In the past, heirs to the most prominent Gulf trading companies were routinely sent overseas to complete their education.

During the pearl trading era of the 19th and early 20th centuries, India was the destination of choice. From the 1970s oil boom onwards, growing numbers of Gulf nationals chose to study in North America and Europe.

GCC governments have invested in their own universities, making degree-level education more generally available, yet many students have continued to study overseas.

“You need to customise programmes to local needs. It takes time to develop the right content”

Lalit Johri, programme director, SBS

This is particularly true of those seeking specialist postgraduate qualifications. With local research capability still in its infancy, master’s and doctorate students of science and business disciplines continue to study overseas, backed by generous government grants.

At the wider level, executive education has boomed since the late 1980s. There were just 120 business courses available worldwide in 1939, most of them in the US. Some 70 years on, there are about 12,000 business schools worldwide, two-thirds of which have been set up since 1989.

Limited investment

But Gulf states have been slow to invest in executive education. Until comparatively recently, the only choices for the region’s business students were to go overseas or join a foreign business school’s correspondence course.

Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals launched the first home-grown, campus-based master of business administration (MBA) course in the GCC in the late 1980s.

The first MBA offered in the Gulf by an international institution arrived in 1991, when Bahrain-based Management Development Centre International (MDCI) joined forces with the UK’s University of Hull Business School to set up a part-time MBA course aimed at working executives. MDCI flew lecturers from Hull into Bahrain at weekends and reproduced the UK curriculum in Manama hotel conference rooms. Today, the Hull Business School MBA has two intakes of Gulf students a year for MDCI’s programmes in Bahrain and Oman.

Scotland’s University of Strathclyde Business School launched the first foreign-run, campus-based MBA in Dubai in 1995. Today, Strathclyde runs MBA courses out of Oman’s College of Banking & Financial Studies, Bahrain’s Royal University for Women, the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research & Training Technology Park in Abu Dhabi, and the Higher Colleges of Technology in Dubai.

Most state-run Gulf universities now have business schools that offer master’s degrees in business and other executive education programmes. In global terms, though, the Middle East is a relatively untapped market for executive education. The Middle East is home to about 500 business schools – a tenth of the number in Asia and a fraction of the 12,000 schools worldwide. The six GCC states have about 80 business schools, more than three-quarters of which are in the UAE.

But the pace of growth in the executive education sector has accelerated over the past five years, with prestigious international business schools entering the region. France’s Institut Europeen d’Administration des Affaires (Insead), for example, has joined forces with the Abu Dhabi Education Council to launch an executive MBA programme in Abu Dhabi next year, and may add a full-time MBA once it moves to a purpose-built campus within five years. In the meantime, its focus is on workplace-based programmes that identify and develop management skills within Abu Dhabi government departments.

Certified courses

Other foreign business schools with bases in the region include the US’ Carnegie Mellon University, whose campus in Qatar offers the nine-month corporate innovation and education programme, an open enrolment management course certified by the university’s Tepper School of Business.

Dubai International Finance Centre is home to the UK’s London Business School and City University’s Cass Business School. Dubai Knowledge Village hosts the UK’s Manchester Business School, and US-headquartered Hult International Business School has a campus at Dubai International Academic City.

London Business School offers an executive MBA programme based in Dubai, as well as custom-built courses for regional clients, such as Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) in Saudi Arabia and Orascom in Egypt. It has cut back on its open courses for the coming academic year, running just one – on private equity – in June 2010.

Hult has added a part-time MBA to the full-time MBA it launched in Dubai 18 months ago. Its selling point is that the MBA courses encourage students on the Dubai course to spend either or both the final modules of the programme at another Hult campus in San Francisco, Boston, Shanghai or London.

Its other executive education programmes in Dubai include a master’s in international business for recent graduates, a master’s in finance for MBA students, intensive, two-day ‘pocket MBAs’ in association with global headhunting firm Stanford Chase, and an MBA (Hons) refresher course for MBA-holders, built around four intensive, short courses.

While Abu Dhabi and Dubai jostle for leadership in education in the UAE, there is an intense rivalry across the region as a whole. Qatar’s Education City has attracted top-flight colleges and universities with specialist research and development capability such as the US’ Carnegie Mellon, while Bahrain plans to build its own education city.

