School enrolment in the Arab states has nearly doubled over the past four decades, rising from 34 per cent in 1970 to 64 per cent today. These figures are a reflection of the level of investment that has been pumped into the education sector in recent years.

Without a doubt, the region needs more schools, universities, and vocational institutions

Jarmo Kotilaine, National Commercial Bank

The hydrocarbon resources of the region, particularly in the GCC, have generated huge revenues, enabling governments to build the infrastructure needed to support growing populations. Ensuring this investment translates to delivering a world-class education system is the next step.

In 2010-15, the GCC’s population is expected to expand beyond the global average.  Saudi Arabia’s population is expected to grow by 1.9 per cent, while Kuwait and Qatar are forecast to increase by 2 per cent and 1.6 per cent respectively. In comparison, the US and UK’s populations are only expected to expand by about 0.5 per cent.

These Gulf countries have a particularly large youth population. Saudi Arabia has the biggest population in the GCC at 27.1 million and 38 per cent of its total population are under 14 years of age. Of the 4.6 million people living in the UAE, more than 20 per cent are aged 14 years or younger. This indicates an urgent challenge to ensure the long-term development of the youth population far beyond the traditional oil-based strategy governments have adopted so far.

The Gulf economies need to diversify. Creating jobs for graduates to move to is crucial

Edwin Eisendrath, Huron Consulting

Across the GCC, satisfaction with the education system and schooling ranks high. The UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report found that 88 per cent of the Bahrain population was satisfied with the level of education on offer in 2006-09. In the UAE, 83 per cent of the population was satisfied. Qatar also ranked high at 77 per cent. In Saudi Arabia, satisfaction rates were 67 per cent.

However, the same report also reveals the average number of years of education among the adult population in the Arab countries is estimated at 5.7 years, less than the world average of 7.4 years.

Building better infrastructure is a good first step towards raising standards. New financial allocations to education have been made by all GCC governments in 2011. In Saudi Arabia, spending on education has more than tripled since 2000. In 2011, the kingdom allocated SR150.2bn ($40bn) to the education sector, which represents 25.9 per cent of its total planned expenditure of SR580bn. This is the largest state expenditure to date.

Middle East education budgets

Oman has also set a record total budget for 2011, up 11 per cent at RO8.13bn ($21bn). The equivalent of 11.4 per cent is committed to the education sector, amounting to RO927m.

In Bahrain, the government plans to spend BD503m ($1.3bn) from its BD4.4bn budget on sustaining and developing education services. While an exact figure is unknown, the Kuwait government has said it will increase its financial commitment to improving the education sector.

Population with secondary education
Country Female (%) Male (%)
UAE 76.9 77.3
Qatar 62.1 54.7
Bahrain 57 74.7
Kuwait 52.2 43.9
Libya 55.6 44
Saudi Arabia 50.3 57.9
Iran 39 57.2
Tunisia 33.5 48
Jordan 57.6 73.8
Algeria 36.3 49.3
Egypt 43.4 61.1
Morocco 20.1 36.4
Syria 24.7 24.1
Yemen 7.6 24.4
Sudan 12.8 18.2
Iraq 22 42.7
Source: UNDP Human Development Report 2010

“Without a doubt, the region needs more schools, universities, and vocational institutions,” says Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist for the National Commercial Bank in Jeddah. “The first priority is to set them up, the second is to work on improving their quality. Having a better-educated population will boost quality and expectation,”

However, the rise in investment is not uniform across the GCC. In the UAE, from its total budget of AED41bn ($11.2bn), education has been allocated AED4.6bn for 2011. This represents a 47 per cent drop on last year, when AED9.8bn was allocated towards projects in schools and higher education. This fall in investment could reflect the UAE’s progress made in educating its population over the past decade.

The UAE has the highest number of people educated to secondary education level in the GCC. More than 76 per cent of the female population and 77 per cent of the male population have completed secondary school in 2010. Just 0.6 per cent say they received no education in 2000-08.

In Qatar, 15 per cent of the state’s 2010-11 budget, QR117.9bn, was assigned to the learning sector, equivalent to QR17.7bn ($4.9bn). This is some QR2bn less than in 2008-09.

