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The Misadventures of Gulf Education Reforms

Public education in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since the 1980s has promised immense economic rewards that could be realized through modern education. GCC governments promoted education as a pathway to prosperity, self-sufficiency, and individual fulfillment. Imported modern education, and in particular higher education, was meant to cultivate productive citizens, who could run the oil-funded developments that were designed to facilitate the emergence of diversified modern economies. Thus, a revolving door of American consultants and firms were enlisted to spearhead these reforms, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States, which spotlighted education as the catalyst behind the purported radicalization and intolerance festering in the Arab world.

These American consultants, however, have failed to communicate to their Gulf clients the emancipatory potential of an education centered around the nurturing of globally-minded, entrepreneurial, and risk-taking individuals, who are capable of thinking critically about the immediate impediments to the fulfillment of their various aspirations.

Faced with looming economic and demographic challenges, Arab Gulf governments have experimented with educational programs for decades. These programs have sought to transform citizens dependent on state welfare into economically productive members of society, who would voluntarily disavow state welfarism for self-sustaining entrepreneurialism. At a critical juncture today, GCC states continue to hope for a smooth transition out of the rentier state model before oil prices drop significantly and state budgets decline. Yet, educational reforms have remained largely experimental, and governments have hesitated to carry them through to full fruition because of the unintended effects they have yielded for the ruling elites.

Unintended Consequences

The dilemma lies in the fact that the Gulf states aspire to fuel knowledge-based economies that in turn pose a direct challenge to the states’ authorities and legitimacies that largely derive from their ability to provide for their citizens. Cambridge University economist, Dr. Frédéric Schneider, writes that by encouraging a more economically dynamic populace, the source of societal wealth changes from state-owned oil revenue to the productivity of the state’s citizens, which is then taxed to finance state activity. Instead of citizens being the recipients of state welfare, they then become the financiers of the state. This introduces a change in power dynamics that the ruling elites of the Gulf might not necessarily want.

The Arab uprisings saw modest spillover mobilizations in the Gulf states, frontlined by academics and educated citizens who felt it was an opportune moment to call for increased political participation. These mobilizations triggered aggressive responses from regional governments, which promptly suspended their experimentation with liberal educational projects. The years immediately following the Arab uprisings were turbulent, and Arab Gulf states moved to swiftly securitize and re-tweak their education sectors to avoid graduating non-acquiescent citizens, labeling educated ones as “agitators.” Instead of casting off the rentier state paradigm, an educated and demanding population posed a security threat to the state and its traditional leadership. Paradoxically, Gulf governments’ investments in education had equipped a generation of men and women with the analytical and critical skills to reflect on the extent of their states’ absolutism and the stillborn prospects of their own social and political aspirations.

Education as Social Engineering

In the post-Arab Spring period, Gulf states embarked on a massive overhaul of their education sectors. Education in the Gulf has since become synonymous with social engineering, where the end-product citizen would be one who is fashioned into patriotic obedience and economic productivity that is independent from the state.

The increased red-taping and hypersecuritization of society and its various sectors have had detrimental effects on intellectual production in the region, which further disincentivizes the innovation and creativity on which the GCC’s post-oil economies will depend. Fear of retribution has forced many Gulf citizens to go underground with their grievances, which leaves Gulf governments blind to the potential flashpoints of future social agitation.

Rather than educating their own citizenry, some Gulf states have implemented stopgap measures to attract highly educated talent from abroad. Reverting to expatriate workers for productivity reduces the need for a more educated citizenry and fills the education gap with non-citizens who are more disposable and thus more beholden to the state. Examples include the extension of the long-lease on importing foreign labor and new perks like permanent residency schemes and naturalization for individuals deemed highly skilled and desirable.

Learning the Wrong Lessons

Despite these efforts, the transition to post-oil economies will not be smooth if GCC states fail to appreciate the trendlines and realize the societal challenges they will soon face. Mass surveillance of the population serves state interests so long as an educated citizenry exists to challenge the political and social status quo. But a citizenry that is kept under-educated will not push for deeper political participation. Instead, it will agitate around the provision of basic needs and dwindling privileges and entitlements from the rentier state.

Gulf leaders have exaggerated the short-term threat to government stability posed by their educated populations. This misrepresentation has driven reactionary and revisionist policies, which only deplete the coffers of Arab Gulf states and leave them ill-prepared for future challenges. All Gulf governments have channeled immense resources towards securitization and surveillance. As oil prices fluctuate and fiscal stability is increasingly threatened, Gulf states will be forced to divert even more funding to containment policies. The urge to address perceived internal threats to stability has rendered governments blind to the long-term consequences of increased restrictions and fitful educational reforms.

Moreover, reliance on foreign talent for continued economic growth is a losing strategy because of the long-term ramifications of the post-oil era. While many foreign-educated citizens can join the pool of global and mobile talents in search of better opportunities elsewhere, Gulf nationals whose education is limited to non-tradable skills will realize that they are trapped in service to states that can no longer provide the generous welfare they promised.

The Gulf states are at a critical crossroads and must rethink the path ahead. Should they allow discontent to be expressed and tolerate negotiable differences, or should they defer this decision? For GCC states, the future appears increasingly unpredictable, and the economic outlook is grim. The next Arab Spring will not generate economically productive exiles and skilled migrants but rather welfare-dependent and professionally immobile individuals. Citizens of the Gulf, in fact, would much rather stay in their home countries and contribute meaningfully to the economic prosperity of their nations, but they remain unaware of the debilitating effects of the educational experiments in which they were unconsenting participants.

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

Mira Al Hussein is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, researching sociological themes in Gulf higher education. Her research interests include decolonial trends in historical and social narratives of the Gulf. She tweets at @miraalhussein

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