Busi­ness ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions are grab­bing the GCC mar­ket with both hands as the pri­vate sec­tor searches for can­di­dates with the right skillset.


As the glob­al­i­sa­tion march con­tin­ues apace, the de­mand for grad­u­ates equipped with the right skill sets to func­tion in an in­creas­ingly in­ter­de­pen­dent world shows no sign of flag­ging.

The Gulf is no dif­fer­ent – a point recog­nised by the in­creas­ing num­ber of in­ter­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions that have es­tab­lished sub­stan­tial pres­ences in the re­gion over the last few years – in ad­di­tion to the on­go­ing growth of in­dige­nous in­sti­tu­tions, such as the UAE Univer­sity. A mea­sure of the MBA de­mand in par­tic­u­lar can be seen in the 2014/15 QS Jobs & Salary Trends Re­port. Though growth in de­mand in the Mid­dle East and Africa re­gion was a rel­a­tively mod­est two per cent in 2014, fol­low­ing sig­nif­i­cant growth in pre­vi­ous years, it’s fore­cast to surge by 12 per cent in 2015; growth cen­tring on the re­cov­er­ing economies of the UAE and Saudi Ara­bia.

In­ter­na­tional uni­ver­si­ties now serv­ing grad­u­ate stu­dents/work­ing ex­ec­u­tives in the Gulf, in­clude the Univer­sity of Manch­ester’s Manch­ester Busi­ness School, France’s INSEAD and HEC Paris, as well as the Lon­don Busi­ness School, Hult In­ter­na­tional Busi­ness School and Cass Busi­ness School, among oth­ers. In­dige­nous in­sti­tu­tions too have forged their own spe­cific part­ner­ships.

The Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence for Ap­plied Re­search & Train­ing (CERT) has agreed, for ex­am­ple, to a col­lab­o­ra­tive re­la­tion­ship with the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s world fa­mous busi­ness school, Whar­ton, with the aim to strengthen en­trepreneur­ship in the re­gion.

There are also lo­cal col­lab­o­ra­tions, in­clud­ing the UAE Min­istry of In­te­rior, the Depart­ment of Fi­nance – Gen­eral Direc­torate of Cus­toms Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi Taw­teen Coun­cil (ADTC) – the lat­ter of­fer­ing em­ploy­ment ser­vices to UAE job seek­ers.

Fur­ther afield the New York head­quar­tered In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion (IIE) – through its Cairo of­fice – pro­vides ed­u­ca­tional ser­vices in the Mid­dle East and North Africa (MENA) re­gion, reach­ing over 7,000 stu­dents, schol­ars and pro­fes­sion­als, it claims.


In terms of skills in de­mand for 2015 MBA grad­u­ates, re­gional em­ploy­ers are, ac­cord­ing to Stella Man­de­hou, INSEAD’s head of Cor­po­rate Part­ner­ships & Ca­reer De­vel­op­ment Mid­dle East, look­ing for a num­ber of at­tributes.

These in­clude “soft” skills such as strong in­ter­per­sonal/com­mu­ni­ca­tion at­tributes, strate­gic think­ing, and lead­er­ship abil­i­ties. These are also con­sid­ered to be more im­por­tant than tech­ni­cal MBA skills for sev­eral re­gional (and global) em­ploy­ers.

“Lan­guage skills and in­ter-cul­tural com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills are of im­por­tance – Ara­bic is a plus for the Mid­dle East but most im­por­tantly busi­ness acu­men of the re­gion and its cul­tural par­tic­u­lar­i­ties is highly val­ued,” she says. The re­cent MENA Labour Mar­ket Con­fi­dence In­dex, show­ing that 45 per cent of or­gan­i­sa­tions be­lieve the over­all growth out­look has im­proved in the last 12 months, is a clear sign, says Man­de­hou,

of a gen­er­ally ex­pan­sive out­look, es­pe­cially af­ter the re­cov­ery of the re­gion from the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, as well as the Arab Spring.

“Na­tion­al­i­sa­tion is still a top of mind pri­or­ity for re­cruiters in this re­gion and that trans­lates into pre­fer­ring lo­cal tal­ent over in­ter­na­tional can­di­dates, which, given the costs as­so­ci­ated with high em­ployee turnover, makes sense for em­ploy­ers to give pri­or­ity to the lo­cal work­force.

“How­ever, in­ter­na­tional ex­po­sure is still of high value for re­gional em­ploy­ers par­tic­u­larly at an MBA level,” she adds.

Lon­don Busi­ness School’s Dina Dom­mett, mean­while, be­lieves em­ploy­ers in the Gulf look for two broad at­tributes when it comes to would be em­ploy­ees.

