Private Education Goes Public

by Aahan Bhojani:

Over the past decade, Dubai has come to be known as the Rome of modern Asian cities, a city built of glitzy skyscrapers, manicured lawns, expansive shopping malls, and celebrity-full hotels. Regarded for its impressive growth and diversification away from oil, Dubai has established itself as a model for other developing and resource-rich cities. Beyond the glitter and economic strength, the city’s evolution from barren desert to bustling metropolis has led to the development of a unique education system.

Private schools, known in most developed countries for their high tuition fees and elitist environments, have the opposite connotation in Dubai. Dubai’s municipality sees the private education sector as an industry that both creates investment opportunity and possesses social value.  The UAE government, in fact, has recognized the private sector as more effective than itself at running the country’s education system. Because the state opens public schools only to Emirati nationals, the entire expatriate community, constituting over 80 percent of Dubai’s population, has to rely on private education.

And these expat students do not attend any ordinary private schools. What distinguishes Dubai’s private education system from others around the world is the diversity of its students and income levels to which it caters. Through different pricing schemes, fee structures, and types of schools, over ten private education providers have made high quality private education accessible to most of Dubai’s expatriate community. These providers cater to around 88 percent of Dubai’s student population and offer twelve different international curriculums across the city’s 150 private schools. Over 88 percent of Dubai’s students are enrolled in private schools that teach 12 different international curriculums.

Dubai is a test case for private enterprises, which are increasingly filling the gaps left by the government’s social policy.

Dubai’s iconic skyline as shown from one of its many resorts (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Dubai’s population demographic is one of the main forces that steers its schools towards a private education system. With a wide socioeconomic spectrum represented in the city from millionaires to migrant laborers, Dubai does not boast a low cost of living. As a result, the student population in Dubai is comprised largely of students from upper-low to high-income households that are willing to pay slightly higher fees for education. The international mix and relative affluence of Dubai’s student population make a privatized education system well suited to the city.

Access to these high quality schools in Dubai is being continually expanded. As events in the Middle East have pushed investors to realize the power of youth populations, capital has increasingly been directed towards private sector education.

Ahmed Badreldin, a Senior Partner at Abraaj Capital, the region’s largest private equity firm, spoke about the high growth potential for private education in Dubai.  The city’s overwhelmingly expatriate community has created increasing demand for international schools since 2000. “A lucrative niche opportunity for investment [in private sector education] has arisen,” he explained—one that will grow between 10 to 15 percent each year.

An expanding privatized education system could have positive implications for youth in Dubai. More high quality schools in the city mean more educated citizens.  The hope of many in the city is that talent might more easily be created, retained, and perhaps even exported to other countries in the Middle East as the private sector grows. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the private system is an implementable model for the rest of the region’s developing cities. In Dubai, the model has shown how a government can allow the free markets invisible hand to work to its benefit, how investors can create change through a high growth market, and how entrepreneurs can be inspired to contribute to the global knowledge economy.

Aahan Bhojani ’14 is an Economics and Political Science double major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at