On paper, the investment made in education by the six member states of the GCC is paying dividends. Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE rank among the top 35 countries globally in the UN’s Human Development Report 2009. The adult literacy rate in these countries is more than 90 per cent, while for Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia it is in excess of 85 per cent.

But this apparent educational strength fails to translate into employment for many GCC nationals. The unemployment rate for the entire Middle East is one of the highest in the world, at 9 per cent compared with a global average of 5.9 per cent. Among women, the rate is even worse at 12.3 per cent, compared with a world average of 6.2 per cent.

Key fact

  • Saudi Arabia has allocated 25 per cent of its $36bn 2010 budget to the education sector

But the issue that raises the most concern for the future of the region’s economy is the high level of inactivity among the region’s young people.

According to the findings of a survey conducted by US polling firm Gallup between February and April 2009 on behalf of Qatar-based non-profit organisation Silatech, 27 per cent of 15 to 29-year-olds in Bahrain are neither attending school nor working. The figure for Saudi Arabia is higher still at 28 per cent.

The prime reason given by respondents to the survey for this lack of productivity is inadequate training, followed by a lack of motivation and unrealistic salary expectations.

Failing students

State education in the Gulf region has long been criticised for failing young people. Teaching methods are rigidly academic, with a focus on rote learning rather than critical analysis or innovation.

A disproportionate amount of classroom time is devoted to Islamic studies, to the detriment of mathematics and science. Students typically leave educational institutions without the IT and management skills demanded by a modern work environment. School leavers often fail to attain the grades required to continue on to higher education.

To date, the region’s burgeoning public sector has proved itself willing to employ the bulk of the local labour force, with well-paid positions continually being created to absorb the new entrants into the job market. But this de-facto guarantee of employment, while preventing social unrest, has inevitably had a demotivating effect on students, sapping ambition and discouraging entrepreneurship. The Gallup survey found that 60-70 per cent of 15 to 29-year-olds in the Gulf region aspire to work in the public sector rather than for the private sector or for themselves.

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, leaving the region dependent on imported technologies and expertise.

“Local education has failed to track the changes in the economy and the broader changes in society”

Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist, NCB Capital

 “Local education has failed to track the changes in the economy and the broader changes in society in recent years,” says Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at Saudi Arabia’s NCB Capital, who authored a report entitled Shaping the Future – Education in the GCC, in January 2009.

With more than a quarter of young people making no contribution to the economy and most of the remainder employed by the state, the Gulf region is heavily dependant on expatriate workers, both skilled and unskilled.

Expatriate workers make up nearly 80 per cent of the population in Qatar and the UAE. Although targets have been set throughout the GCC for businesses to employ nationals, private sector companies say they find it difficult to meet quotas because of the limited availability of suitably qualified locals and an inability to compete with the generous salaries offered by government posts.

Government spending

But the authorities are aware that attitudes must change if they are to succeed in their economic diversification plans to move away from an over-reliance on hydrocarbons exports and become knowledge-based economies. They have responded by increasing the amount of public funds directed towards training and education over the past few years. Each government now cites education as a priority for state spending, along with healthcare.

Saudi Arabiaallocated SR137.6bn ($36.7bn) in its 2010 budget to the education sector, or 25 per cent of its total planned expenditure of SR540bn. This represented an increase of 13 per cent over the 2009 allocation. Elsewhere in the Gulf, education is also being prioritised.

In the UAE, education was apportioned AED9.8bn ($2.7bn) for 2010, 22.5 per cent of the UAE’s AED43.6bn budget, while 20.5 per cent of Qatar’s 2008/9 budget was assigned to the sector, equivalent to QR19.7bn ($5.4bn). Oman, meanwhile, devoted 12.3 per cent of its budgeted expenditure to education, a figure of RO791m ($2.1bn).

Figures for Kuwait and Bahrain are not publicly available but education is estimated to account for about 11-13 per cent of the total state spending in these countries. By comparison, the UK and the US direct 13-14 per cent of their budgets to education.

The funds are being used to implement wide-ranging educational reforms, at both school and university level, which include modernising curricula, building new facilities and upgrading existing establishments.

In 2001, US research organisation Rand Corporation was brought in to improve Qatar’s state school system, after the authorities acknowledged that they were unable to meet Qatarisation targets because students were graduating with low grades, ill-prepared to participate in the economy.

In 2004, the Saudi Education Ministry drew up a 10-year programme to raise the kingdom’s standards of education. Key targets in the plan include eradicating illiteracy and reducing the failure rate to 5 per cent in elementary schools and 8 per cent in secondary schools.

A massive programme of school building is also included in the plan, to accommodate the kingdom’s growing population. Under-16s now account for 42 per cent of the Saudi population. The 2010 budget provides funding for the construction of 1,200 new schools (in addition to 3,112 schools already under construction) and for the rehabilitation of 2,000 existing school buildings.

Private partnershipsManagement of the region’s education sector has also undergone reform. In the UAE, Abu Dhabi and Dubai both set up education councils in 2005 to bring teaching in those emirates up to international standards.

Private education providers have also been encouraged to increase their presence in the region and offer an alternative to the state-run system. These institutions generally use English as the teaching language, enabling students to access a wider range of materials as well as receive training from Western-educated staff.

Gems Education, which has its roots in Dubai, is one of the most well represented private providers of education in the region. It runs more than 25 schools in the UAE and has a presence in Qatar, Jordan, Libya and Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, Gems was selected by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority to open the first school in the new King Abdullah Economic City.

Private education providers have also been encouraged to increase their presence in the region

Given the high number of schoolchildren in the region, the business case for opening private schools there is strong. But the potential enrolment figures, and therefore revenues, are much lower when it comes to private universities. Indeed, the US’ George Mason University closed its campus at Ras al-Khaimah in the UAE in May 2009 after three years due to insufficient students.

As a result, it has been necessary to devise attractive partnerships deals to encourage leading international universities to set up in the region. The most high-profile example being Qatar’s Education City initiative, which has persuaded six leading US universities to establish satellite campuses in Doha by agreeing to meet all their costs for 10 years.

Abu Dhabihas followed suit, bankrolling the creation of the Paris-Sorbonne University in the emirate, which opened in 2007, and the New York University Abu Dhabi, which is due to open in 2010.

The success of these schemes has been limited to a great extent by the weaknesses still inherent in the state school system, which means the supply of local students for these universities is insufficient and therefore foreign students make up the vast majority of the classes.

To illustrate, just 15 per cent of the 374 graduates that enrolled at the recently-inaugurated King Abdullah University of Science & Technology were Saudi nationals. Chinese citizens accounted for a further 14 per cent of the student body.

Special preparatory programmes have had to be devised to help students make the transition to a different mode of teaching at Education City in Qatar.

Although great progress has been achieved over the past decade, educational reforms have a long way to go before the GCC states can hope to develop the high calibre, internationally competitive human capital needed to create and sustain knowledge-based economies.

Meaningful change cannot be implemented overnight and it will be many years before teaching in public schools begins to match that seen in the new private universities.

The initial focus has rightly centred on improving academic standards in traditional subjects; in the long run, efforts will also have to be directed into making vocational training more desirable.

The real measure of success of the reform effort will be when GCC nationals are willing to take up the less prestigious professions, such as nursing and teaching.