The Gulf’s family-owned conglomerates and major listed companies have a strong history of sponsoring the education of Arab students and, as the region invests billions of dollars in new universities and educational institutions, the number of companies sponsoring students through their education is growing.

Saudi Aramco, the state-owned national oil company of Saudi Arabia and the world’s largest oil corporation, has been providing company scholarships for more than five decades. To date, it has sponsored students to study in more than 500 universities at home and around the world. 

The company offers two scholarship programmes to support promising young science students – the College Degree Program and the Apprenticeship Program.

In the 2008-2009 academic year, the College Degree Program sponsored a total of 1,288 students. The vast majority of them, 1,062, attended foreign universities, but 192 students studied at Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals and 34 students at King Faisal University.  

Key fact

  • Saudi Aramco has sponsored students to study at more than 500 universities across the world in the past 50 years

Meanwhile, Aramco’s Apprenticeship Program offers Saudi high school graduates the opportunity to receive training in various fields within the company. During 2008, the company recruited 2,521 new apprentices, bringing its total number to 4,897.

Future leadersThe scholarship programme offered by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) is also highly regarded in the region. It was established in 1974 to ensure that future generations would have the right skills to work in the oil industry. “The scholarship mission is to educate, train and prepare UAE nationals to take up leading positions in the oil and gas industry,” says Rashed al-Zahmi, head of the scholarship department at Adnoc.

The first class of 10 students graduated in 1979 and the programme has since produced more than 900 graduates.

Today, Adnoc’s scholarship department supervises more than 1,000 students.  A total of 1,009 Adnoc-sponsored students are currently studying at four higher education institutes in the UAE: the American University of Sharjah, the Higher Colleges of Technology, the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates University in Al-Ain.

The second largest group of students, 27,have scholarships to study at universities in the US, and Adnoc is also supporting 11 students to study in the UK and 11 students to attend universities in Oman.  

“A clear measure of the success of the programme is that many of the present managers, engineers and supervisors at Adnoc are graduates of our scholarship programme,” says Al-Zahmi.

In 2002, Adnoc introduced another sponsorship programme, Achievers Oasis, which sponsors school students from the fourth grade up to 12th grade. Students need to achieve a minimum score of 80 per cent in an admissions exam to be accepted onto the programme and are required to maintain or exceed this score for the duration of the course.

By fulfilling this criterion, the student will be eligible for an Adnoc scholarship. Achievers Oasis has 1,800 students enrolled in the programme.

Loyalty rewarded

The Dubai Aluminium Company (Dubal) established its scholarship programme in the 2005-2006 academic year. Through the initiative, it invests in the tertiary education of UAE nationals in order to retain their services upon graduation. Preference is given to students studying chemical, electrical or mechanical engineering.

“The programme identifies the most talented UAE school leavers and funds their university studies,” says Jane Lee, career development manager at Dubal. “They are then appointed to work at Dubal for a period of time equivalent to the duration of their degree.”

To be eligible for the Dubal scholarship programme, an aggregate score of at least 85 per cent in high school evaluations is required.

Once granted, the student needs to maintain a certain grade throughout their degree course in order for the scholarship to remain valid. Scholarship students who achieve high grades receive additional financial rewards.

“Our scholarship students are also expected to work for Dubal during the summer vacation for the duration of their scholarship, to obtain practical training and work experience,” says Ibrahim Nassir, executive vice-president and director of human resources at Dubal. “This entails up to five weeks’ student employment each academic year.”

The programme currently supports 56 students, who, with a few exceptions, are all enrolled at eight local universities.

Each of Dubal’s scholarship students receives 50 per cent of his or her tuition fees and a monthly stipend, paid on a sliding scale. Senior students receive substantially more than their first-year counterparts. As an added incentive, an additional monthly stipend is retained by Dubal and paid to the student on successful completion of six months’ service.

“We used to send most of our scholars abroad but now most of them study within the UAE”

Rashed al-Zahmi, Adnoc

At a broader level, company scholarships play an important role in helping to meet nationalisation targets. In Dubal’s case, Emiratisation was the main inspiration behind the introduction of the programme.

“The primary objective in setting up Dubal’s scholarship programme was to attract and recruit more UAE nationals to the company,” says Lee.

Al-Zahmi acknowledges the same motivation. “Adnoc’s scholarship programme represents part of its commitment towards the process of Emiratisation of jobs,” he says. Today, Emiratis account for about 45 per cent of the 24,000 employees at Adnoc.

Aramco is also committed to raising Saudisation levels within the company, with scholarship programmes specifically designed to contribute to the development of a highly-skilled Saudi workforce. At the end of 2008, Saudis accounted for 47,502 of the 54,441 employees at the company. 

While the various scholarship programmes have proved very successful, the rapid growth and improvement in the Gulf’s universities in the past few years has led to a shift in the trend of how they are being awarded. “In the past, Gulf companies heavily sponsored students for study abroad, but this has not been the case for many years, reflecting the substantial improvements in the quality and standards offered by local universities,” says Lee.

Selected students

Al-Zahmi agrees, saying it has become common to offer scholarships in Gulf-based institutions. “We used to send most of our scholars abroad but now most of them are sponsored to study in the UAE,” he says. “[Only] a few highly distinguished scholars are sent to study abroad.”

In 2008, the Abu Dhabi branch of New York University set up the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Scholars Program, in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi Education Council.

The programme draws on students in their third and fourth years of study in the UAE’s national institutions of higher learning and provides them with special academic and leadership opportunities. Twenty students have been selected for the scholarship’s 2009-2010 class by a panel of judges from the New York University campuses in both Abu Dhabi and New York. They will take one of two classes, one on religion and government, taught by university president John Sexton, and the other focusing on foreign policy.

Given the pedigree of new universities that have sprung up over the past few years and the broader range of specialised courses they offer, it seems likely that a growing number of corporations will be encouraged to sponsor students at home. For example, the past few years have seen the opening of branch campuses in Abu Dhabi of French business school Insead and the Paris-Sorbonne University. In future, scholarships will play a crucial role in helping the region’s countries make the shift from oil-based to knowledge-based economies.