A new page has opened up for MBA candidates in the Middle East, where the demand for qualified business leaders has exceeded all expectations. Business schools are starting new programmes and building entire campuses in order to train a new generation of highly skilled managers who can run the expanding sectors of the economy, such as finance, hospitals, services and tourism.

What makes the learning environment so special in the Middle East? First and foremost, MBA students are passionate about business in the Gulf. They bring to their MBA programmes an exceptional drive and the motivation required to undertake a rigorous academic program, coupled with a strong professional track record and proven academic ability.

Secondly, the Gulf States have opened their doors to business schools that want to develop programmes in the region. Far from being victims of their own success, these oil-rich countries have succeeded in diversifying their economies but are in need of trained managers with core business skills to sustain the momentum.

Banking is one of the key growth areas in the Middle East. To train a new generation of managers for this sector, Cass Business School recently opened a campus in the Middle East, where it offers EMBA students the chance to specialize in Islamic Finance. Interest in this specialty extends far beyond oil-producing countries. Indeed, there are now an estimated 270 Islamic banks operating globally, with total assets exceeding $265 billion.

European schools set up campuses

As a result of rapid economic diversification beyond oil and gas, top North American and European business schools are developing programmes, opening campuses and forming partnerships in the Gulf States. INSEAD is launching a section of its Executive MBA programme at its new campus in Abu DhabI; the first EMBA class will start in September 2010.

The Dubai-London Executive MBA (London Business School) recently graduated its second class in the presence of HH Sheikh Maktoum Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and President of the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). The recognition ceremony for the class followed an intensive 18-month programme of study, based on a series of four-day modules taught at DIFC by the world-class faculty visiting from the London home campus. An elective phase of study is delivered principally in London.

This programme now attracts more applicants than expected from Beijing, Jakarta, Baghdad, Athens, Moscow, Cairo and Toronto. In 2009, classes started in both September and January, doubling the previous annual intake.

"Dubai's strategic location makes it a gateway to India, Africa and the Middle East while attracting top talent from Europe, North America and Asia," said Kartik Ram, a current student enrolled in the Dubai-London Executive MBA. "This vantage point played a major role in transforming my choice from an 'academic move' to a 'career move.' My professional development, industry contacts and salary growth have been positively impacted as a result of active networking in Dubai." The DIFC centre is also home to one of the six global campuses of the Cross Continent programme at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

A similar story comes from HULT International Business School, which opened a one-year programme in Dubai recently. This is now attracting students from North America. American MBA student Kurtis Kaminishi who will graduate with the class of 2009 said, "Choosing HULT Dubai gave me the opportunity to learn business and management in the multicultural setting of the UAE, the epicenter of the fast-growing Middle East region. Working on teams with classmates from over 30 countries has broadened my exposure to various cultural backgrounds, behaviors and value systems, sharpening my ability to be an efficient and effective manager in any setting."

Strathclyde Business School has been running a part-time MBA programme in Dubai since 1995 and Abu Dhabi since 2004. Colin Eden, director of the business school's International Division, said the Strathclyde MBA in the UAE offers “good job prospects for the school's graduates”.

It's not all about Dubai

The choices open to MBA candidates in the Middle East are multiplying, as business schools spring up in the Gulf States, particularly in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. With a per capita income of $86,000, Qatar is the best MBA market globally for online and distancelearning. The demand for trained business managers is crucial in Qatar, which has just launched a multibillion-dollar programme to expand the country's transport infrastructure. Qatar is also a candidate for the 2020 Olympic Games and the 2022 World Cup. With the huge development in its infrastructure, it is no wonder that Qatar is seeing an increase in its online MBA community.

The huge increase in the number of Arab nationals studying abroad is another sign that the Middle East is thirsty for knowledge. According to the USA-based International Educational Exchange, Saudi Arabia is ranked first among Middle Eastern countries, excluding Turkey, in the number of Arab students studying in the USA. In the 2006/07 academic year, the number of Saudi students studying in the USA increased dramatically by 129 percent and increased by a further 25 percent in 2007/08 and 28 percent in 2008/09.

UCLA is also interested in Saudi Arabia and wants to expand its presence and partnerships in the Middle East. In December 2009, Dr. Judy D. Olian, Dean of UCLA Anderson School of Management, visited Riyadh and Jeddah to meet with the Kingdom's business leaders and academics.

