As the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region evolve, business schools are adapting their curricula and introducing new topics to keep pace with economic policies, student demand and industry trends.

With the Arab region undergoing political change, partially sparked by demands for better wages and jobs, governments are ramping up spending on education and expanding scholarship drives for local citizens.

Despite regional instability and continued layoffs in the financial industry, a number of schools have seen a recovery in student numbers. Enrolment is still not back to 2008 levels, however, and company support for expatriate employees has dropped significantly. The London Business School (LBS) has seen company sponsorships drop 50 per cent compared with its first intake in Dubai in 2007, but student enrolment remains relatively steady.

Tapping eduation growth

International business schools continue to tap the region through branch campuses, joint partnerships with local institutions, and representative offices. A presence in the Middle East offers access to rapidly growing economies and an expanding young population.

Dubai remains the most attractive market for business schools and other universities and has the highest number of international branch campuses globally, according to the UK’s Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. In Doha, Qatar Foundation’s Education City has also attracted high-profile institutions such as HEC Paris and Weill Cornell Medical College.

We saw a very strong demand in the market for a degree programme designed for less experienced managers

Joshua Kobb, HEC Paris in Qatar

As schools expand, a more diverse student mix has emerged. Manchester Business School (MBS), which has about 1,200 part-time masters of business administration (MBA) students at its Dubai campus, currently has the highest percentage of female students since it opened in the UAE in 2006. More applicants from communications technology, energy and pharmaceuticals backgrounds are signing up, compared with pre-crisis days when most interest came from the financial sector. Schools are attracting more students from Africa, Asia and Commonwealth of Independent States countries, a reflection of closer economic ties with those regions and international interest in understanding the Gulf and its potential.

As GCC governments implement policies to diversify their economies away from oil, business schools are viewed as major players in the drive to create jobs for citizens.

Financial Times global MBA rankings, 2012
Rank School Country
1 Stanford Graduate School of Business  US
2 Harvard Business School US
3 University of Pennsylvania, Wharton US
4 London Business School UK
5 Columbia Business School  US
6 Insead France/Singapore
7 MIT Sloan School of Management US
8 IE Business School Spain
9 IESE Business School Spain
10 Hong Kong UST  China
11 Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad  India
12 University of Chicago, Booth US
13 IMD Switzerland
14 University of California at Berkeley: Haas US
15 Duke University, Fuqua School of Business US
16 Northwestern University, Kellogg US
17 New York University, Stern US
18 HEC Paris France
19 Dartmouth College, Tuck US
20 Indian School of Business India
20 Yale School of Management US
20 University of Oxford, Said UK
Source: Financial Times 

To address the employment question and shortage of management skills, schools are now not offering only MBAs or executive MBAs (EMBAs), they are expanding their programmes in response to market demands. Institutes are increasingly offering non-degree programmes for corporations looking to enhance the management skills of their employees.

Others are changing their degree courses. HEC Paris, which offers an EMBA in Doha in partnership with the Qatar Foundation, is introducing a specialised master’s degree in March.

“The EMBA is appealing to very experienced, senior managers, but at the same time we saw a very strong demand in the market from individuals and companies for a degree programme designed for less experienced managers,” says Joshua Kobb, chief operating officer of HEC Paris in Qatar. “The specialised master’s is likely to have more Qatari participants because of its nature and the population that it is aimed at. We have received a lot of feedback from companies here, sharing with us the training needs of their Qatari employees at this organisational level.”

Changing education needs

Schools are also adding new courses and specialisations to reflect the changing demands of candidates in the region.

France’s Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM) currently offers a doctorate of business administration (DBA) in partnership with the Lebanese Canadian University. Demand for its DBA in the next two to three years is likely to come from the energy, construction and consulting sectors, says Laurent Tournois, DBA programme director. “Within the next two years we will develop a master’s in research,” he says. “This will help to cover the market better, in that it will target younger profiles and the content does not require the same amount of resources as a DBA.”

Last year, MBS began offering a project management pathway in its part-time global MBA, on top of the existing general, engineering and finance pathways. “We are seeing more students from Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” says Randa Bessiso, MBS’s Middle East director. “We have introduced the new pathway of project management, and we know there is demand in those countries.”

