oriental Studies and director of the London Middle East Institute, believes policymakers recognise the significance of this issue, but it is not yet clear whether they will be able to solve it. “These countries understand they have a serious economic and political problem in getting their citizens to be good employees and getting them into the labour force. They understand that to do that they have got to educate them and they have got to motivate them, and they are putting a huge amount of money and effort into higher education. No place in the world is going to do more than the Gulf.

“At the same time, they’ve got the biggest challenge because these are rentier states where people have been paid to do nothing. How do you shift from paying people for just being citizens to paying them for working? This is the challenge they face, and it’s not clear they are going to be able to do this. It is a work in progress,” Springborg says.

According to Davidson, one of the consequences is the gender imbalance at Gulf universities, where female students far outnumber male. The student body at the national university of the UAE is about 75 per cent female and even private universities, such as the American University of Kuwait, are predominantly female.

This imbalance is often attributed to men travelling overseas to study, while families in this conservative region will often not allow their daughters to follow suit.

According to figures supplied by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the British Council, the total number of Gulf students at UK institutions, most of them male, has risen from 7,000 to 9,500 in the past five years.

Yet Davidson does not believe that these numbers alone are large enough to explain the imbalance. While the rentier traditions have demotivated many young men, women in the region see a university education as “something of an escape route”.

“If you’re female and you don’t go to university,” he says, “you will typically get married at 18 or 19, probably to an uneducated man, an army cadet for example. If you go to university and get a degree, you’ve bought yourself some time to mature and the sort of man you’ll be paired with will be a lot better. That’s the feeling.”

In a sector traditionally seen as lacking prestige, staffing is another issue. As Davidson explains: “You can’t have indigenous professors and lecturers when you barely have any degree-holders, so for years most of the academics in the Gulf have been foreigners. They’ve tended to go for Western PhD holders, normally expat Arabs who are bilingual in English and Arabic and have a PhD from the United States or Britain.

“The problem is that Gulf nationals who do a degree in the West will rarely want to come back. They’ve pretty much escaped the system, or view education as a low-esteem profession compared with business and making money.

“At Zayed University, which is the largest in the UAE, there was not a single Emirati member of faculty just a few years ago. This was a university with a student body of about 10,000 and a good few hundred faculty. Similarly, when I was working in Dubai last summer, we discovered there were only four male UAE nationals working as schoolteachers in the emirate. The profession has such low status that it’s very difficult to recruit young men.”

The Gulf states are tackling this thorny issue in part by bringing in established players from the US, UK and Australian higher education sectors. Some have been quicker off the blocks than others. Sharjah, the third largest of the United Arab Emirates, pioneered the approach in the 1990s when it built its “Academic City”, which included an Arabic-language university, the American University of Sharjah and several other colleges.

Since then Qatar has moved to the head of the pack by developing the now-popular model of bringing in top foreign brands to accredit its universities.

“This has made Qatar the educational hub of the Gulf, so any aspiring Gulf national who wants a top-class university education doesn’t need to go to Canada, America or Australia any more, they can stay in the Gulf and go to Qatar,” says Davidson. “Qatar has given huge salaries to the faculty it employs, built lavish campuses and got big names such as Georgetown, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth and others.”

Abu Dhabi, one of the richest of the Gulf states because of its large oil reserves and small population, is the latest state to follow this model, and it has done deals with the Sorbonne and New York University.

“What they seem to be doing”, Davidson continues, “is vying to become a sort of higher education supermarket of the Gulf, where students can come from elsewhere in the Gulf and surrounding region, because they also want South Asian and East African students. You could describe it as educational tourism, in the way that Dubai has healthcare tourism, where people come for a particular service and the economy benefits from student fees and so on.”

The model may be attractive to Western institutions from a financial perspective, but Springborg warns that there are other issues to be considered.

“Educational institutions in the Gulf do not work in the same way as educational institutions in the West,” he says. “There are more constraints, both political and personal; institutions are not as strong or as impersonal; and typically student bodies are not as good.

“A lot of Western academics have real trouble adjusting to that. Georgetown University in Qatar is not Georgetown University in Washington DC, Cornell University in Qatar is not Cornell University in New York. These institutions do take on aspects of local culture and the political environment, and one needs to be aware of that. They are global models, but they’re local in their operations.”

