Business schools are opening offices in the Gulf, joining tours and lobbying officials to attract more nationals of GCC countries. At the same time, governments have been using scholarships to drive job creation and regional universities are seeking to feed local demand for higher education.

Governments are promoting education to help their young citizens acquire skills, advance their careers and replace expatriates, especially in the private sector, which has long been dominated by foreign management.

At the same time, international business schools are compensating for a drop in domestic applications since the start of the global financial crisis by targeting high-growth emerging markets with vast young populations

Riyadh targeted

Saudi Arabia, the country with the largest population and highest unemployment rate among the six GCC states, is a prime target due to its population size and national wealth.

The King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP), which was started by the Ministry of Higher Education in 2005 to fund schooling in the US, now supports more than 125,000 of the kingdom’s nationals in various undergraduate and postgraduate studies across 20 countries. In 2011, the programme disbursed SR20bn ($5.3bn), according to the Ministry of Finance.

Gulf governments are not only providing scholarships to students, but are also paying expenses for their families to accompany them. The cultural divisions of embassies in the region provide support to secure visas to study abroad. “Student demand does not exist in a vacuum,” says Michelle Sparkman Renz, director of research communications at the US-based Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) required by most masters of business administration (MBA) programmes.

“There is a lot of encouragement and support from national institutions within [GCC countries] and there are a lot of school events that help provide exposure to business schools and MBA opportunities,” she says.

The number of GMATs taken by Gulf applicants increased to more than 6,000 in 2012, compared with about 2,400 in 2008, according to GMAC. China, India and Saudi Arabia were the three non-US countries with the greatest increase in volume of applications in GMAC’s 2012 Application Trends Survey.

The QS World MBA tour, where schools market their programmes to prospective students, began visiting Dubai nearly a decade ago. It entered Saudi Arabia in 2010 and Qatar in 2011, says Nunzio Quacquarelli, tour director at UK-based education consultancy Quacquarelli Symonds, the firm behind the road show. Universities are keen to come to the Gulf due to the increase in scholarship programmes and sponsorship from state-owned companies.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, for example, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia’s national oil company Saudi Aramco to enrol Aramco-sponsored students, collaborate on research projects and train staff.

“A lot of schools have organised their own scholarship programmes with sponsorship from companies, and these are proving to be quite attractive for candidates from the region,” says Quacquarelli. “It is quite popular for companies to contribute to MBAs because of a shortage of management in the Middle East. Big companies in the region are desperate to have better managers.”

After prospective students take their GMATs, GMAC sends the scores to those candidates’ chosen universities. The US remains the top destination for GCC students’ GMAT scores, followed by Canada and the UK. More than 430 scores of GCC applicants were sent to universities in the Gulf in 2012, a 15 per cent increase from five years ago, as more local schools and international branch campuses have opened in the region.

Regional schools

The range of universities in the QS MBA tours in the Gulf has expanded to include regional and Asian business schools based here.

“There are more choices, more local schools and more regional schools, where candidates can stay and work, and there have been some changes [in recent years],” says Quacquarelli. “Canada has risen in popularity because it offers the opportunity to work [after graduation].”

“Asian business schools are becoming more active and more global in their [recruitment]. They are coming to the Middle East to achieve a diverse studying population,” he says.

More universities are opening representative offices to market their programmes. Spain’s IE Business School set up an office in Dubai in 2008 and the Gulf is a top priority, says William Davila, director of international development at the school. “When we first opened the office, our target was the expatriate market here, but the trend we have seen in the last year is that the number of local applications and local students has increased significantly. We are targeting a lot of students from Saudi Arabia and it is becoming very important for us. People in the region are eager to acquire skills and there is a lot of investment by local governments in developing infrastructure and attracting firms from all over the world. They realise they need to invest in developing local talent.”

GMAT global ranking, by test volume
Country* 2007/08 2011/12
Bahrain 73 104
Kuwait 49 37
Oman 124 103
Qatar 142 121
Saudi Arabia 25 10
UAE 74 71
GMAT=Graduate Management Admission Test; *=Citizenship, out of 182 countries. Source: Graduate Management Admission Council

IE teaches students sponsored by Aramco and by the Kuwait Investment Authority sovereign wealth fund, which has an MBA scholarship programme for Kuwaitis.

