Most countries in the Middle East have state-led economies which are dependent on the export of oil and gas, and more recently, refined fuel products and petrochemicals. The region has some of the fastest-growing populations in the world, and in particular is subject to a “youth bulge” which is placing an increasing strain on demand for both education and job-creation in the region. 

Around one in five people living in the MENA region are aged 15-24. Although this will slide to around 17 per cent of the population by 2025, according to the US’ Population Research Bureau, it will increase in absolute terms by around 7 million people, and the total number of youths in the region could hit 100 million by 2035. These people will need jobs which, regardless of the abundance of natural resources in the region, state governments and companies alone will simply not be able to offer.

Education is a powerful force that can speed up economic growth, improve income distribution, facilitate social mobility, and reduce poverty

The benefits offered by investment in education are not just economic but also social, something which must be high in the minds of the region’s policymakers following the events of the popular uprisings across the region in 2011. As the Washington-headquartered World Bank noted in a 2008 paper on the success of education reforms in the region:

“Education is a powerful force that can speed up economic growth, improve income distribution, facilitate social mobility, and reduce poverty. It can also improve the quality of life for citizens by contributing to longer life expectancy, lower fertility and infant mortality rates, and a more cohesive national identity.”

The need for education has not gone unrecognised in the region. World Bank data shows that government expenditure on education as a share of gross domestic product has risen consistently over the past four decades, from around 4.4 per cent during the period 1965-1974 to 5.3 per cent over the ten years 1995-2003. However, a survey of more recent data gathered by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) suggests that the regional average was closer to 4.2 per cent as of 2008. developing world (in Asia the average is 3.6 per cent of GDP, slightly less than the mean figure of 3.9 per cent for Latin America) and is close to the rate of spending in the developed countries of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) where 4.6 per cent of GDP on average was spend on education as of 2007.

The region follows global trends in investing most in secondary education as an absolute percentage of total public spending (Key Stages 3-4) followed by primary education (Key Stages (1-2) education, although spending as  a measure of expenditure per pupil is the highest for those in tertiary education.

This table above, it should be noted, only covers public spending on education. Private education is widespread in the region, particularly in the Gulf Arab states where large expatriate labour forces have led to the development of a number of international schools which educate the children of wealthy executives from home and abroad, and less well-funded schools for the children of lower-income immigrants, typically from southeast Asia (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh in particular), which complement state schools for the indigenous population. There is very little research on the levels of expenditure at private institutions. 

The biggest overall public spenders on education in the region as an absolute dollar figure, are Saudi Arabia, which projects total spending on education of SR150bn ($40bn) for 2011, and Iran, which is estimated to have spend a similar figure during 2010, 5 per cent of GDP. This is several times what these countries’ Gulf Arab neighbours – with smaller populations and lower overall oil revenues – plan on spending over the coming year. Qatar – which has an indigenous population of about 800,000 people- has committed to spending QR19.3bn ($5.3bn) over 2011-2012, while Kuwait and Oman have both budgeted for around $5bn expenditure on education for the coming year.

Egypt also spends significantly on education; the country’s 2009 education ministry budget was approximately $9.3bn. However, Iran and Egypt have the highest populations in the region, of around 72 million and 82 million people respectively according to the World Bank, meaning that per-capita spending is significantly lower than in the Gulf Arab states. Data collated by the World Bank and UNICEF in 2003 shows that per-student spending was exponentially higher in the Gulf Arab states than anywhere else in the MENA region.

However, despite the levels of spending on education in the region, unemployment levels for both the general workforce and young people of 15-24 are the highest in the world. As of 2010, around 10.3 per cent of the total available workforce in the MENA region was unemployed, according to the International Labor Organisation (ILO), while unemployment among 15-24 year olds was 23.7 per cent in the Middle East and 23.8 per cent in North Africa in the same year, according to the US consultancy Deloitte. The figure for youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia, despite its enviable resource wealth and spending on education, was 25.9 per cent. Equally worrisome is the level of unemployment among university-level graduates, who remain unemployed for three years on average after graduation.

There are a number of reasons for the levels of unemployment witnessed in the region. Higher spending has not necessarily translated to a higher standard of education in the region. In the US Department of Education’s 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, eighth-grade students from, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were among the lowest-ranked for mathematics and the sciences, alongside pupils from countries which spent far less on education, like Ghana, El Salvador and Botswana.

World Bank researchers attribute the gap between the level of spending on, and outcomes from, the region’s education sector to two distinct phases in regional governments’ thinking on the sector. Initially, the major focus for policymakers was expanding education to as wide a proportion of the indigenous population as possible, with mass education and “national identity” a particular priority after states achieved independence from the 1920s-1940s.

“Countries placed a high premium on forging a common heritage and understanding of citizenship, and used a certain reading of history, the instruction in a particular language, and the inclusion of religion in the education curriculum as a way of enhancing national identity,” Bank researchers write. “Mass education was pursued by initiating and accelerating the building of schools, recruiting teachers, and attracting students, along with a special effort at including specific groups such as girls, rural children, students of particular ethnic groups, and the disabled into the education system.”

The past decade has seen growing attention being paid to increasing the qualitative aspects of education regionally, with a more doctrinaire attitude to education giving way to a more open attitude to global trends. The opening up of education to the private sector should also have increased competition and, as a result, the overall quality of education, although lax regulation of private schools in some countries has made this outcome debatable. Today, the UAE in particular has been increasingly focused on the regulation of the private sector to ensure that levels of education meet international standards.

A further issue has been the creation of education systems which have generate high school and university-level graduates whose skills are significantly mismatched with actual demand. In discussing the drivers behind the Arab Spring of 2011, the International Labor Organisation notes that there are “schools, universities, and vocational education and training institutions are turning out graduates lacking the skills that are needed in competitive labour markets”.5

Again, this is not an issue which has gone unrecognised. The Gulf Arab states in particular have focused on creating educational institutions which encourage students to develop skills suited to international trends in business, from the vocational degrees offered King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia to the MBAs offered at INSEAD in Abu Dhabi by way of Texas A&M in Qatar.

Future trends in education spending are likely to be driven by the events of 2011, with governments across the region focusing more than ever on creating labour forces which are capable of playing a greater role in the global workforce, from the creation of vocational schools to spending more on the teaching of languages.