Peter Mackenzie Smith, an independent education consultant who has worked in the region, has also raised concerns. The move to a system in which new universities are aligned almost exclusively with higher education institutions in the West, he says, has been at the expense of traditional links with countries such as Egypt and Jordan.

He questions whether such widespread use of international partnerships is creating a sector suited to the region it serves. “It is not clear what the long-term impact of this is going to be. You’ve got a higher education system largely built on standards, systems and faculty imported from the US and Europe, operating almost entirely in English, and one wonders what the impact will be on the population in five or ten years’ time,” he says.

“A concern is the extent to which all this activity reflects domestic requirements. How far can you run an education system that is dominated by external influences, and what will that do for any home-grown initiatives or ideas about education?”

For one British university that has taken the plunge, things are more positive than this might suggest. Heriot-Watt University established a campus in Dubai’s Academic City in 2006 and now has about 20 faculty and almost 700 students. As Anton Muscatelli, the university’s principal, puts it: “The Academic City is a designated ‘free zone’, so we are operating as a UK university, subject to our own regulations with QAA quality assurance and all the rest of it. All the academic staff are hired by us and it is exactly the same degree course, so students can start an undergraduate course in Dubai and then move to Scotland if they wish.”

What is undeniable is that a university cannot flourish without committed faculty and a proper research culture, which Davidson suggests are in short supply in the Gulf. “By and large, the foreign faculty come for three-year contracts, so there’s never a core of people to improve the research trajectory of the institution,” he says.

“It is difficult to have continuity. You can offer the high salaries, but people tend not to feel the Gulf is a place to live the rest of their lives and don’t really invest in the society as if it was their own. Dare I say it, the sad truth in a lot of cases is that they are there to do the bare minimum for their tax-free salary.

“There is a research expectation, but they have no means of assessing research output. It’s great to work in a part of the world where the research assessment exercise doesn’t count, but there does need to be some way of measuring or requiring research output.”

The result of this, he claims, is that in many cases the staff are “pretty lazy”. “You have people popping into work for just a couple of mornings a week, so they’re not around on campus and students don’t benefit from interaction with them.”

This depiction of “mercenary” academics may be startling, but it is not one recognised by Muscatelli in Heriot-Watt’s experience in Dubai. “We had an internal review at the Dubai campus,” he says, “led by our pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching, and they were really impressed by the quality of what was being offered and by the commitment shown by staff to quality of teaching. Indeed, in many respects, because the student-staff ratios are often quite favourable, it is actually a very good student experience.”

Another trend identified by Davidson as limiting the academic culture of institutions in the Gulf was their tendency to attract faculty at the start or end of their careers. “It’s great to have both those groups, energetic newcomers and old-timers who have experience, but there do need to be active researchers in the middle too,” he argues. “You need those people who are at the peak of their game, and at the moment the Gulf just doesn’t have that. Rising stars wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.”

He suggests that the system does not reward people who stay for more than a few years. “You find that if you begin your career working at a university there you will never get promoted particularly far because your experience won’t count for much because it is ‘only in the Gulf’.

“Another issue is accreditation. The Gulf universities are all desperately seeking Western accreditation for their degree programmes, but they’re struggling. They don’t have faculty governance, they don’t have student councils, there’s no atmosphere of democracy and most things are done behind closed doors. Every member of department is paid a different salary depending on the deal they’ve cut with human resources, the dean and the provost.”

What the Gulf universities can offer is a salary that would make most struggling academics’ eyes water.

“A lecturer earning £36,000 in the UK will be offered a little more in the Gulf with no income tax, so take-home pay will substantially increase,” Davidson says. “But it’s not just the salary that counts - they will also be given free accommodation and free private tuition for up to four children, and some of the private schools are very good.

“They will get a free villa for the tenure of their appointment, and you tend to be given one more bedroom than your family needs, free flights every year, free private medical insurance. It’s very attractive.

“When I worked at Zayed University, my apartment in Abu Dhabi, where I lived alone, had three bathrooms.”

If these material attractions sound too good to be true, issues of academic freedom and aspects of working conditions can act as a weighty counterbalance.

“In Middle Eastern academic life,” explains Springborg, “there is not a great expectation of political freedom. It’s not just in the Gulf, it’s throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and Egyptians who teach in the Gulf often feel they have more freedom than they would at home.

“However, Western academics almost always find it difficult. They find there are political and cultural differences that are hard to adjust to.”

