On my way home from India last week, I stopped off in Dubai to take a quick peek at what was going on in the Gulf (which, just to define our terms a bit, consist of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, the last of which is a confederation of seven tiny statelets, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai). Here’s my quick primer:
The Gulf basically has four kinds of universities. First, it has “public” universities. The definition is a little tricky in the Gulf, where the coffers of the state and those of ruling families are somewhat intertwined, but one key feature of them is that they tend to be reserved for nationals. (Only about half the population of the Gulf is made up of nationals, and in Qatar and the UAE the number is more like 10%). A couple of these institutions are quite good – the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, for instance, or the United Arab Emirates University in Al-Ain. Many are so-so, but nevertheless they represent the “flagships” of the national system.
After publics, it starts getting complicated. There are what I call “prestige local privates”; these are usually sponsored by members of the local royal family but are not technically public (they are sometimes non-profit, but this seems to be a pretty elastic definition in the region). Al-Khalifa University and the University of Sharjah in the UAE meet this description, so does Alfaisal University in Riyadh. These universities aren’t bad, but there is virtually no research associated with them. They do take on international students, partly to demonstrate their “quality”.
The region has run-of-the-mill private colleges, but these are rare outside the UAE. More common are “branch campuses” – but one has to be somewhat careful about how to categorize these. Sometimes you get genuine branches: schools like Amity, Heriot-Watt, Middlesex and Saint-Petersburg State Economic University (yes, there’s a Russian market to serve in the Gulf) are genuine branches. But then you get “foreign” universities which are not branches (e.g. American University of Sharjah), “foreign” universities which are actually royally-sponsored prestige privates (e.g. NYU and the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi, the entire Education City complex in Doha and to some extent College of the North Atlantic – Qatar as well), and “foreign” universities which are actually almost entirely local but deliver a foreign curricula under a foreign brand (e.g. Algonquin College Kuwait).
Anyways, all these universities are fighting over an incredibly fragmented student market, which can be divided into four segments. The first is Male Nationals, who really aren’t “in play” for most universities. If they are genuinely sharp, they go abroad. If not, they stay at home, attend public universities and rake in student bursary money. The incentive to work hard and get a “good degree” is significantly tempered by the fact that many (most?) of them are destined for extremely cushy public service jobs, which are largely considered a birthright (and indeed the price Gulf Monarchies pay for the privilege of remaining monarchies).
The second group is Female Nationals. They are a little more interesting in that they don’t expect the same kind of pre-determined careers that males do. And while some of them simply go to university and then never join the work force (a more common path the further east you go in the Emirates), others are very ambitious. While they may go to (mainly gender-segregated) public institutions, a fair number also choose to go to more western institutions where they can be exposed – at least for their university years – to a very different kind of atmosphere.
The third group are long-term residents who are not nationals. These are students who have lived in Dubai for all or most of their lives but whose parents are guest workers with temporary status, even if they have been there for decades. Most but not all trace ancestry to the Indian sub-continent. They are not allowed to attend the flagship universities and in practice have a choice between the local privates and the branch campuses.
Now, in most Gulf countries that’s all the students there are. But in Dubai it’s a different story. The local private higher education scene is heavily concentrated in the Dubai Knowledge Park, a kind of educational free-trade zone (another Emirate, Ras al Khaimah, has also set up a free zone for universities but it’s effectively a place for those who institutions who don’t quite make it in Dubai). Dubai’s HE infrastructure is vastly overbuilt for the local market – instead, it is built to also service a fourth group: offshore students, people who come from around the region (mainly other Gulf Countries or countries bordering the Indian Ocean) to attend university in a rocking city like Dubai.
You can see where this gets tricky from a strategy point of view. What happens if the economy takes a bad turn (say, after Expo 2020 if oil prices stay low) and the country stops renewing expats’ visas to avoid unemployment? What happens if there is another regional conflict in the Gulf – say between Saudi and Iran – that keeps foreign students away from the area? It could all vanish quickly.
But in the meanwhile, institutions with solid program offerings, a good track record in transnational education, and are not too insistent on doing independent social science research in the local community, are going to do very well in Dubai. It’s a bit of a wild west, but there are certainly enough interesting things happening to make it worth your while to visit and keep an eye on.