Mirage in the Desert: Is Higher Education the Arab World’s New Football?

In recent years, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (‘GCC’) – a trade bloc of six petroleum-endowed monarchies in the Middle East – have been splashing the education sector cash in a hitherto unprecedented manner. Qatar has erected Education City, a sprawling meta-campus hosting no less than eight branch campuses; the United Arab Emirates (‘UAE’) is importing a Guggenheim, a Louvre and a Sorbonne in an attempt to turn it into a regional cultural capital; and even Saudi Arabia has allocated tens of billions of dollars towards edtech megaprojects such as the science and technology university KAUST.

But it remains to be seen precisely what these investments are designed to achieve, or whether they are the best way of attaining goals which are often vaguely defined; here, the example of these nations’ efforts in football is instructive. Unbeknown to the vast majority of football fans around the world, since the 1970s GCC countries have spent huge amounts of money trying to elevate their standards of soccer. Many of the sport’s most eminent coaches have been hired at unfathomable expense towards realising this goal; incredibly, a single team from the region, the UAE, has vaunted Carlos Alberto Parreira, Mario Zagallo, Valery Lobanovsky and Tomislav Ivić as its head trainers. World-class stadiums and facilities have been constructed with no expense spared. Financial incentives which would shock even many European fans jaded with the fiscal surrealism of ‘modern football’ have been dangled in front of players with even a hint of promise.

Yet the results have been beyond mediocre. With the partial exception of Saudi Arabia at the 1994 World Cup, no GCC national team has come close to bothering the world’s footballing elite. This is mainly because the big structural problem facing Gulf Cooperation Council teams – tiny populations and therefore talent pools – mean that serious attempts to be a big player in the soccer domain make little if no sense. At club level, GCC teams have a significantly better record in continental-level competition, but the domestic product is mostly characterised by empty stadiums in which lavishly-paid players – many of whom are non-GCC nationals looking for one last bumper payday – amble around in the stifling heat.

The same pattern seems to be repeating itself in higher education. Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council are splurging untold millions and billions on bringing in some of the best institutions and professors that money can buy. They are generously subsidising cohorts of students – most of whom are non-GCC nationals and are unlikely to stay much beyond their degree programmes, particularly given the dim-to-non-existent prospects of naturalisation. The actual benefits to the Gulf Cooperation Council itself – particularly when measured proportionate to the vast sums being outlayed – could end up resembling something of a mirage.

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Filed under Economics, Education, Finance, Football

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