Muscatelli challenges this view, noting that Heriot-Watt employs academics from Britain, the Gulf and other parts of the world in Dubai. Operating in a “free zone” ensures that there is no interference in the academic programmes offered, and it is run just as an institution would be in the UK, he says.

Davidson supports Springborg’s assertion that many British academics would find it difficult to work their whole life in the region. “Institutions are so undemocratic; the dean or provost’s decisions are not open to discussion and there’s a lot of unfairness,” he says. “There’s racism, too. People are paid different salaries because of the passport they hold, and it’s not very pleasant when you’re working in the same office with someone who is a US-educated Somali national, to give an example, whose salary was probably a quarter of mine to do the same job. In fact he was given more work, I am sure. He had a PhD from the US, but that didn’t matter. It’s the passport that matters, and that’s very sad to be around.

“The students themselves are very pleasant and sweet to teach, very innocent in some ways, but you have to deal with a lot of problems. They have no culture of critical thinking in their secondary education, and many Western academics find it difficult to get to grips with dealing with a student body that is used to rote learning, not open-minded discussion and debate.

“There are a lot of problems surrounding grade inflation as well. Students have very high expectations of their grades, and you are working in a dictatorship, so if you have royals in your class, as will often be the case, you can’t easily fail them.

“Students have a lot of power because they are nationals of the country, and if they go en masse to the provost they can cause problems for a member of faculty. Every time I taught a new class, the first thing I would do was look at the list of students and, because I knew the country well, I knew pretty much who was who. I was looking to see which big families I had in that class and how they interacted with each other. That was fine for me, but it must be an absolute minefield for someone fresh off the plane from London.

“Teaching politics, as I did, was the biggest minefield of all, and there are certain subjects you just can’t discuss. There is no such country as Israel, for example - it is Palestine; you can’t discuss the Holocaust; most students, in my experience, seem to view Adolf Hitler as some kind of strong leader of the 20th century and didn’t have much bad to say about him.

“I managed to teach a class for two years called ‘Social and economic trends in the Gulf’, which was really ‘Social, economic and political trends in the Gulf’, but I left ‘political’ out of the title because the sheikh in question asked me to, to get it ratified. Even with hard science you have to be careful with things such as theories of evolution, and in art classes you have to be careful about nudity and the naked form. There’s still heavy censorship, a team of guys with black marker pens going through magazines blocking things out, and even classical paintings with nudity will be blacked out.”

So far British institutions have not been as involved in the Gulf as those in the US. Some have ventured into the region and others are involved less directly. Imperial College London recently signed a multimillion-pound deal tying it in with the yet-to-open King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

But Davidson believes that Britain may have been holding fire while the US has tested potentially risky waters, and may commit to greater institutional involvement in the next few years. “Britain hasn’t missed the opportunity. This has been a high-risk strategy by US universities with the potential to backfire and harm reputations.

“The big question mark for British universities is whether the course that will be taught in the Gulf will be to the same high standards. From what I’ve seen there isn’t the regulation in place yet in these campuses to enforce that. Most people will informally admit to me that the degrees are not the calibre of those one would expect at the home institution back in the West.

“In some cases universities have lost a lot of face: the University of Connecticut tried to open a branch in Dubai last year, and the whole thing collapsed due to pressures back in the US about being involved in a country that doesn’t acknowledge Israel’s existence. Britain has been a lot more cautious and avoided any controversy so far, but I think in the next couple of years, as things start to mature, there will be a few more opportunities for big names to get involved, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular,” he says.

Whatever the future holds, it is clear that education, previously held in low esteem, has turned a corner as the Gulf states accept that oil will not prop up their economies for ever.

“The buzzword at the moment is sustainability, especially in the countries that have run out of oil, and this education village idea is one of many new non-oil sectors that are ways of bringing in money,” Davidson says.

“Abu Dhabi and Kuwait have years of oil left, but there’s also the question of prestige; Abu Dhabi can’t handle Qatar leading the way on this, and wants the prestige of having universities. International reports have outlined that the Gulf is lagging behind on higher education, and there’s a domino effect. Once one starts developing this area, the rest follow because they’re all in competition with each other.

“When I worked in Abu Dhabi it was amazing how many presidents and heads of state I met: every week there would be some visiting dignitary and, even if they were there for just one day, one of the stops would be to the university. There would be a knock on the door and ‘Oh, it’s the President of India’ or ‘Oh, it’s Gerhard Schroder’ or even, on one occasion, Robert Redford. I’m not sure what he was doing there, but it was seen as a high-status place to show these people.”


