Education, demography and state power in MENA

arab education pic UAE

One thing we can definitely be guilty of when analysing the Middle East is catastrophising the region or assuming, for example, that wars and well-publicised stories of rights violations mean that the region as a whole is just going from bad to worse. The Economist wrote a few years ago:

“One reason that too many Arabs are poor is rotten education”.

While I think the magazine has a point, it’s clear from my research that in terms of both education, and in some respects demography, the region as a whole has made some important progress, and this tells us a lot about the evolution of state power. Not that this is all necessarily a good thing.

Some characteristics can be identified which apply for the most part:

Rapid growth in access to education and literacy rates over the past five decades

In Oman, for example, primary school enrolment was just 907 pupils (all boys) in 1970, whereas that figure had risen to 600,000 by 2002 and has risen to 2011 to account for almost 97% of children of school age.

Girls education has grown in line with that of boys, although in general it is about 85-95% the rate of boys enrolment.

Interestingly, in Bahrain and Jordan, however, girls outnumber boys in both primary and secondary school, which is interesting (Why? – young men, and even boys, are often taken out of school early to work.)

This trend can also be seen in tertiary education in the UAE (2/3 of 30,000 university students are women), Saudi Arabia (>50% of university students are women) and Oman (65% of Sultan Qabus students are women). It should be said, however, that these countries are outliers. Men still have higher chances overall of obtaining a university education than women in the Middle East.


The figures for literacy also reveal vast improvements. The literacy rate among the youth (15-24) is indeed higher than that of adults, with the regional average of youth literacy at 89.9% for males and 80.1% for females, against the regional average of adults (15 and over) which is 76.9% (UNESCO).

In Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait adult and even female illiteracy has been reduced to below 20%. That said, in some of the least developed countries in the Arab world (Egypt and Yemen, for example) more than a third of the youth is still illiterate.

Government control and funding

The state in the Middle East has been the driver of these developments, with education being very much a public matter. Teachers overwhelmingly tend to be government employees, and primary and secondary education are publicly financed, generally for free or at a minimal cost.

To paraphrase a quote from a World Bank study: Free education is a central tenet of the social contract in the MENA region

As a whole, states devote about 5.4% of their GNP to education (which is roughly equal to that of North America, and higher than the rest of the world). Indeed, most MENA states devote between 13 and 25% of their national budgets to education. Lebanon is the notable exception here, where private education is strong.

Developments in tertiary education tell us about the changing role of the state in the Middle East.

The most notable transformation here is the huge increase in demand for university places, which has resulted in:

– the creation of new universities;

– an increase in numbers of Masters’ students; and, most interestingly

– the growth in numbers of private universities.


Privatisation and foreign university partnerships

This is interesting because in the past universities were often opened by private entities only later to be nationalised (crf Cairo University, which was opened by a committee of private citizens in 1908 but was nationalised by King Fuad I in 1925). However, nowadays, we are seeing countries like Egypt (from 1995), Oman and Jordan (from 1990), and to an extent Saudi Arabia and Syria, allowing for the establishment of more private universities.

This trend is in part inevitable, because many states do not have the resources to keep up with the demand for university places – which is, of course, a result of states’ investment in primary and secondary education.

This is an interesting development, because in the countries where it has taken hold, we are of course seeing a kind of relinquishing of state control over the younger generation. By 2011, private universities made up about 45% of all Arab universities (Saudi Arabia and UAE – market size of $1.2 billion), up from 27% in the 1990s.

Privatisation and globalisation

There has been talk of an academic revolution in the GCC, and the state is undoubtedly the driver of this. Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have opened up lots of new universities and established partnerships in the past two decades in particular. We can obviously see this as a positive thing, offering improvements in academic offerings, but we also have to ask how such states – the GCC countries in particular, none of which are classified as particularly democratic or liberal – can cope with the ramifications of high-quality research they purport to aspire to. Such heavy investment in education will draw in outsiders, and in places like the Emirates where expatriate populations are huge, the appeal of such universities will depend on how well they can strike the balance between academic integrity and state intrusiveness. It has been pointed out, for example, that in most of these new GCC universities, independent faculty senates are absent.

Beyond this, we might also want to ask how these new education structures are affecting students and what the consequences are for the state.

On the issue of foreign universities being established in the Middle East, an international consultant in higher education, Hilmi Salem, has remarked: “This is just a transplant process for setting up revenue … leading to the production of a foreign brain-washed generation as well as a new form of mental colonisation.”

I’m not going to comment on this, apart from to say that there are a lot of questions raised when foreign countries establish universities in these states around:

– who evaluates these foreign branches?;

– who controls admission fees?; and

– how the university cultural identity interacts with that of the local identity?

to name just a few.

So the idea here is that these foreign universities might be out-of-place in the Middle East, but beyond this there is some evidence that they are ill conceived and ineffective.

In a paper, “The Impact of Globalisation on Higher Education and Research in the Arab States” (Zahlan, A. B., 2007.), presented at a 2007 seminar held in Morocco… it was argued that these private universities were not even modelled on Western countries, but instead were established hastily to solve a social problem rather than to actually improve higher education. The author actually made the comparison to fast-food stands in crowded Western cities, whose role is to quell hunger not provide nutrition.