Scholarships and support to entrepreneurs

Business schools use scholarships as a means of attracting top MBA students from the Middle East. The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation offers scholarships to Arab MBA candidates at more than 20 top business schools around the world. These include Chicago Booth, Columbia, Duke, Hass (UC Berkeley), McGill, Michigan, NYU Stern, Stanford, Wharton, and Yale in North America; Cambridge, INSEAD, London Business School, IE, IESE, IMD, and Saïd (Oxford) in Europe; and Melbourne Business School, Monash University, National University of Singapore, and University of Queensland in the Asia-Pacific region. Saïd Business School Dean, Professor Colin Mayer, said "I am delighted that the Saïd Business School has now become a Fellow of this tremendously important scholarship programme which aims at developing the knowledge capabilities of talented youth across the Arab World. It will play a vital role in increasing the number of MBA students from the region, and will enable them to transfer the knowledge they gain through their study at the Saïd Business School back to their country for the benefit of its society."

In addition, the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation supports MBA graduates when they return to the Middle East. At the beginning of February 2010, the Foundation signed an agreement with the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in the UAE to be one of its partners in the Philips Innovation Program, a leading platform for encouraging innovation in the region. Three applicants to the Philips program will be selected annually, and will work at Philips R&D sites for up to six months to turn their innovative ideas into mature business plans.

In Manama, Bahrain, the foundation has formed a partnership with the Bahrain Business Incubator Centre, a subsidiary of the Bahrain Development Bank. This is designed to support and develop the entrepreneurial skills of MBA students and working executives in Bahrain. They learn to assess a business idea, develop a strategy and a business plan, understand the market and acknowledge the financial aspects of a business.

Collaboration growing

Collaboration among business schools is also evolving quickly in the region. A leading academic institution in the UAE, Abu Dhabi University (ADU) and the Paris-based ENPC have signed a collaboration agreement to offer a part-time MBA degree focusing on International Business. Students joining the MBA programme at ADU will be able to earn two degrees within 18 months: a general MBA degree from ADU and a specialized MBA degree from ENPC.

Furthermore, the modular format of the top MBA programmes in the Middle East is designed to be a fast-track for a career in the region. These MBA programmes foster career success in an increasingly complex business environment, and enable students and alumni to make a real impact on their organizations by providing them with confidence, networks and knowledge.

Not just about GMATs

Coming out of the recession, the growth in MBA programmes will continue but business schools cannot take a cookie-cutter approach to the Middle East. Admissions officers with experience in the region know that MBA applications are not about high GMAT scores, although sadly some very qualified MBA candidates underestimate their value on account of their GMAT scores. Applicants tend to be older with far more experience in running businesses than in taking multiple choice exams. Furthermore, Middle Eastern candidates often have a much better command of English than their Asian counterparts. If business schools want to succeed in the region, then they will most likely have to readjust their application priorities to the background and experience of the local talent pool.

In conclusion, MBA candidates thinking about earning their MBA in the Middle East face a number of decisions and choices. With scholarships available, candidates will need to assess their criteria before they decide which programmes to apply to.

Recovery in the Middle East

With the global economic and financial crisis, the Middle East has seen its share of setbacks. Even dynamic Dubai was nearly crippled by debt last year. After negotiations with neighboring Abu Dhabi, the city is now on the road to recovery. That is the case with the entire region, as the underlying economics are solid and the demographics of a rapidly expanding population are working in its favor. Said Kartik Ram, "Though deeply affected by the recession in 2009, the job market in the Middle East has proven resilient for MBA graduates and other job seekers."

With the expected recovery, new companies in the Middle East which compete for contracts and financial backing will have to prove to clients and asset managers that they have experienced, high quality, managers to run their businesses. With so many new entrants to the corporate market, MBA graduates might be wise to read the 2009 inaugural study by Hewitt Associates entitled The Best Employers in the Middle East. It aims to provide key insights into attracting and retaining talent in the Middle East and enabling all stakeholders to make the Arab World a better place to work. The #1 employer was Alghanim Industries of Kuwait, #2 was BankMuscat SAOG of Oman and #3 Deloitte & Touche (Middle East).