Many large Gulf companies have a distinguished history when it comes to awarding scholarships to promising young students.

Saudi Arabia’s state-owned energy firm, Saudi Aramco, has had a scholarship programme for five decades and has sent students to more than 500 universities across the world. In the past academic year alone, it paid for almost 1,300 students to study. Similarly, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) has had a scholarship programme since 1974, part of its efforts to train local people.

Until recently, the vast majority of company-sponsored students went abroad to gain their degrees – an implicit recognition of the limitations of the local education market.

But, following the billions of dollars invested by Gulf governments to improve their education facilities and quality of teaching, energy majors are now sending far more scholars to local institutions.

Today, 1,009 of the 1,058 students sponsored by Adnoc are studying at UAE universities, such as the Petroleum Institute of Abu Dhabi.

The trend is less marked in Saudi Arabia but, even so, Aramco sends 15 per cent of its students to King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in Dhahran.

The region’s new generation of universities, including King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Jeddah and Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, present an opportunity for that trend to grow.

The real test will come when the students graduate and move across to jobs with Adnoc, Aramco or other sponsors. The quality of the education will then become apparent.

But the Gulf needs to foster world-class institutions if its economies and people are to meet their potential. The support of high-profile companies in awarding large numbers of scholarships to local students means that the region’s young universities are in a far stronger position to ensure that happens than they would otherwise be.