What Next For The Middle East? Part 2 – Middle East 3.0
In the second of a series of exclusive articles for IDP, Dr Janet Ilieva and Martyn Edwards, look at the next chapter in the evolution of international HE in relation to the Middle East region as Governments seek to diversify their respective economies away from oil and invest in skills development to combat youth unemployment.
- As the major oil producing countries look to reinvent themselves, we may be witnessing an economic power shift from the Levant to North Africa
- Region as a whole has significant youth unemployment due in part to a skills deficit amongst young people and a lack of focus on nurturing employability
- UAE and Saudi Arabia are both home to a huge number of international schools with more than 3/4 million students enrolled at these schools
- Significant student mobility growth potential in Iran and Egypt
For the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran have the highest participation rates in tertiary education (55% and 58% respectively) and the largest number of internationally mobile students. Other countries with high proportions of internationally mobile students are UAE, Oman and Qatar. These countries also have favourable regulatory frameworks for transnational education. Government funding for overseas studies further enhances this; more than half of the globally mobile students from these countries are funded either by their government or employer.
The fastest improvement in the tertiary education participation has been achieved in Iran - 203% growth between 2004 and 2014 (from 21.6% up to 66%) and Saudi Arabia – 110% growth in the same period (an increase from 29% to 61%). The two countries have also experienced the most significant growth in tertiary education enrolments – 136% and 123% respectively.
The table below presents a snap shot of current engagement in student mobility and domestic supply of HE. The countries are ranked in order of their future potential for student mobility:
Note: latest available data on Iraq's outward mobility ratio is from 2005 and Gross enrolment ratio (GER) from 2005; latest GER data for Oman is from 2011.
Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2016
As was noted in our earlier article there is a strong correlation between outward student flows from the region and the global oil production landscape as this impacts on the fiscal health of individual countries. Recent analysis from the IMF has suggested that unless a number of Middle Eastern countries are able to restructure their economies and diversify away from oil then they risk bankruptcy within the next five years because of the fall in oil prices and resulting budget deficits, drop in GDP and higher inflation.
Source: International Monetary Fund 2016
The Middle East region is also experiencing significant youth unemployment; according to the World Bank 54% of the total working age population is unemployed and an average of 28.7% of 15 to 24-year-olds are out of work according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). This is due in part to a skills deficit amongst young people and a lack of focus on nurturing employability.
Source: ILO, Global Employment Trends for Youth 2015
Whilst in the short term this paints a somewhat negative picture, in the medium to longer term it could represent a very real opportunity for the UK and other study destinations to help provide support and expertise to the region, particularly with regards to STEM provision, in order to overcome some of these issues.
The region’s governments face water security challenges not to mention the pressing need for continuing investment into renewable energies, waste management, smart cities planning and sustainable building design. Although investment in renewable powers and fuels by emerging economies has overtaken the rich for the first time in 2016, the Middle East still lags behind China, Latin America and India.
Source: REN21 - Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century DATE****
Despite being blessed with geological resources, by virtue of the arid climate and subsequent water scarcity, the region is also highly vulnerable to fluctuations in international commodity markets because of its dependence on imported grains and food items, therefore food security poses a very real threat. Moving away from STEM subjects, there may be scope to further develop the service industry locally, particularly with regards to tourism and hospitality. These are all clearly areas where the UK HE sector has a great deal of expertise to offer, with world-class provision in both taught and research programmes.
The number of international schools worldwide has increased 41.5% in the last five years to 8,257 schools, with an estimated 4.3 million students in attendance. Staggeringly, the UAE with 548 has an even greater number of international schools than China (547). The UAE also leads the way in terms of student numbers, with 564,200 enrolees, followed by Saudi Arabia with 265,400. This pipeline of prospective globally mobile undergraduates suggests a broadly positive outlook for the future.
Another dimension to engaging with this millennial target audience of course is the huge growth in Internet penetration and social media uptake in emerging markets. The Middle East is no different and in fact is one of the fastest growing global regions in terms of online activity. The number of Internet users increased 47% between 2015 to 2016, up from 87m to 128m, and social media users grew 54%, up from 41m to 63m.
Source: Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) and Doha Film Institute (DFI) 2016
As the major oil producing countries look to reinvent themselves, we may also be witnessing an economic power shift from the Levant to North Africa. Egypt was recently identified as one of the “10 emerging markets of the future”; a group of countries that are set to drive economic growth over the next 10 years and cumulatively contribute $4.3 trillion by 2025.
About the Authors
Janet Ilieva is the founder and director of Education Insight. An economist with almost 20 years of international experience in education research and policy analysis, she is particularly interested in TNE data. She was the Head of Economic and Qualitative Research at HEFCE while the research reported on here was conducted, and authored both the 'Transnational pathways to HE in England' report and its preceding study 'Directions of travel.'
Martyn Edwards is Head of Marketing and Business Development for IDP, UK & US. Prior to joining IDP, Martyn has worked for the British Council and held senior international recruitment roles at the University of Nottingham and Loughborough University.
 British Council (2013, p.6), “Shape of Things to come in transnational education”; https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/the_shape_of_things_to_come_2.pdf
 ISC Research Global Report; http://thepienews.com/news/international-schools-local-enrolments-fuelling-huge-market-expansion/