Bold initiatives like launching a degree programme in another part of the world never come easy

Jennifer Francis, Fuqua School of Business

Entrepreneurship has also become a popular area of study among individuals and governments, which realise job creation cannot be handled by the public sector alone, and want to encourage individuals to set up businesses. The global financial crisis, which left many workers in search of new careers, has also driven fresh interest in start-ups. “There is a lot of interest in entrepreneurship and innovation, and that was true two years ago and is more so now,” says Peter Zemsky, deputy dean of degree programmes and curriculum at Insead. The French business school runs an EMBA in Abu Dhabi.

“People in the past would have come to do an EMBA to get into financial services. Now they come trying to get out, or change where they are in financial services.”

Cass Business School, which offers an EMBA in Dubai, this year added an entrepreneurship stream as an option for its students. They can also pick from four other streams: general management and leadership, Islamic finance, mainstream finance or energy.

Equipping entrepreneurs

LBS in Dubai has seen the number of entrepreneurs in its programme triple in the past two years, says Daniela Sfeir, regional head of corporate relations in Dubai. “There are a lot of individuals joining the programme with entrepreneurial aspirations or a background in family business, who are looking to understand entrepreneurship better so that they can either start their own ventures or take their family businesses to the next level,” she says.

The American University of Beirut, which has one of the oldest MBA programmes in the region, has revived its entrepreneurship elective due to this demand. “The decision to bring back entrepreneurship to the programme was made two years ago following the development of contacts with private equity firms and venture capitalists,” says Salim Chahine, MBA programme director.

Business degrees are becoming increasingly international, with students moving across geographies and looking to gain experience outside their home markets. Two of MBS’s most popular electives in Dubai are ‘doing business in Brazil’ and ‘doing business in China’. Insead’s Zemsky says his school is looking at taking its EMBA students from Abu Dhabi to new locations including Beijing and Sao Paulo in 2013.

More postgraduate business students from outside the Gulf are also choosing to study for their MBAs and EMBAs in the region. Insead plans from next year to bring in 30 global MBA students from its Singapore and France campuses to work on its Abu Dhabi action learning module. The next step will be to offer a full MBA residential module in Abu Dhabi, a move Insead is evaluating for 2015.

“What we are seeing in MBA [applicants] is the realisation that this region has real opportunities; they are interested in finding out about it and potentially working here,” says Zemsky. But despite the pick-up in enrolment, business schools face challenges in the Middle East. As universities try to lure applicants, this can come at the cost of course quality.

“Some schools try to attract more students by offering major discounts or cutting prices. For them it is important to fill up classes as much as they can, because they are for-profit, and this does not send a good signal within the education market,” says Ehsan Razavizadeh, Cass’s regional director for Mena and head of the business school’s Dubai Centre. “There is still room for high-quality programmes in the region.”

Nevertheless, business schools are not rushing to enter the Mena region as they once did. International universities are worried about civil unrest in places such as Egypt and Syria, and its possible spread to other countries.

Security threats in Lebanon have led to Gulf citizens withdrawing their applications, and schools around the world are receiving fewer applications from the Levant and North Africa.

Last year, GEM entered talks about offering the DBA in Egypt, but the political upheaval halted its plans. Other European schools also choose to operate remotely. Switzerland’s IMD, the UK’s Ashridge Business School and Spain’s IE Business School each say that although they look to attract students from the region to their courses, they are not currently interested in setting up branch campuses or any partnerships in the Middle East. Diversity of students is one of their selling points, and a local school could dilute the mix of business backgrounds enrolled in the course.

Schools do not have the budgets to invest in overseas campuses and programmes, and governments and sponsors are not as generous with their endowments and contributions as before.

Logistical problems

In November 2011, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business announced plans to launch a one-year master’s of management studies in finance in the UAE starting in June this year, but the programme was cancelled due to ‘logistical complexities’ with sponsors and partners. It would have been the school’s first degree programme run entirely outside the US.

“Bold initiatives like launching a degree programme in another part of the world never come easy,” says Jennifer Francis, Fuqua’s senior associate dean for programmes. “We go forward with our activities – programme residencies, executive education programmes, staff on the ground – in the region with a renewed sense of these challenges and a commitment to work through matters.”

Insead’s plans to launch an MBA in Abu Dhabi to complement its EMBA have reportedly also been set back. Despite these difficulties, a drop-off in demand for executive education services seems unlikely in the Middle East.

“There is every reason to believe that demand will continue unabated, driven by the enhanced role of the private sector, the Arab spring’s need to replace expatriates [to provide jobs for locals] and the perception that a business degree is the shortest way to gaining employment,” says George Najjar, provost of the Lebanese American University and special adviser to the president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), which accredits business schools. AACSB is currently processing accreditation bids from schools in the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, among others.