Originally posted July 2010

… “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. [1]­

– Percy Shelley

Whether education can contribute to Knowledge Age economies and inspire the spirit of entrepreneurship in the six countries forming the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is unclear. Certainly, the magnificent edifices rising in educational cities across the region in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offer concrete proof of progress begun. Whether such physical achievements, however, can lead to achievement and meritocracy or, as the poet Shelley suggests, survive only as decaying artifacts, is murky. [2]

Burgeoning student enrollments, rising literacy rates, and female access to educational resources speak to immense progress on a statistical level. But thus far, numerical advances have not translated into either the development of a Knowledge Age economy or the generation of a critical mass vital to an entrepreneurial economy. There are several barriers to these advances. Expansive social safety nets, hide-bound cultural values, and government job perks have blunted the potential impact of education. Mixed with these deadening effects are fundamental flaws in a tertiary education system that depends upon an ill-suited consultant army; a dearth of locally-generated, relevant learning material; and a myopic educational focus. Culture’s deadening influence results from the potent brew of the civic compact, a demographic tsunami, a narrow perspective of college education as a terminal activity, and a vision of a college degree as the ticket to the good life.

All six countries have hereditary monarchies whose continued rule depends on the social compact between rulers and their subjects. These compacts have spawned an Arabian Gulf version of “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez” (Let the Good Times Roll). Those who rule have created expansive social safety nets. Life subsidies (free education and health care, subsidies per child, no-interest loans for home purchase, wedding grants, and artificially low utility rates, among others) are not uncommon. Such largess dulls motivation. Often, instead of adopting the risk-taking inherent in entrepreneurship, Arabian Gulf citizenry feels more comfortable practicing risk aversion; in turn, risk aversion leads to secure and safe government jobs or silent partnerships with the hard-working expat population.

The economies and societies of the GCC countries are pyramidal; a minute few exercise absolute control over most wealth and social and civic power. The economy and the society are also divided between citizens and legions of resident expatriates (expats). Although citizens may be educated in a formal sense, many view education merely as a ticket to high paying, low-risk jobs with government-owned-and-operated businesses. Those students who are citizens rarely need to actually compete in the marketplace. Affluent citizen-students have been granted connections and wealth beyond their years. Their futures are secure and rosy. Citizen-students who are not from wealthy families are often risk-adverse because of the real and perceived consequences of failure. They have much less of a safety net and are unwilling to gamble family savings or risk loss of face.

A powerful demographic tide has exacerbated the distortion within society. In addition to high birth rates, all six GCC countries have significant non-citizen populations; today, citizens comprise only about 63% of the total regional population. In Kuwait and Qatar, citizens comprise only about 60% of the population. In the UAE, the distortion is much worse. Expats constitute more than 85% of the population. All across the GCC the vast majority of expats remain common laborers; but some are highly educated and willing to create and innovate. Unfortunately, limited workplace rights, ownership of companies, and a skewed legal system circumscribe these prospects. Additionally, exclusion has been instrumental in generating both real and perceived boundaries.

As are all things in the GCC countries, society defines the form, shape, and substance of education; to date, the result has been that culture, language, and income sharply divide students. Because most non-nationals have not yet been (nor will they ever be) assimilated, they exist on virtual islands in society’s stream of life. Many expats who are resident non-citizens transport cultural artifacts such as schools with them.

Government K-12 schools are almost exclusively for nationals — so, too, are national universities. Government-run K-12 schools are poorly run and produce graduates unprepared for either university or for a Knowledge Age economy. Graduates mostly lack the critical thinking skills vital to navigate the shoals of qualitative and quantitative information. Those citizens who can afford to do so send their children to expensive private schools. Non-citizens bring their educational systems with them, leave their children back home, or send them home.

An insidious sense of cultural inferiority pervades university and college education, generating vast chasms. GCC higher education typically imports models from England, India, and the United States. A vast army of foreign “parachutists” pay little heed to cultural factors inherent in the Arab and Muslim populations. These consultants, who come for an adventure and large tax-free six-figure salaries, regularly come and go. This ebb and flow remains a major factor in the ever-changing educational focus. Each and every new batch of consultants projects its own sense of educational well-being. Tertiary educational institutions regularly alter the vision, mission, and objectives. Education often appears based more on training than on problem-solving abilities inherent in critical thinking.

Though research parks exist (some of which, on paper, are tied to universities), most are not engines of enterprise. Some, like Knowledge Village in Dubai, actually function as revenue-generating venues geared along a shopping mall business model with brand-name anchor tenants. So dull and limited are the horizons that educational leadership in the GCC expends premium prices to import grand educational brand names. Abu Dhabi in the UAE regularly imports Nobel Prize winners to offer pearls of wisdom at the Festival of Thinkers. Education City, Qatar, fueled by the deep pockets of the ruling family, has spent billions of dollars to attract Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University, Carnegie Mellon, and Northwestern University.[3]

Unemployment is high among national populations across the region for many reasons. One reason is that businesses do not create the type of job in non-governmental sectors that nationals want. (For example, citizens hold less than 1% of the approximately two million private sector jobs in the UAE.) Citizen-students expect to begin at the top and stay there. They have little patience for working their way up the ladder. A second reason is that students are training for jobs that do not exist and probably won’t ever exist because entrepreneurs are largely missing from the economy.

In a recent study, The Economist, in cooperation with Cisco, produced an index looking at innovation inputs and innovation outputs and created a scale ranking countries worldwide. The input formula included direct drivers such as education, quality of local research infrastructure, and policy; the output formula included normed number of patents per million residents. Among the main findings was that innovation is beneficial to national economies on the microeconomic level. The findings promise a bleak future for GCC countries. No GCC country was among the top 25 for the period 2004-2008. Only Kuwait and the UAE were among the top 45 for projected innovation performance for 2009 and 2013, and only the UAE was among the top 50 for the innovation enablers index.[4]

Unless higher education in the GCC discovers the linkage between and among tertiary educational systems, innovation, and entrepreneurship, the future looks particularly monotonic. Whether the connected few who have a vested interest in the status quo can actually lead change is uncertain. If they do not, the result will be similar to that of Ozymandias, who called upon others to look upon his works in despair.

 

[1]. Percy Shelley, Ozymandias, The Literature Network, available at .

 

[2]. United Nations Development Report, “Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development” (2009), .

 

[3]. “Third Festival of Thinkers Convenes in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates,” .

 

[4]. “A New Ranking of Thinkers Convenes in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates,” .