Education has recently become a top priority in the United Arab Emirates with Abu Dhabi, the largest and richest emirate, playing the pivotal role in its development. Emirate Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan chairs Abu Dhabi’s education council in Abu Dhabi and his brother is the Vice President. This indicates a new trend in the UAE, in which education councils are replacing ministries of education and higher education in planning. 

A UAE government strategy launched in April 2007 set five objectives: 1) launching joint projects between ministries of education and education councils to improve the academic competence of high school graduates and their readiness for university, 2) reviewing curricula to ensure they meet quality standards, 3) establishing cooperative relationships with future employers so that graduates’ skills meet market needs, 4) monitoring the quality of programs at private universities and community colleges, and 5) partnering with prestigious foreign universities.  
A policy document issued by Abu Dhabi’s local government for 2007-8 stated that the key objective was to provide students with education opportunities that exceeded in quality those offered abroad. Abu Dhabi placed even greater emphasis than the UAE on the importance of partnering with foreign universities. This has led to the opening of a branch campus in Abu Dhabi of the Sorbonne teaching humanities, arts, and literature. The “2030 Economic Vision for Abu Dhabi” indicates that there will also be partnerships with INSEAD for business education, the Fletcher School of Tufts University for law and diplomacy studies, Munich Technical University and the University of Bonn for medicine and science, and New York University for social sciences. Talks with Yale University about opening a branch for fine arts, music, and drama were suspended over administrative differences.
Linking education with market needs has been a common goal for federal and local governments in UAE. The motivation for higher educational reforms is the need to produce a highly qualified cadre to assume executive management and administrative positions and to provide leadership to a foreign workforce that is now recognized as an important factor in economic growth. Even though unemployment is not alarmingly high, there has been a concern that university graduates’ fields of study and skills do not meet market needs. This has led to the establishment of smaller institutions that offer training programs in high demand specialties such as administration, marketing, publication relations, and internet technology. One extreme example of this phenomenon was the Dubai Real Estate Institute, which was established two years ago as a quick response to the fast-growing real estate market, now greatly affected by the global financial crisis.
While the idea of linking higher education to market needs is sound, UAE reform plans raise several questions. First, how will the higher education sector be developed while pre-university education is still in a transitional stage and in need of attention? Basic education reforms have yet to produce tangible progress and some initiatives, such as the “Future Schools” project, have drawn strong criticism. What about existing universities, which receive scant mention in Abu Dhabi’s strategies? Is not reforming these institutions a worthy objective? Important educational institutions, such as many technology institutes and United Arab Emirates University, need assistance but appear to be far away from the minds of ambitious policymakers. Foreign universities have their appeal, but are unlikely to constitute the principal or only solution to the education problem in the UAE. The “2030 Economic Vision for Abu Dhabi” actually goes as far as to voice a hope that foreign university campuses in the emirate will not only supply local education needs but attract students from across the Middle East. For now, that is a vision whose success is far from guaranteed.
Amal Sakr is a political science researcher residing in Dubai. Barkuzar Dubbati translated this article from Arabic.