Firstly, em­ploy­ers are in­creas­ingly seek­ing can­di­dates with a dis­tinctly global out­look about the way the world does busi­ness, and sec­ondly, those with a pro­found un­der­stand­ing of the lo­cal busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment, in­clud­ing es­sen­tial cul­tural ‘soft’ skills.

“At Lon­don Busi­ness School, we en­cour­age this dual as­pect to flour­ish in our stu­dents, pro­vid­ing them with the es­sen­tial skills and ex­per­tise re­quired for a ca­reer in busi­ness, across fi­nance, lead­er­ship, eco­nomics and other spe­cial­ist dis­ci­plines,” she claims.

In­so­far as the wider nar­ra­tive is con­cerned, how­ever, the un­der­ly­ing mes­sage con­tin­ues to be one of need for im­prove­ment. In its pa­per: ‘Per­spec­tives on GCC Youth Em­ploy­ment’ – pre­pared for the Jed­dah Eco­nomic Fo­rum in 2014, Ernst & Young’s sur­vey of em­ploy­ers found that the main fac­tor cited when it came to hir­ing was cost, closely fol­lowed by ed­u­ca­tion, ex­pe­ri­ence, skills, and English pro­fi­ciency.

“With na­tion­als ex­pect­ing higher salaries and known chal­lenges in the ed­u­ca­tion and skills sys­tem, it is clear why em­ploy­ers tar­get ex­pat work­ers,” the pa­per noted.

It added that em­ploy­ers do not be­lieve the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem pre­pares young peo­ple with the req­ui­site skills, train­ing, and at­ti­tudes for the work­place, or those ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions un­der­stand what is re­quired by busi­ness.

In­deed, only 29 per cent of em­ploy­ers felt that ed­u­ca­tion pre­pared stu­dents with the nec­es­sary tech­ni­cal skills and only 19 per cent agreed that it pre­pared young peo­ple with the right at­ti­tude for work, the pa­per fur­ther noted.

These fail­ings have been partly blamed on limited ac­cess to work ex­pe­ri­ence pro­grammes.

Al­though they are seen as a pos­i­tive means of build­ing rel­e­vant skills in young peo­ple, there is ac­tu­ally a very low avail­abil­ity of work ex­pe­ri­ence pro­grammes across all six GCC coun­tries – KSA hav­ing the low­est (seven per cent) par­tic­i­pa­tion in work ex­pe­ri­ence pro­grammes vs. a GCC av­er­age of 30

“Govern­ments need to re­think how ed­u­ca­tion is pro­vided to de­liver the ul­ti­mate ob­jec­tive of work-ready young adults. Cur­ric­ula need to be de­signed with in­put from em­ployer bod­ies.”

per cent, and 42 per cent in the UAE, ac­cord­ing to the data.

Among the pa­per’s con­clu­sions are that na­tional skills and ed­u­ca­tion mod­els are in need of re­form. “Govern­ments need to re­think how ed­u­ca­tion is pro­vided to de­liver the ul­ti­mate ob­jec­tive of work-ready young adults. Cur­ric­ula need to be de­signed with in­put from em­ployer bod­ies.”

To re-em­pha­sise the point, Gulf coun­tries’ spend­ing on ed­u­ca­tion has been in­creas­ing rapidly in re­cent years, and per stu­dent ex­pen­di­ture is among the high­est in the world.

Yet the re­sults of this spend­ing are of­ten poor, ac­cord­ing to another EY pa­per: ‘Growth driv­ers: Un­der­stand­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges for busi­nesses in the GCC’. School cur­ric­ula are of­ten not well geared to the job mar­ket, while the teach­ing style doesn’t de­velop the skills and at­ti­tudes needed to suc­ceed in the pri­vate sec­tor.

Al­though, ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion has im­proved with projects such as Saudi Ara­bia’s King Ab­dul­lah Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy or the UAE’s Mas­dar In­sti­tute of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy.


At the sharper end of the jobs equa­tion, a num­ber of com­pa­nies have es­tab­lished grad­u­ate train­ing pro­grammes lo­cally, in­clud­ing multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions such as Unilever.

Its man­age­ment trainee pro­gramme, known as the Unilever Fu­ture lead­ers Pro­gram (UFLP), is struc­tured to at­tract fresh grad­u­ates or ju­nior-ca­reer en­tries.

Once se­lected, man­age­ment trainees go through a hands-on learn­ing process, un­der­tak­ing dif­fer­ent stints in the func­tion they’re be­ing hired for. This process takes three years, af­ter which – as­sum­ing their lead­er­ship and func­tional skills have suf­fi­ciently de­vel­oped – they will take on their first man­age­ment role.

