Business courses account for 58 per cent of all degrees awarded in Dubai and 42 per cent of all students in the higher education sector, according to the emirate’s Knowledge & Human Development Authority.

This is a measure of the extent to which formal training in both the technical and sociological dimensions of business is now viewed as critical for the success of companies and individuals in the GCC.

Demand stretches far beyond undergraduate programmes for students who have just left school. Many executives who have already risen to positions of responsibility and leadership also see value in returning to the classroom to engage in programmes designed to help them build on their current experience and take on fresh challenges. This has led some of the world’s leading international business schools to establish themselves in Gulf cities.

Significant offering

France’s Haute Ecole de Commerce (HEC) now has a branch campus in Doha, while Insead opened in Abu Dhabi in 2007. Dubai hosts offshoots of several major business schools, including the UK’s Manchester Business School (MBS), the US’ Hult, and Cass, which is part of City University in London.

Such institutions tend to offer their own variations on two main themes: master’s of business administration (MBA) courses for mid-ranking personnel with significant career experience under their belts; and more specialist or tailor-made executive education programmes for senior-level players, sometimes including chief executive officers (CEOs) and board directors.

As institutions headquartered outside the region and with offshoots in other parts of the world, they will commonly offer alumni of their Gulf programmes the chance to spend a section of the course elsewhere, and arrange study tours to foreign destinations.

This reflects a theme stressed by many schools: the learning value of taking course participants out of their comfort zone so that they share the seminar room with counterparts from other regions and cultures. One of the aims of both MBA and senior executive education courses is to encourage students to think in new ways and look at business challenges from unfamiliar perspectives.

“When we were thinking about which direction to take at [Insead’s] Abu Dhabi campus, we wondered whether we needed to develop programmes tailored for the Gulf market,” says Miguel Lobo, director of the campus. “But the feedback we got from senior people showed what they needed was not programmes tailored to the specifics of the region but quite the opposite: the teaching of international practices.”

The leading schools are conscious that students enrolling in their Gulf programmes do so in order to secure the benefits offered by these international institutions.

A mid-career MBA is an expensive and tough option, often studied part-time over the course of two or more years while the student continues to hold down a demanding job. High-level executive education courses may be short, but they usually cater to senior personnel who hold major responsibilities in their jobs.

In either case, the executives who sign up for these programmes hope to benefit from the distinctive quality of education that internationally reputed business schools can offer. Altering the curriculum or teaching approach to suit the culture of any particular market would risk watering down the value such education offers.

“We don’t adapt the way that we teach; all executives on our programmes are treated the same,” says Nigel Banister, chief global officer at MBS and responsible for its international centres in Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Miami and Sao Paulo. “We don’t adapt to any particular culture around the world.”

Insead’s Lobo adheres to the same principle: “We have been tough in our standards in Dubai. Our admission requirements for the MBA and executive education courses are the same worldwide.”

The Gulf branches of the top international schools attract students from a much wider range of countries than the GCC states alone, and see this as a major bonus. Interchange with colleagues from other nations and cultures is presented as one of the key benefits of the programmes offered at these institutions.

Ehsan Razavizadeh, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region at Cass and head of its Dubai centre, says his campus currently has students from at least 24 countries including Georgia, Nigeria and from South Asia.

Specific programmes

However, there are aspects of Gulf business that lead many local companies to take a particular interest in certain types of programmes. For example, Insead teaches a Family Business Challenge course designed for people managing family-owned firms, which are prevalent in the Middle East.

“We focus on family issues such as how to plan for leadership transition across generations when you are not a listed company, the role the family plays and how you manage relationships within the family, and the extent to which you use external management,” says Lobo.

Students travel from the Middle East to Insead’s headquarters in Fontainebleau near Paris, or to its Singapore offshoot, to take its family course. It brings together senior figures from family businesses of different sizes and from different industries. This also gives Gulf participants the chance to exchange ideas with counterparts from other countries, such as Germany, where big family firms also play a major economic role. Because family businesses are so important in the Middle East, Insead is looking at whether it could offer a programme of this type in Abu Dhabi.

The provision of specialist executive education programmes for senior management and board-level personnel, and structured mid-career MBA programmes are complementary activities for the international business schools operating in the Gulf.