Higher education in the Gulf

Despite this drop in expenditure for 2011 from the UAE and Qatar, spending on education has remained a priority for governments in the region over the past few years. “Investments in education are some of the most important in the world and the steady investment in education over the years in the Gulf is evident,” says Edwin Eisendrath, managing director of global higher education practice at Huron Consulting.

Population satisfied with education system and schools 2006-09 
Country  Percentage
UAE 83
Qatar 77
Bahrain 88
Kuwait 62
Saudi Arabia 67
Iran 51
Tunisia 72
Jordan 67
Algeria 61
Egypt 61
Syria 67
Morocco 44
Yemen 45
Iraq 55
Lebanon 70
Source: UNDP Human Development Report 2010  

The most high-profile initiatives are taking place in the field of higher education. Increasing attention is also being devoted to technical and vocational training.

The biggest university scheme under way in the Gulf is the $11.5bn Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University for Women in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The project will transform the existing Riyadh University for Girls, which opened in 1970, into a world-class institution.

Many of Saudi Arabia’s other education projects are being developed in economic cities. The most advanced is the King Abdullah Economic City (Kaec). Out of the 168 million square metres that make up Kaec, 2.6 per cent will be devoted to an education zone offering different levels of schooling. The plans include a university for 18,000 students.

Kaec will have commercial and educational ties with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust). Better known for its work in applied sciences, Kaust also intends to provide early childhood education. Schools capable of teaching children to grade K12 (4-6 year olds through to 16-19 year olds) are currently under development.

Also in Saudia Arabia the Medina Knowledge Economic City is due to open in 2020. It will specialise in hi-tech industries, as well as educating and training students in medical sciences and biotechnology. Created through private-public partnerships, the cities will generate more than $150bn a year for the Saudi economy. They also serve as a launch-pad to promote private investment in alternative industries and to diversify the country’s oil-reliant economy. In the kingdom, just over half the population of men and women boast a secondary education.

Meanwhile in Qatar, development of the Education City project continues. The scheme involves some of the world’s finest academic institutions opening state-of-the-art facilities on the Education City campus. Six universities are already teaching on the site.

The project is part of Doha’s drive to develop a knowledge-based society. In Qatar, just 54.7 per cent of men have secondary-level education, while 7.4 per cent more Qatari women had attended secondary school in the same year. Figures for Kuwait show a similar trend, where more than 50 per cent of women have completed secondary school compared with just 43.9 per cent of men.

Looking beyond the GCC, Jordan’s Schools Construction and Rehabilitation Project includes building 12 schools and Iraq is planning the construction of eight primary schools and seven secondary schools under its Third Emergency Educational Project (Teep).

Even with many projects under way and plenty more in the pipeline, experts warn that governments in the region must begin to implement the transition from infrastructure to areas that are less visible. The authorities need to focus on building a proper bridge between formal education and the needs of the economy.

Fostering entrepreneurs in the GCC

“Aside from infrastructure, more is needed to enable people to look for jobs and to progress in their careers,” says Eisendrath. “To have a high functioning, growing economy, the Gulf economies need to diversify. Creating jobs for graduates to move to is crucial.” 

It is in this area that analysts say the Gulf is failing its youth population. “Even a quality degree is of little use unless the person knows how to transition to a job,” says Kotilaine. “Much of the infrastructure that exists in the West in terms of job fairs, recruiters, career counselors, is still very much underdeveloped here.”

Investment in these areas is no quick fix. “It is important to invest in buildings first, but the next transition requires a sustained effort,” says Eisendrath. “The key determinates are teaching, facilities management, governance and human capital planning.”

One important area where vocational education has a critical role to play is in fostering a culture of entrepreneurship. “Part of this is fostering creativity rather than knowledge acquisition,” says Kotilaine. “In any mature economy, most jobs are created by small to medium enterprises. The GCC has to do the same, but it has a long way to go.”

What is important now for the GCC is to deliver skilled individuals into a diversified economy and ensure that jobs exist for school leavers and graduates.