Online MBAs in the Middle East Multiply During Economic Diversification

Global business schools are tapping into a young expatriate population hungry for globally-recognized qualifications to take advantage of the expanding array of job opportunities in the region

Global business schools have in recent years rushed to establish a potentially lucrative presence in the Middle East, tapping into a young expatriate population hungry for globally-recognized MBA and Executive MBA programs to take advantage of the expanding array of job opportunities amid economic diversification.

Prominent institutions have joined the gold rush, including the UK’s Aston Business School, London Business School, Strathclyde and Edinburgh Business School. Many of their MBA programs are delivered online, allowing students to continue working while studying.

They are typically taken by older students who have substantial work experience and are reluctant to study full-time because of personal and professional commitments. 

The headlong pursuit to establish a virtual foothold in the Middle East is driven by a young, aspiring and increasingly well-educated population looking for world-class qualifications to help accelerate their careers, according to Randa Bessiso, the founding director of the Middle East Centre at the University of Manchester.

The Middle East is among the youngest regions of the world, with 60 percent of the population under the age of 25. It’s estimated that 20m young people will join the Middle Eastern workforce by 2025.

Manchester, a UK institution, opened its Middle East Center in 2006 and was an early pioneer of the part-time blended MBA in the region. Its two-year Global MBA is taught in Dubai. Students, mostly executives from across the UAE and Gulf countries, take core courses on campus but study electives online.

“The oil-producing states of the Arabian Gulf are transforming and diversifying their economies, creating long-term business, career and entrepreneurial opportunities,” says Bessiso. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter and the Middle East more widely is a cornerstone of global energy.  

There are a range of MBA programs on offer from international business schools that have set up shop in the area. For instance, London Business School has an EMBA in Dubai, which mixes online and in-class learning. Aston Business School runs an Online MBA in the Middle East for those in the UAE, Jordan and Qatar. Strathclyde puts on an MBA in Dubai, while Edinburgh Business School also runs an Online MBA in Dubai.

The effects of the pandemic

Historically, the Middle East’s petrostates have turned to diversification during periods of low oil prices and increased the private sector’s role in the economy to create jobs and invest in education. The fall in oil prices through the pandemic created major financial problems. Although the price has recently rallied, coronavirus underscored the need for economic diversification.

The creation of non-oil jobs is attracting expatriate talent from around the world, says Bessiso. In Kuwait, expatriate workers make up 70 percent of the population, though in the wider region there has been a recent exodus sparked by the oil slowdown and taxes on foreigners, exacerbated by the pandemic and isolated cases of antipathy towards overseas workers.

“There is a growing regional pool of highly qualified and experienced executives who need to keep their skills and knowledge refreshed to stay relevant in a changing economy,” says Bessiso. “They are relatively affluent and speak English — the business language of much of the region.”

Dr Joanna Pritchard, director of digital learning at the University of Bradford School of Management, points out that the Middle East is at the intersection of many trading and migration routes.

“There are many large corporations and SMEs offering employment to citizens and expatriates who relocate for new opportunities,” she says. “This creates a wonderfully diverse population with a broad skill set, seeking social and educational mobility.”

Due to the type of employment offered, many have engineering backgrounds, and are now seeking a business education from a reputable institution, says Pritchard. Her UK institution offers triple-crown accredited online education from its outpost in Dubai, including the blended Executive MBA.

There are currently some 500 students, representing more than 40 countries and many diverse industries and functions from pharmaceutical sales and marketing, to hospitality management. Many are expatriates, or seek the flexibility to relocate at some point, so a globally recognized MBA is important for their CV, says Pritchard.  

“We offer a dedicated careers team who have helped place our graduates in leadership roles around the world,” she says.

Career opportunities after an Online MBA in the Middle East

The local higher education sector is developing quickly, but the business community has a very global outlook and many people have the means and ambition to study for a globally recognized MBA and develop a global alumni network, says Manchester’s Bessiso.

“The majority of our students at expatriates,” she says. “They are working mainly in the private sector and funding their own studies with the aim of accelerating or switching careers, or becoming entrepreneurs.”

Bradford recruits students working in a wide variety of sectors – many from the latest MBA cohort of 90 students work within the technology, banking, aviation and construction industries.

“As the regional economies continue to diversify, we can see further opportunities opening in consulting, retail banking and finance, supply chain and logistics, healthcare, real estate investment and project management, and a strong emphasis on ICT and digital businesses,” says Bessiso.

The regional commitment to sustainable development and energy will also create career opportunities, she predicts. “Recent announcements in the UAE have highlighted the aim to double the size of the creative industry in Dubai.”

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