Unilever MENA cur­rently has over 45 man­age­ment trainees, with an equal mix of men and women.

In ad­di­tion to the UFLP, Unilever of­fers univer­sity stu­dents an in­tern­ship pro­gramme where stu­dents from dif­fer­ent uni­ver­si­ties across the re­gion are hired for a pe­riod of two to three months.

“This pro­vides stu­dents with ex­po­sure to the FMCG (Fast-mov­ing con­sumer goods) sec­tor and the func­tion of their choice,” says Ajith Thomas, Lead­er­ship & Or­ga­ni­za­tion De­vel­op­ment man­ager, Unilever MENA.

“The in­tern­ship pro­gramme also gives stu­dents the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence the prac­ti­cal side of busi­ness and is de­signed in a way that helps them make the right ca­reer de­ci­sion re­gard­ing their fu­ture choice of in­dus­try sec­tor or func­tion. Unilever MENA hired over 150 stu­dents into its in­tern­ship pro­gramme in 2014,” Thomas notes.

Over the past few years the com­pany has wit­nessed an in­crease in the level of tal­ent grad­u­at­ing from uni­ver­si­ties in the

re­gion, Thomas says.

“As uni­ver­si­ties fo­cus more on build­ing strong relationships with em­ploy­ers and putting an em­pha­sis on in­tern­ships, stu­dents are gain­ing the needed soft and func­tional skills to be ready to work in an MNC like ours. “

More mod­est, though no less im­por­tant, in­ter­na­tional law firm Pin­sent Ma­sons, also runs a grad­u­ate train­ing pro­gramme.

In­sti­tuted in Septem­ber 2014, the pro­gramme – de­lib­er­ately tai­lored to­wards de­vel­op­ing young le­gal tal­ent with strong in­ter­na­tional back­grounds and close af­fil­i­a­tions to the Gulf re­gion – is ex­pected to ex­pand in con­junc­tion with the com­pany’s own Mid­dle East am­bi­tions, ac­cord­ing to Sachin Kerur, head of Pin­sent Ma­sons in the Gulf.

The pro­gramme pro­vides new re­cruits with a two-year trainee­ship that ro­tates ju­nior lawyers be­tween of­fices in Dubai, Doha and the firm’s in­ter­na­tional head­quar­ters in Lon­don, where they will spend at least a year work­ing along­side Bri­tish col­leagues.

“The Mid­dle East is a vi­tal as­pect of our in­ter­na­tional busi­ness and to cap­i­talise on the sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­ni­ties that lie ahead – and cre­ate a truly sus­tain­able busi­ness – we want to in­vest in and de­velop lo­cal tal­ent, in­clud­ing Emi­rati and Qatari na­tion­als.

“We want to re­cruit ju­nior lawyers who share our ex­cite­ment about the re­gion's fu­ture and want to make a com­mit­ment to be­ing a part of it,” says Kerur.

“Our am­bi­tion is to re­fine and ex­pand this pro­gramme over time, ul­ti­mately open­ing it up to the best le­gal tal­ent study­ing at lo­cal uni­ver­si­ties. We be­lieve that while this is a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment of time and re­sources, it will give our firm a clear strate­gic ad­van­tage as we look to cap­ture ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties across the whole of the Mid­dle East,” he adds.

Both Kerur and Thomas re­alise that chang­ing the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem will take decades, al­though at­tempts are un­der way, in­clud­ing im­por­tant ini­tia­tives to in­tro­duce vo­ca­tional train­ing, es­pe­cially

in pri­or­ity growth sec­tors such as trans­port and tourism.

Dozens of new col­leges of ex­cel­lence are be­ing set up around Saudi Ara­bia, for ex­am­ple, un­der pub­lic pri­vate part­ner­ship agree­ments. It is hoped they will pro­vide skill sets for grad­u­ates that are more in tune with the needs of the pri­vate sec­tor.

Sim­i­larly, links be­tween em­ploy­ers and job seek­ers are be­ing strength­ened just as many GCC states are im­prov­ing their labour force data gath­er­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. New poli­cies are also be­ing de­vel­oped in ar­eas such as in­tern­ships and ca­reer guid­ance.

Yet this is in­evitably a rel­a­tively slow process – a neg­a­tive fac­tor given eco­nomic dy­nam­ics are chang­ing at a fast pace and sig­nif­i­cant jobs train­ing and growth is needed to sat­isfy young (and grow­ing) lo­cal pop­u­la­tions.

A global out­look with an un­der­stand­ing of the lo­cal busi­ness environment are key skills in de­mand by em­ploy­ers.

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