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What’s happening in the Middle East

Field research on the international schools market in the Middle East is led by Sheena Maerevoet who is based in Dubai. Sheena shares the latest news from the region:

There remains a significant demand for international school places in the Middle East, although the greatest demand is shifting towards the international schools offering more affordable fees. These international schools are attracting the new wave of expatriates moving into the region who are predominantly from Southern Asia, as well as many local families. They are also attracting some of the Western expatriates remaining in the region who have had to become more discerning in their school selection due to the less generous benefits packages now being offered.  

Most international schools that previously had long waiting lists still talk of waiting lists, particularly in the lower grade levels, although these are significantly reduced from what they previously were.

The main challenges that international schools in the Middle East face are:

  • Stiff competition between the increasing number of schools
  • Reduced benefits packages offered to many expatriates which are resulting in them readdressing their school choices to find schools with fees they can afford
  • Fee freezes required of the schools this year (although some cities, such as Dubai, have frozen building rents to assist). Enforced fee freezes, as seen in Dubai for example, were announced late in the school year, after budget had been set causing obvious knock-on effects for some schools. Schools in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Qatar, also face difficulties due to their fees; some schools there have not been authorized a fee increase for a number of years.
  • The high demands of the KHDA annual inspections may be good for setting standards in Dubai, but are challenging for schools to address concerns and to sufficiently implement changes within the time frame required of them.
  • The demands on schools to provide for special education needs with the specialist skills and resources this requires, particularly during a fiscally challenging time.
  • The change in student demographic is generating EAL (English as an additional language) challenges for some schools, particularly amongst students who have no English-speaking opportunities outside school.

In Dubai, where the international schools market is saturated at the premium end, the demand is now for quality of education provision. Schools and investors need to be prudent here to ensure they don’t make development mistakes. Thorough market research is essential to ensure new school development and expansion will meet the right markets, with the right fee levels where demand exists, and to fully understand the substantial government regulations. However, potential exists in specific niches of the market; early childhood, for example.

The fee freezes, in such locations as Dubai, are impacting staffing and classroom and school resourcing where budgets are more limited. Nevertheless, competition is significant and so rigorous and innovative teaching and learning resources remain an important investment for many schools.

In Abu Dhabi, most international schools chose to hold fee increases for the 2018-2019 academic year because of the current economic climate. Some schools here say that ‘slowing of growth’ is a more realistic turn of phrase to ‘economic downturn’ caused by a continued reduction in the hiring of costly Western expatriates and a substantial decline in expatriate benefits packages. Arabic and Asian expatriates are on the rise.

Local demand for international school education is increasing throughout Abu Dhabi and also Oman as more families become aware and trust the quality of education at the international schools. The Ministry of Education in Oman is increasingly accepting of local children attending international schools and has eased the permission process that they’ve required in the past.

In Qatar, several new leases have been awarded to international schools this year in a government bid to have 50,000 more private school places by 2022. Some of these new schools will be opening within the next two years. 

In Saudi Arabia, prospects for new school development are good, particularly in line with the 2030 vision which is likely to see British education partnerships, although segregation is required from Year 5. Major growth is expected over the next decade or so in some cities such as Al-Khobar. Following recent changes to regulations permitting foreign ownership and operation of schools in the Kingdom, an announcement has been made of the partnership between GEMS Education and Hassana Investment Company to develop a network of schools across the Kingdom.


  • international school market
  • International schools
  • Middle East