The earliest master of business administration (MBA) courses in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region first emerged from the state-owned business schools. Since 2000 they have been joined by an influx of global education providers into the region. Dubai alone offers two dozen MBA programmes, teaching more than 3,500 students.

Students expect their careers to shift between industries, or hope to progress into senior management roles

Randa Bessiso, Manchester Business School

Today, top business schools are building a regionwide presence, from Casablanca, where Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM) is opening a campus this autumn, to Doha in Qatar, where French business school HEC is about to launch an Executive MBA (EMBA).

With so much choice emerging in the region, senior managers can study for an EMBA and younger executives can pursue an MBA without having to travel to the US or Europe.

Management skills

As the Mena region invests in new industries and seeks to develop knowledge-based economies, it needs world-class management skills more than ever. The oil economies, in particular, are developing industries, from metals and mining to tourism and financial services, and want the private sector to drive future growth.

“Today, the economic growth burden has shifted to [a] private sector that finds its roots in family-owned and operated business … who have outgrown their family structure and over-extended their home-grown managerial talent,” says Hussam al-Angari, dean of the Faculty of Economics and Administration at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University. “[There is] increasing demand for highly trained management executives to carry these organisations into the future.”

The pace and scope of regional development has led to debate about which EMBA/MBA courses best support it. Should MBA courses focus on Mena growth industries, or is the classic general management course model best suited to meet emerging economies’ requirements? The question divides business schools.

Hult International Business School has five international campuses, including Dubai, where it offers a full-time MBA and two part-time EMBA courses. It differentiates itself by allowing Dubai students to spend time in San Francisco, Boston, London or Shanghai. Hult’s mission is to recruit diverse students to a general management programme.

“We look at the individual’s background and at [achieving] the best mix of nationalities and [experience] to ensure students learn from each other,” says Nick van der Walt, Hult’s academic dean in Dubai.

Manchester Business School (MBS) has seen demand shift towards its general MBA. The MBS Dubai campus celebrated its fifth anniversary this autumn, enrolling its 1,000th student. When MBS entered the market, its unique selling point was programmes skewed towards specific industries. It offers MBAs in engineering, finance or project management.

Demand was particularly strong for engineering at first, making up a third of Dubai’s MBA intake. Increasingly, however, MBS has seen students favour its global MBA.

“The shift reflects a desire for a future-proof degree,” says Randa Bessiso, Middle East director for MBS. “These days, students expect their careers to shift between industries, or hope to progress into senior management roles, and therefore prefer a general MBA.”

Courses that recruit from diverse industries offer “a safe environment”, says Simon Learmount, EMBA programme director at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. “People feel comfortable enough to raise questions or thrash out new ideas or to make mistakes and learn from them.”

Global accreditation

Broadly speaking, global business schools offer general business MBA and EMBA programmes skewed towards international markets. Top programmes are accredited to global quality bodies, including the UK’s Association of MBAs (AMBA), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) in the US and Equis in Belgium.

Financial Times global MBA rankings, 2011
Rank Name of school Country
1 London School of Business UK
2 University of Pennsylvania, Wharton US
3 Harvard Business School US
4 Insead France/Singapore
5 Stanford University GSB US
6 Hong Kong UST Business School China
7 Columbia Business School US
8 IE Business School Spain
9 IESE Business School Spain
10 MIT Sloan School of Management US
11 Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad India
12 University of Chicago, Booth US
13 Indian School of Business India
14 IMD Switzerland
15 New York University, Stern US
16 Yale School of Management US
17 CEIBS China
18 Dartmouth College, Tuck US
19 HEC Paris France
20 Duke University, Fuqua School of Business US
CEIBS=China Europe International Business School. Source: Financial Times, 2011

Schools need global accreditation, as it is a badge of quality that allows their graduates to work anywhere in the world. But AMBA accreditation, in particular, requires schools to deploy the same staff and curricula at home and abroad. This can restrict schools’ ability or willingness to tailor courses to local conditions.

Growth in industry-specific MBA programmes is concentrated in the UAE, at higher education bodies accredited by the Federal Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (Mohesr). In these schools, there is growing interest in MBAs geared towards regional growth industries.

This autumn, Canadian University of Dubai launched three specialist MBAs in Islamic banking, marketing and finance, all accredited by Mohesr.

Middlesex University Dubai has launched five specialist MBAs, offered full- or part-time, that concentrate on marketing, finance, operations and logistics, business excellence and international business. These specialist courses join Middlesex’s established general MBA.