Although students tend to be in their early or mid-30s at the least, with substantial career responsibilities already, executive MBA (EMBA) courses are still structured with published curriculums and formalised admission procedures.

The courses provide a stable revenue base, with a regular inflow of students signed up for the long term – one and a half years at Insead or two and a half years at MBS for the global MBA. These cost $95,000 and $43,000 respectively and, for more senior personnel, the global EMBA of MBS costs £50,000 ($79,500). The Cass EMBA is also a big investment of time and money for the student: two years costs £24,500.

It is the sustained flow of participants and revenues that enables the schools to offer broad curriculums, taught by top-level international faculty flying in on a regular basis to impart their expertise.

Tailor-made courses

For the institutions, the EMBA activity is a natural complement to the executive education programmes they offer, many of which are customised to meet the specific requirements of client companies. Such activity fluctuates and is subject to careful negotiation and planning, as the potential client and the business school together work out what is required and how the course should be delivered. Demands can be highly specific and vary hugely from one business to the next.

Pricing varies accordingly. Consequently, the EMBA course is a much less stable source of income than the steady stream generated from MBA programmes. So, in commercial terms for the schools, the two complement each other. At Insead, degree programmes and executive education courses each account for about half the total revenue, says Lobo.

Some executive education programmes are offered on a more programmatic basis. In addition to its course for senior family business executives, Insead offers an International Directors Programme for board members, which covers the areas executives must master when they become board directors, including responsibilities towards shareholders, how to interpret audit reports and managing meetings. “If you’ve had a long career as a CEO, then things are very different when you become a member of the board,” says Lobo.

Twice a year, once in Fontainebleau and once in Singapore, Insead teaches its Avira programme for the CEOs of medium-sized firms from all over the world. Participation is by invitation only.

Meanwhile, MBS has a programme for high-value managers, intended for senior personnel who need to get to grips with the latest thinking on business and management. The course comprises two five-day segments placed five weeks apart, which enable participants to also tend to the demands of their jobs. The subjects covered include economic context, developing and implementing strategy, organisational management, managing innovation, knowledge aspects of finance and marketing, managerial psychology, and creative leadership.

Apart from these programmed high-level courses, the leading schools provide a variety of tailor-made executive education courses commissioned by individual companies. “For example, one financial institution wanted a course to update workers on trends in risk management,” says Razavizadeh. “The participants were already familiar with financial regulations, but wanted to be briefed on the latest issues. Cass is part of City University and therefore has expertise in many specialist areas of the finance sector. So the faculty designed a programme to meet the specific requirements of the client.” He also cites the example of a family company that wanted to learn about succession planning and the relevant areas of corporate governance.

Top-level executive education is not cheap, especially if teaching faculty are being flown in specially from overseas. However, Razavizadeh says a firm can view the expenditure as an investment since those who benefit are not only the senior personnel on the programme but, indirectly, the employees working for them. In some cases Cass is asked to provide consultancy support in addition to the programmes.

Soft skills

Elements of executive education courses cover specific technical areas such as corporate finance, marketing and Islamic finance, a strong growth area in the Gulf. But there is also a need for education in softer skills such as strategy, innovation and leadership.

“Creative leadership – the factors that influence creativity in a workforce or community – is something we [provide] world-class [expertise] in,” says Banister. MBS has run programmes on this subject at its Dubai centre.

Issues relating to how a senior executive leads colleagues, manages the human aspect of the workplace and encourages the emergence of fresh ideas are particularly important in the high-level executive education programmes, he adds. “The more senior the people on the course, the more we feature elements such as fresh thinking,” he says.

Another soft dimension is experience of other cultures and economies, which is a key aspect of the programmes offered by the leading business schools. Many Gulf students opt to attend Insead courses in Singapore or Fontainebleau, while EMBA students at MBS’ Dubai centre can opt to complete some of their programme at the school’s other centres – the most popular being Manchester itself or Shanghai. Cass takes students on study tours to London, China, the US and Argentina.

While there is strong demand for executive education in the region, it is global best practice and learning that appeal most to both high-level students and the firms they run.

Key fact

Business courses account for 58 per cent of all degrees awarded in Dubai

Source: Knowledge & Human Development Authority