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Failing at Reform: The Story of Educational Reforms in the GCC

Economists and consultants have long advised leaders in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to transform their oil-dependent economic systems and diversify their GDPs to achieve sustainable economic growth. Their recommendations centered on transitioning from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a knowledge-based economy that fueled by an educated population. But the GCC met with several challenges that hamstrung their efforts. Fluctuating oil prices in recent years and overstaffed public sectors hampered governments’ ability to enact reform. The GCC have also failed to persuade young recent graduate nationals to seek employment in the private sector—either because employers deem nationals inadequately prepared for private sector employment, or because the generous benefits afforded by public sector employment outweigh those offered by private firms. These factors have continued to pose challenges to sustainable growth and reform in the region.

The Gulf’s Patronage of Western Consultants

GCC countries sought the guidance of international consultancy firms, who were contracted to come up with roadmaps and achievable milestones launched as futuristic “Visions.” The recycled Visions that each GCC state has since adopted have placed the development of human capital and educational reform at the core of their strategies. Several studies argue that knowledge-based economies, which seek to create capabilities for the production of knowledge through the harnessing of innovation, creativity, and various skills, depend on a solid foundation of educated citizens. Leaders in the GCC recognized—for the first time—that education might be the key to developing a sustainable economic model.

However, when GCC leaders embarked on overhauling their economic structures, they underestimated the capacity of their respective education systems. As such, they tasked the same consultancy firms to diagnose and evaluate their education systems. Since the early 2000s, brand-name consultancy firms, who found the Gulf region a lucrative niche market to sell their reform blueprints, have flocked to the GCC with “solutions” to what are often non-problems. These reforms were mostly written to a neoliberal template—leaning toward a marketized education system, more standardized tests, more assessments, and more competitions between schools. The education system, from the consultants’ point of view, existed purely to serve the economy and supply the labor market. Thus, more emphasis was placed on science and math, neglecting the humanities and Islamic studies—despite the centrality of Islamic studies to Gulf cultures. It is impossible to lay the blame squarely on consultants for failing to understand the importance of spirituality in Gulf culture, but one cannot help but wonder about the intentions of decision-makers, who have given these consultants a carte blanche to execute changes that they see fit.

Indeed, Western consulting firms were granted unrestricted access to all educational institutions, including higher education, and the GCC states provided them access to statistics and policy reports, reinforced with the political support to implement their evaluations – the kind of access and support that many native educators and scholars are often denied. It was indeed a peculiar period to behold, when, for the first time, we witnessed the involvement of Gulf rulers in the reform processes of their own education systems. The RAND Corporation established a headquarters in the Emiri Court of Qatar, while in Bahrain, McKinsey & Co. worked closely with the Bahraini Crown Prince, HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad.

Although reform projects varied from one country to another, the aim of education reforms in the GCC was one: to raise the scientific competency and the skills of the citizens with the intent of making them more efficient and competitive globally. However, the question begs, have the GCC states achieved what they have long been aiming for?

The Aftermath of Reform

Now, two decades after comprehensive education reforms were rolled out, little change has occurred. None of the benefits match the amount of effort and resources that were expended to achieve them. Several educators and scholars in the Gulf have considered these reforms a failure.

Consultants who pitched reforms to the education systems of the GCC had promised that by implementing their proposed reforms, these countries could soon race up the international benchmark (500) in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Many years on, none of the GCC states have reaped the promised rewards. On the economic front, a recent article published in the Economist reported that the majority of GCC nationals continue to be employed in the public sector. Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE topped the list of countries wherein nationals are predominantly employed in the public sectors, at rates of around 80 percent. Nevertheless, education reforms continue to dominate the agenda, in what appears to be an unending loop of continuous change to the education sector.

While it is difficult to detail all the possible reasons for the GCC states’ lagging reforms, two major phenomena highlight the dilemmas in conducting education reform. First, the Arab Gulf governments lack sufficient knowledge of the role of education that they desire. The important question that ought to be considered (before reforming the education system) is this: what do we in the Gulf want out of the education system? It may seem like a simple question, but this question has yet to be addressed. Do GCC seek education systems that will graduate workers for the job market only? Or do they desire education systems that will produce model citizens? Or both? Is it possible to have both? If yes, what is the way to achieving this goal? What are the values that our education systems are based on? And how do we define and measure intelligence? The truth is these states undertook reforms before they had time to answer these critical questions.

Secondly, the GCC relied too heavily on foreign consultants to design and implement education reforms almost entirely based on so-called “best practices.” These consultants, as mentioned above, were given the liberty to redesign the education systems based on their own understanding of education, rather than on what Gulf states and citizens require. These consultants attempted to fix problems that they thought needed solutions, not ones that had to be solved. Therefore, the firms drew from reform projects that succeeded elsewhere in the world and applied them in the Gulf region, regardless of their applicability to local circumstances. The problem with this approach is that it presumes that best practices can be standardized and exported to different countries with diverse socio-economic and political systems.

The Finnish education system, for instance, is successful because it fits with the needs of the Finnish people. The same could be said about the Singaporean model because it was designed to address the needs of Singapore. The perception that educational practices that work in Finland or Singapore can work in the Gulf is hardly plausible and should have been met with skepticism.

Nothing New

The reliance on foreign consultants to develop the Gulf region is not a new trend. The Gulf has had to contend with the free reign with which ruling elites have endowed these consultants since the 1960s and 1970s, when the region had first started to modernize. At the time, the reliance on foreign consultants was understandable because most citizens did not possess the necessary education nor the skills to actively engage in their countries’ development. However, after more than 60 years, these states are expected to have sufficiently invested in the education of their nationals so that they possess a generation of well-prepared and capable citizens numerous enough to lead the reform process themselves instead of foreign consultants. Especially with the international scholarship programs that many GCC governments continue to provide to their citizens, a cadre of native educational experts surely exists. Instead of borrowing reforms and best practices from other countries, it would perhaps be more useful to learn how to identify gaps and how to address them so that the Arab Gulf states are able to design and undertake original reforms that are best suited for the region and its economic needs.

Finally, in order to reap the fruits of effective educational reforms in the Gulf, states and citizens must imagine a new approach with which to understand the current dilemma. We must assess our current standing and identify where we intend to be and how we can build solid education systems that respond to our unique environment, geography, and socio-economic needs. This new approach should be led by a collaborative social movement that will endeavor to respond to the question that we have collectively failed to answer in the past three decades: “what do we need from the education system?” The problem with the education system in the region cannot be found in educational practices, but rather with the economic and socio-political transformations that are rarely discussed and have long afflicted the process of education reform.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Ibrahim Alhouti is a researcher in the comparative politics of education, he is currently doing his Ph.D. study at UCL Institute of Education in London focusing on the politics of education reforms in the Arab Gulf States. He holds two master’s degrees from UCL Institute of Education, MA Leadership and MA Comparative Educations. He published several articles about the education system in Kuwait and MENA region and worked on several academic projects.

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