United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates is a small coastal state between Saudi Arabia and Oman, a federation of seven emirates with a population of 4.5 million.

Nationals can attend public higher education institutions free of charge and there are also numerous private institutions, many with international accreditation.

The United Arab Emirates University, which opened in 1977, is the flagship national institution, with 700 faculty and about 15,000 students, 79 per cent of whom are women.

Zayed University was established in 1998 to educate UAE women nationals. It has campuses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the latter of which relocated in 2006 to the Academic City complex, a “free zone” that is home to a number of colleges, including a campus of Heriot-Watt University.

Private institutions in the UAE include the American Universities of Sharjah and Dubai, the University of Sharjah and the Ajman University of Science and Technology.


Qatar is a peninsula in the Persian Gulf with a population of just under 1 million. A majority of citizens live in the capital Doha, and oil and gas revenues provide one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

Its record in university enrolment is poor, with only 18 per cent of Qatari nationals educated to degree level, and the enrolment ratio is currently declining.

Since the mid-1990s, the Government has introduced a number of education reforms, its biggest success being the establishment of Qatar’s Education City outside Doha.

There is just one public university in the country, Qatar University, which was established in 1977 and has ,000 students, of whom 75 per cent are female.

Expansion of higher education is being driven by the private sector via foreign investment and Education City has six US university branch campuses.


Kuwait was one of the first Gulf states to strike oil and has the region’s oldest university. Kuwait University was set up in 1966 as a co-educational institution, and has five campuses in Kuwait City with a total of 18,000 students.

Similar to others in the region, the development of the Kuwaiti educational system can be largely attributed to the wealth that oil has brought to the country. There was no public education for the first part of the 20th century and funding for education came mainly from Kuwait’s wealthier private citizens.

That changed with the 1962 constitution that stipulates that education is assured and promoted by the state. Today, there are a number of private post-secondary colleges and universities that are approved by the Kuwait Ministry of Higher Education.


Less wealthy than some other Gulf states, the Kingdom of Bahrain is a tiny island archipelago off the east coast of Saudi Arabia, linked by a causeway bridge. Public-sector higher education is free to nationals, and it has an enrolment ratio of about 35 per cent, which is above average for the region.

The University of Bahrain is the only public higher education institution and has more than 14,500 students. Bahrain also has the campus of the Arabian Gulf University, which was set up as a regional university for the Gulf Co-operation Council states.

The state’s 16 private universities are key to its desire to be the “regional hub” for higher education. Concerns have been raised about the quality of this provision.

There are about 2,500 Bahraini students studying abroad, the majority of them in the UK.


The Sultanate of Oman occupies the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula and is about the size of England, with a very young population of 3.5 million. Oman spends about 3.6 per cent of its GDP on education, but only about 8 per cent of this is on the higher education sector, for which the enrolment rate is 20 per cent.

The main public institution is Sultan Qaboos University, which opened in 1986 and has about 13,000 students. There are also 31 public colleges that are free to Omani citizens, and the public sector has about 75 per cent of the country’s total enrolments of about 70,000.

There are several private universities in the sultanate partnered with universities in Australia and the US, and plans for more in the pipeline. The Oman Accreditation Council was set up in 2001 to monitor standards at private institutions, but recent studies suggest quality assurance problems persist.

Saudi Arabia

Extending from the Red Sea in the west to the Arabian Gulf in the east, Saudi Arabia is larger than other Gulf states and its higher education sector differs from that of its neighbours.

The purpose of education in the kingdom, which has a population of about million, is the complete understanding of Islam and the promulgation of its values. It has both public and private universities, of which most are co-educational; while technological and science disciplines are taught in English, others are taught in Arabic.

After the oil boom of the 1970s, Saudi Arabia made higher education a national priority.

The oldest of several universities is King Saud University in Riyadh, which has about 25,000 students, and there are also a number of private higher education institutes.

There are also 18,000 Saudis at universities overseas, about 2,500 in Britain.

A major development is the £5 billion, research-intensive King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, due to open in 2009.

It is being developed in partnership with a number of Western institutions, including Imperial College London, with which KAUST has signed multimillion pound deals.

Source: Higher Education International Unit.

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