Even the best universities in the region struggle to compete on the world stage. According to a global ranking of the top 500 institutions produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, only Cairo University is worthy of inclusion. No GCC universities make the grade.
The Gulf states have partially addressed the gap by attracting colleges from Europe and the US, such as the Sorbonne and Cornell. But creating a world-class education system requires a lot more than just attracting prestigious names – it requires decent standards.
Arab states spend more than most on education. According to the UN Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (Unesco), their spending is equal to 4.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), behind North America and Western Europe but ahead of everywhere else.
But that masks a wide range of differences. Education spending is surprisingly generous in some places. In Yemen, it accounts for 9.6 per cent of GDP, while in Tunisia and Saudi Arabia it is 7.3 per cent and 6.8 per cent respectively.
The UAE, on the other hand, spends just 1.3 per cent of GDP on education. Spending in the other GCC states hovers between 3.3 per cent and 4 per cent. Many Gulf states have also suffered from low enrolment figures for primary education in the past.
The result of all this can be seen in the region’s poor record on innovation. Few patents are granted and research and development spending trails far behind the global leaders.
If Gulf businesses are to compete more effectively in the future, this needs to change.
The breadth and depth of Abu Dhabi’s programme of education reforms is encouraging in this respect. It is right to overhaul the system from bottom to top, to link it to international standards, and to do so while oil revenues make it easily affordable.
In the long run, a well-educated workforce will allow the economy to adapt and prosper once the oil runs out.