Whichever view you take, there are clearly some problems that flow from this growth in private universities, and Lebanon might be an example – albeit an extreme one – of the results of this trend. There, the government has registered twenty-eight private universities and just one public university (2011). These private universities are licensed through the government, but operate independently. The Director General of the Education Ministry, Ahmad Jamal, pointed out in 2011 that some of these universities lack proper academic facilities, for example some of them don’t even have libraries.

Like I said, Lebanon is an extreme example, but I think it shows that while we might criticise the role the state plays in education, the private sector is definitely not beyond reproach.

I don’t want to mislead here, however, because this growth in private and foreign universities is not a pattern throughout the whole MENA region, but rather is most marked in Jordan, Egypt to an extent countries in the GCC. (Overall, the public sector remains dominant in the provision of higher education, with the private sector usually offering small and limited disciplines. )


Demographic changes certainly play an important role in all of this, and present the state in MENA with some formidable challenges.

Half of the population of the Arab world is below the age of 18, and in a few years about 65% of the region will be below 24 (‘youth bulge’).

– Generally the transition has been one from high mortality and fertility to low mortality and fertility. The state has been at the forefront of most of these demographic changes: – better healthcare leading to a decline in infant mortality, – better access to family planning; – better education of girls as discussed earlier

– However, the demographic transition continues to unfold. There are obviously significant socio-economic impacts flowing from what can be called this ‘youth bulge’.

It should be emphasised first of all thought that MENA countries vary greatly when it comes to demographic features. Indeed, oil and gas rich countries find it easier to absorb this ‘youth bulge’, and indeed welcome large numbers of migrant workers. Those with limited natural resources and large populations, like Egypt, however, are having to view the youth as a challenge rather than an opportunity.

The other most notable countries here are Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – where current indicators are that fertility rates (stats?) remain stubbornly high.

Yemen – TFR (total fertility rate) 6.2 in 2005…. whereas Morocco is about 2.4. Indeed, the high youth population in Yemen and Iraq especially is only going to aggravate the already volatile situations we are seeing today – and this all reflects an abdication – or inadequacy – of state power.

There are also some interesting demographic transitions that result directly or indirectly from the role of the state. In Bahrain, for example, the birth rate among the majority Shi’a population remains higher than that among the ruling minority Sunni, which could continue to exert pressure on the Sunni domination. Likewise, in Lebanon and Egypt the Christian population is dwindling while the birth rate is much higher among the Muslim population.

Against a background of large population growth that the state is ill-equipped to handle, and a repressive political environment where opposition parties are banned, for example, Islamist organisations can easily attract followers through ingrained community affiliations and social programmes. Indeed, there is evidence from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and others that Islamist organisations are providing social services that the state is not able to… this can extend to free clinics, even subsidised or free housing for poorer students. These organisations even organise mass weddings at a small cost for poorer citizens.

The message here is that many MENA states have not been able to keep up with the demographic changes, particularly rapid population growth, and as such other organisations step in to fill the vacuum.

This is obviously understandable in countries like Egypt, where political alternatives are limited, but it should force the state to reflect more carefully on the consequences of illiberal regimes.

Before finishing, I want to just bring this back to the issue of education and how some MENA countries balance the demographic transition with educational needs.

Despite all the progress I mentioned earlier in terms of new universities being opened in the region and the GCC in particular, Saudi Arabia offers university places to no more than one-fifth of university-age applicants, meaning large swathes of the population are shut off from this opportunity for socio-economic betterment.

It is again in this context that religious schools step in, often offering a theological curriculum at little or no cost. I don’t mean to sound provocative but this kind of education is a bad thing, in my view, because no matter what intrinsic value we might want to attribute to religious studies, overall it’s not that valuable to the labour market and will probably just lead to higher unemployment among the educated.

Demographic structures à particularly this youth bulge raise two key challenges for the state to grapple with: 1) access to education; and 2) access to employment.

I mentioned at the beginning that there have been huge improvements as far as access to education goes, with much work still to be done. There are also big degrees of variation, so it’s difficult to generalise the MENA region. Indeed, 70% of the 10 million children not in school in MENA come from Egypt, Morocco and Yemen.

Around 100 million jobs would have to be created between 2000 and 2020 to absorb all additional entrants to the labour market.35 This means the region would have to maintain average annual growth rates of 6 to 8%, far higher than the average 3.6 %

The ability of the state to keep up with employment demands is questionable.

Transformation of MENA education in past five decades, led by state, but today private universities are growing in popularity in several Arab countries.

Such rapid growth would require national governments to institute reforms aimed at opening the region to foreign trade, reducing the dependency on oil, improving governance and reducing the dominant role of the public sector in creating jobs.

If the countries of the region do not succeed in making their economies more open to business development and diversification, well-educated youth will seek employment abroad and the countries of the region will not benefit as much as they could from an increased investment in education. The worrying alternative might just be radicalisation. Although not an original argument, the point is valid nonetheless: MENA is in demonstrable need of political and economic liberalisation!


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