“We received several enquiries about opportunities to specialise,” says Cedwyn Fernandes, MBA programme coordinator and associate professor. “So we launched specialist MBAs that are a strategic fit with the UAE’s national development goals.

“The future pillars of the economy will be logistics, finance, retail, marketing and international business and business excellence is a priority, both for the government and for private agencies. Some 90 per cent of our students are from the UAE and we have a real focus on UAE employability and career progression.”

Specialised programmes

Schools with a local focus are flexible enough to tailor their programmes to specific industries.

“In Dubai, there are 3,500 MBA students enrolled on 25 different programmes, including marketing, engineering, aviation, management and others,” says Warren Fox, executive director for higher education at Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority. “We think this market will continue to grow, as students and employers have indicated their desire for further professional qualifications … The population of Dubai continues to grow and the diversification of the economy continues, especially in trade, tourism and retail.”

Financial Times global MBA rankings, 2010
Rank Name of school Country
1 Kellogg Hong Kong UST Business School China
2 Columbia/London Business School US/UK
3 Trium: HEC Paris/LSE/New York University, Stern France/UK/US
4 Insead France/Singapore/UAE
5 University of Chicago, Booth US/UK/Singapore
6 London Business School UK
7 IE Business School Spain
8 University of Pennsylvania, Wharton US
9 Duke University, Fuqua School of Business US
10 Chinese University of Hong Kong China
11 City University, London, Cass Business School UK
12 IMD Switzerland
13 UC Berkerley/Columbia US
14 Kellogg/WHU-Otto Beisheim School Germany
15 Columbia Business School US
16 ESCP Europe France/UK/Germany/Spain/Italy
17 New York University, Stern US
18 CEIBS China
19 Washington University, Olin US/China
20 Northwestern University, Kellogg US
CEIBS=China Europe International Business School. Source: Financial Times, October 2010

AASCB sees a point to this strategy, but advises caution. “Business schools are not just there to create jobs for their graduates; they are also social institutions,” says Dan Le Clair, AACSB acting executive vice president and chief operating officer. “They have to link with the goals and objectives of their country or region. I can see that it can make sense for some schools to specialise. At the same time, specialist courses should not forget that management is a skill that crosses industries. Issues such as team work, ethics, leadership and communication skills are general, not industry-specific. These courses must balance the in-depth content with more general skills.”

The US’ Duke University Fuqua School of Business (FSB) is a newcomer to Dubai. Two years ago, it moved to Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), offering open-access and corporate non-degree programmes. Students enrolled on FSB’s Cross Continent and Global Executive MBA courses in Durham, North Carolina spend time in Dubai.

FSB is studying market demand to assess which programmes to run out of DIFC. “We expect to launch a couple of degree courses and business programmes soon,” says Patricia McCall, Middle East regional director for FSB. “One possibility is a master’s in management studies, a one-year course for students with pre-management experience.

“We are looking at the region to determine what kinds of courses are needed – whether we should launch a full-time MBA, or focus on other executive education. We are working at government level to identify gaps in the market. The possibilities include master’s degrees in finance or economics; there aren’t many local master’s programmes.”

Polarised demand

Several business schools that spoke to MEED felt that pre-experience or executive master’s degrees may best meet regional demand for industry-specific management education. French business school Insead expects future demand to polarise between part-time EMBAs and specialist master’s.

“With management education globally, the MBA market is quite mature,” says Peter Zemsky, Insead professor of strategy. “Much of the growth will happen in the area that combines work and study: the part-time EMBA. In emerging markets, demand for EMBAs is already stronger than in western Europe or the US. In Abu Dhabi, there is an interest in different, more specialist degrees, such as master’s in finance, or consulting, or in change management.”

Business schools have other ways to make general management programmes more relevant to local demand, however. Many tailor their elective modules and case studies to reflect the local market. London-based Cass Business School offers a classic general EMBA programme out of Dubai, with elective modules in Islamic finance, oil and energy.

“We saw clear demand to run a course that had a regional flavour,” says Roy Batchelor, director of the Cass EMBA programme in Dubai. “So, although our EMBA is not structured around any one particular industry, it is structured to reflect Gulf business needs … We expect growing demand in future for electives that focus on entrepreneurship, change management and the needs of family businesses.”

MBS Dubai is also tailoring its elective modules to reflect changing demand. It has launched a module on doing business in China and will launch programmes on Latin America in 2013 and the Gulf in 2013-14. Hult will launch electives next year in mergers and acquisitions, digital marketing, valuation and entrepreneurship.

As MBA programmes continue to evolve and reflect today’s fast-moving markets, business schools have to stay relevant if they are to survive in an increasingly competitive market place.