Many Gulf students are sponsored by their companies and governments, or come from family firms that are looking to grow their businesses or deal with succession planning.

The UK’s Ashridge Business School has been enrolling Gulf students onto its part-time executive MBA (EMBA) programme for 10 years, but is seeking to attract more enrolments through its Abu Dhabi office, fairs and work with companies. “The most common reason for pursuing MBAs is to gain broad business skills and understanding to support a move from specialist roles into more general management roles – in both the public and private sectors and in family-owned firms,” says Steve Seymour, director of MBA programmes at Ashridge.

Specialised courses

As well as teaching universal management skills and theories, many business schools in the GCC are introducing specialisations and modules to suit local market needs. Last year, Manchester Business School (MBS), which has about 1,200 part-time MBA students enrolled at its Dubai campus, introduced a project management pathway to its curriculum.

It is quite popular for firms to contribute to MBAs because of a shortage of management in the Middle East

Nunzio Quacquarelli, Quacquarelli Symonds

“Project management and supply chain management are popular modules due to the fact that many of our students are involved in industries such as oil and gas,” says Randa Bessiso, Middle East director at MBS. “It is also a reflection of the development of professional project management in the region.”

Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris (HEC Paris) offers an EMBA in Doha in partnership with Qatar Foundation. The course includes an energy major, which reflects the background of students, many of whom are Qataris working in the oil and gas sector.

London Business School, Cass Business School, Insead and other international universities are also seeing greater interest from the GCC in studying entrepreneurship. This ties in with succession planning at family firms and government efforts to develop small and medium-sized enterprises as an avenue to job creation.

“Many families are now thinking of succession planning and they want to do an EMBA to get a bigger picture of what will happen in the future,” says Ehsan Razavizadeh, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) at Cass.

France’s Grenoble Ecole de Management, which offers a doctorate degree in business administration (DBA) in Lebanon, in partnership with the Lebanese Canadian University, is also looking to the Middle East to attract students to the master’s degree in finance that it teaches in France.

“We are looking for students who come from areas where banking is very active, and clearly this region is developing, especially in the areas of Islamic banking and finance,” says Stephanie Boyer, programme director at Grenoble. “The Gulf also has a lot of sovereign wealth funds and investments in government infrastructure projects, and there is clearly a need for good finance professionals. Mena, Asia and Brazil are areas we are targeting because they are becoming increasingly important financial centres.”

The will may be there to attract GCC applicants, but students face challenges. Many candidates in the region struggle to achieve high GMAT scores. In the past, this has dissuaded schools from recruiting in the region.

These results vary across the GCC. “The UAE is by far the most popular destination [for universities on the QS tour] because it is seen as a more international destination, has a broader variety of candidates, and more candidates have taken the GMAT,” says Quacquarelli. “One barrier to school recruitment from Saudi Arabia is that candidates typically score very poorly in the GMAT and schools are not willing to lower the entry level for lower GMAT scores.”

Low scores

Poor English skills, unfamiliarity with standardised tests and poor application are some of the reasons for the low scores. According to a 2011 GMAC survey of prospective students, 20 per cent of GCC candidates who took the test said they did not prepare, and those who did prepare spent an average 35 hours studying, about half the time reported by global candidates.

Swiss business school IMD is trying to attract more nationals to its MBA and EMBA programmes. “The biggest challenge for students from the Gulf is taking the GMAT and scoring high enough to get into IMD,” says Hischam el-Agamy, the school’s executive director. He says scores have been improving in recent years.

Local students often lack the managerial experience of their foreign counterparts, driving schools to introduce new degrees and programmes. “Many Gulf nationals have had to take on additional challenges early in their careers,” says El-Agamy.

“As such, they have moved up through the levels of their firms rather quickly, perhaps not always having as much time as they would like to understand a particular function or business. It is these executives who can benefit from an EMBA.”

Next year, HEC Paris plans to launch a master’s degree aimed at Qatari executives with less managerial experience. “It is true that in fast growing economies, not just in Qatar and the GCC, managers tend to hold positions of higher responsibility earlier in age than in more mature economies,” says Joshua Kobb, chief operating officer of HEC Paris in Qatar.

“We try to take that into account when selecting the participants of each class. In the EMBA, we don’t use position in our criteria but instead the depth of responsibility, and we look at how that will contribute to the classroom.”