But not all foreign business schools opt for a physical presence in the GCC; some operate through regional partners. The US’ University of Virginia offers a four-month regional leadership development programme via the Bahrain Institute of Banking & Finance (BIBF), with teaching split between Manama, Riyadh, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington DC.

“It is important for students to ask whether the course…is the same as that available in the home market”

Dominic Milne, University of Aberdeen

BIBF also offers a master’s programme in partnership with the US’ De Paul University’s (Chicago) Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. Now in its tenth year, BIBF delivers a De Paul University MBA and master’s degrees in human resource management and finance, alongside a home-grown programme of non-degree executive education courses.

Not all states in the region are adopting the campus-based model. Saudi Arabia plans to pursue strategic partnerships with inter-national business schools based in Saudi Arabia and abroad, rather than copy the UAE or Qatari models.

“The campus model is costly,” says Kim Pringle al-Sahhaf, head of education at the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority (Sagia). “It would take huge endowments to attract the likes of a Cornell University or a New York University, and it is probably not the route the kingdom will take.”

Saudi universities offering MBAs include Al-Yamama College, Prince Sultan University and the College of Business Administration in Jeddah, although private colleges are starting to address the shortfall. Most are small-scale programmes delivered as partnerships with international business schools.

“Improving executive education involves working with the largest employers to upgrade employability,” says Al-Sahhaf. “We also have an unprecedented number of students going overseas, and that will continue. We need qualified people who will return to Saudi Arabia with new ideas.

“One possible model is that students spend time on affiliated college campuses. They could study for one semester at a college or school in Saudi Arabia, followed by one or two semesters at a business school overseas.”

Lalit Johri, programme director of the Saudi‑Oxford advanced management and leadership programme at Oxford University’s Said Business School (SBS), questions who benefits from the influx of global business schools, and whether the global operators setting up in the region are tailoring their programmes sufficiently to meet the GCC’s needs.

SBS has launched four executive education programmes tailored to the Saudi market. The courses are aimed at existing leaders – deputy ministers, university administrators and the presidents and chief executive officers of private companies.

Its Saudi-Oxford entrepreneur development programme supports nationals wishing to start up their own businesses. For its next generation of business leaders, SBS’s ‘5K5Y’ programme will select and train 1,000 young Saudi managers aged 27-35 every year for five years. Next year, it will also launch the Saudi-Oxford women leaders programme to train senior female executives working in healthcare, the civil service, education and the private sector.

Developed as a public-private partnership between Sagia, SBS and its Saudi partner, R-iyadh-headquartered Rakisa Holding, the Saudi-Oxford programme has expanded to work more closely with the Saudi Higher Education Ministry in developing tailored education for executives.

SBS is focusing on bespoke training programmes in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. It runs a similar operation in Abu Dhabi and will develop new courses for the Syrian market, having recently completed market studies of the country’s executive education needs.

Global influx

Johri is unimpressed by the influx of global business schools into the region. “We see these business schools offering programmes based in the GCC,” he says. “But they have had minimal penetration, because they do not do enough to understand the local -context. You need to customise your programme to local needs. It takes time to develop the right content. General management schools cannot have a serious input regarding issues such as transparency of government or corporate social responsibility if they work through a global mindset.

“Most business schools in the GCC try to transport foreign-based programmes without customisation of content, and that works against the long-term interests of the host countries. Those countries are spending a lot of money on these schools and expect something meaningful in return, yet many courses are irrelevant. They need to be tailored to local cultures and behaviours, to how people connect with each other.”

Many of the biggest business schools have chosen not to enter the GCC market at all. Dominic Milne, senior international officer at the University of Aberdeen, says international business schools and universities need to think long and hard about whether setting up in the GCC is the best way to maintain their academic standards.

“So many people see education as a way to make a lot of money very quickly,” he says. “But there are critical questions to ask about who you should go into business with.

“It is important for students to ask whether the degree course available on that global business school’s local campus is the same as that available in the home market.”

Key facts

  • 500 – Number of business schools in the Middle East
  • 1,000 – Number of Saudis on Said Business School development programme a year
  • 1991 – Year the first MBA was offered by an international institution in the Gulf