The Shape of Education Policy in the Gulf: Impacts of the Economic Imperative Coming from the Regional and International GCC Level


Notes on the Shape of Education Policy in the Gulf: Impacts of the Economic Imperative Coming from the Regional and International GCC Level

Webb, C. (2017).

An international, regional cauldron of culture, economic survival, sustainability, and growth imperatives are arguably some of the strongest identifying features that have to be taken into account when understanding the context of education in the UAE. The UAE cannot be understood without considering its political interdependency within the GCC. A brief introduction to the GCC highlighting some of the complexities of this context can be understood loosely as follows (Wikipedia, 2017):

 “The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf […] originally (and still colloquially) known as the Gulf Cooperation Council is a regional intergovernmental political and economic union consisting of all Arab states of the Persian Gulf, except for Iraq. Its member states are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.[2][3] The Charter of the Gulf Cooperation Council was signed on 25th May 1981, formally establishing the institution.[4] All current member states are monarchies, including three constitutional monarchies (Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain),[5][6] two absolute monarchies (Saudi Arabia and Oman), and one federal monarchy (the United Arab Emirates, which is composed of seven member states, each of which is an absolute monarchy with its own emir). There have been discussions regarding the future membership of Jordan, Morocco, and Yemen.[7][8] A 2011 proposal to transform the GCC into a “Gulf Union” with tighter economic, political and military coordination has been advanced by Saudi Arabia, a move meant to counterbalance the Iranian influence in the region.[9][10] Objections have been raised against the proposal by other countries.[11][12] In 2014, Bahrain prime minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa said that current events in the region highlighted the importance of the proposal.[13] In order to reduce their dependence on oil in the future, the GCC states are pursuing unprecedented structural reform initiatives.[14]

The above summary should no doubt be updated in light of current political issues and conflicts which add insight to the contextual complexity.

Structural reform also includes the economy and education of course. In the advent of the post-oil economy, GCC member states are pushed to seek a diversity of ways in which they can continue to maintain and/or develop a strong economic foundation and sustainability for future growth. Subsidies derived from the oil economy have been spread among GCC countries, also seeking to strategically develop and achieve objectives in the education sector:

“The subsidy system in the GCC countries has evolved over the years within the broad objectives of distributing the oil wealth to the population and supporting private sector economic activity. Together with other protective policies, subsidies benefiting both consumers and producers have aimed at ensuring low and stable prices for essential foodstuffs and basic services, achieving social objectives in the health and education areas, and promoting basic industries and supporting specific sectors for strategic reasons (e.g., food production for security reasons) (IMF, 2017)”

This source of funding for education obviously has impact on shaping the nature of education within the region. The goal behind education in the GCC can therefore be primarily identified as economic sustainability and development. Wiseman et al (2012) focus on ICT used in education channeled towards innovation. However, the paper is also underpinned by the commonly held belief and acceptance that “formal mass education can be used to advance socio-political and economic agendas” in the GCC region. They also highlight the challenges and limitations imposed by the cultural context for education in the Gulf.

Further evidence that the GCC, as elsewhere in the world, sees education a principal means to further its economic agenda is discussed by Maroun et (2008): “In the past several years, many developing nations, but especially Arab countries, have come to identify a good education system as a cornerstone of economic progress. The urgency for education reform in the Arab world has been manifested in the various initiatives aimed at improving the quality and quantity of education, especially with a rising young population that represents a majority in many countries of the Arab world. Recent years have witnessed many Arab countries making efforts to develop and implement comprehensive education reform programs that can result in a skilled, knowledge-based workforce in line with socioeconomic goals”.

Al-Yousif (2008) notes the relation between education expenditure as a proxy for human capital and economic growth in the six GCC economies and focuses on the need to understand the complex relationship between education and economic growth, where human capital (humans recognized for their value in terms of skills and knowledge) is given precedence.

It’s not surprising therefore to find that national strategic policy on UAE education has channeled the economic and human capital imperative into its own educational policy at the broad level. The impact of this has been the vision set out by the Ministry of Education (MoE) – “MoE aims to prepare a human workforce that effectively contributes in accomplishing sustainable development while being globally competitive” (AE Government, 2017) – filtering down into regional education authorities, school level leadership, and the way schools have been led and inspected, based on related criteria, e.g. Dubai Government explains with respects to education:

“The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which was set up in 2006, is tasked with upgrading Dubai’s educational knowledge and human development segments according to the highest international standards and leading Dubai to a knowledge-based economy” (Smart Government Dubai, 2017).

The language and rhetoric seems heavily biased towards economic values, rather than a set of humanistic values. Although individual school leaders and teachers may hold their own educational and personal values detached from the economic-educational agenda, I would argue that the overriding context of the country and GCC region dictates the implicit values ahead of any explicit values held by individuals in the system. Unless the values at national policy level were seen to change radically in the UAE, there will continue to be cognitive dissonance and values based conflict in school leadership styles at all levels. For example, an economic driven education system might all too easily fall foul of transactional and top down, hierarchical leadership styles, whereas individuals employed as economic units in schools may hold individual, humanistic values and beliefs about preferred organizational structures, styles, working and educational values that are at odds with such transactionally based and economically driven systems.

This can bring levels of discomfort and discord for all concerned, perhaps more so where there is a perceived culture clash between so-called “Western concepts” and the “the idea of education as the preparation for good citizenship, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment”, which, says Weber (2011)  “are being re-examined in light of national education priorities” and is causing him to “speculate on the current and future role of education within the context of the knowledge economies of MENA and the Arabian Gulf”.

At the moment, however, school leadership in the UAE is arguably a juggling act between the regional, international economic imperative of education, performance measured by local regulatory bodies, and the need to manage and lead a culturally and internationally diverse staff team, whose values may be radically at odds with the system, which could, however, be moving towards a shift in values. What leadership styles, approaches, models and theories may be best suited to this context then? Could the challenge of leadership be summarized as ‘Complex cultural and educational system ideological conflict leadership and management’? In this case, culture means values and diversity, plurality of values and ideological beliefs about education, and the educational ideological conflict that causes us to conceptually wrestle between the humanistic and the economic imperatives of education.

Find out more information about UAE and Dubai Education policies, systems, vision and legislation at some of the following links:


AE Government (2017), “Regulatory authorities of K-12 education”, in – The Official Portal of the UAE Government. Accessed online at

Al-Yousif, Y. K. (2008). Education Expenditure and Economic Growth: Some Empirical Evidence from the GCC Countries. The Journal of Developing Areas 42(1), 69-80. Tennessee State University College of Business. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from Project MUSE database. Accessed online at

IMF (International Monetary Fund) (2017), ‘Policy Challenges in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries’- IV. Policy Issues and a Medium-Term Adjustment Strategy, accessed online at

Maroun, N., Samman, H., Moujaes, C. N., and Abouchakra, R. (2008), ‘OVERVIEW OF EDUCATION IN THE GCC REGION,’ In How to Succeed at Education Reform: The Case for Saudi Arabia and the Broader GCC Region, in ‘Ideation Center Insight’, accessed online at

Smart Government Dubai (2017), “Knowledge Based Economy” in Government of Dubai: Education web pages, accessed online at

Wikipedia (2017), ‘Gulf Cooperation Council’ – online article at

Wiseman, A. W., Anderson, E. (2012), ‘ICT-integrated education and national innovation systems in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’, in Computers & Education, Volume 59, Issue 2, September 2012, Pages 607-618, accessed online at


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