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The Middle East is fertile ground for business education. With strong employment, a number of booming sectors and robust economic growth, European and US business schools alike are clamouring to get a foothold in the region.

“Historically, MBA programmes go where the money is,” says Peter Rodriguez, dean for international affairs at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. “It’s apparent that the Middle East is the site of tomorrow’s economy and will be a strong financial centre in the years to come. People are trying to get ahead of the curve.”

Establishing overseas programmes and partnerships in the Middle East can help schools raise their international profile, build relationships, recruit top teachers and attract new students.

Joint ventures: partnerships such as one involving Cass in Dubai are helping business schools to raise their international profiles

So far, however, while US universities and specialist schools have successfully established outposts in the region – Education City, located in Qatar, is home to several branch campuses of US colleges including the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Georgetown School of Foreign Service and Carnegie Mellon – European institutions appear to have taken the lead in the realm of business education.

For instance, Insead, which already has two campuses in France and Singapore, has opened a centre for executive education and research in Abu Dhabi, offering both company specific and open enrolment programmes for executives. London Business School in September began offering degree and non-degree programmes – the first time it has set up its own branded programme overseas.

Meanwhile, Cass Business School, based in London, recently launched an executive MBA programme in Dubai, offered through a partnership with the Dubai International Financial Centre, with two specialist streams: energy and Islamic finance. And Cambridge Executive Education has a contract to deliver programmes to Abu Dhabi’s Department of Civil Service.

“Their higher education system is less developed, so there is a clear need for foreign expertise to help create an infrastructure,” says Lawrence Abeln, chief executive officer of Cambridge Executive Education at the Judge Business School.

Perhaps the biggest reason European business schools have been so active in setting up partnerships and programmes in the Middle East is geographical proximity. And Europe’s large Muslim immigrant population, also ensures that the Arab world will play a big part in its educational agenda.

Europe’s historical and cultural links to the Middle East also play a role, according to Stefan Szymanski, associate dean of MBA Programmes at Cass.

“Britain as a nation has very long-standing ties with the Middle East, as does France. We feel much more comfortable in this environment, it’s not so aggressively modernist as American society can sometimes feel,” he says.

European schools have more assertively exported their programmes to the Middle East and elsewhere because they do not have a big enough potential student population in their home countries to fill future classrooms, says John Fernandes, the president and chief executive of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

Gaining access to a new pool of tuition-paying students, just as the number of graduate, school age Europeans is about to fall is critical, he says. “The 25-29 year age group – the biggest age cohort at business schools – is declining in western Europe, but it’s still in an upward trend in the US until 2020.

“European schools are more aggressive about building their brand elsewhere because they don’t have the prospective student population at home.”

According to figures from the US Census Bureau and AACSB, the 25-29 year-old populations will drop 30 per cent in eastern Europe and 7.5 per cent in western Europe by the year 2020. In North America, by contrast, the 25-29 year-old populations will rise 13 per cent by 2020.

Business schools from Europe, building their international presence in the Middle East through degree programmes and branch campuses, could view these forays as a way to differentiate their brand, says Prof Rodriguez at Darden School of Business.

“Many European schools are in the first or second decade of operation and this kind of expansion is a way for them to be innovative,” he says.

While some US business schools have been active in the region setting up faculty and student exchanges and research partnerships, there are simply “not many partners to be had”, according to Prof Rodriguez.

“Some schools are, I dare say, promiscuous in their willingness to form partnerships,” he says. “American schools want exclusive joint programmes.”

Indeed, Peter Jadersten, director of the Abu Dhabi centre for Insead, is concerned that some business schools “may over-establish themselves” in the region.

“That’s the challenge going forward,” he says “There’s a lot of demand and there’s a lot of liquidity, but at the end of the day, when compared to Europe or the US or Asia, it’s a relatively small market. Schools come at this from an opportunistic basis, not necessarily taking the long view.”

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