United Arab Emirates - Country Commercial Guide

This is a best prospect industry sector for this country. Includes a market overview and trade data.

Last published date: 2020-09-12
  • Total Population in the UAE: 9.6 million.
  • Population aged 15-24: 1.1 million.
  • Change in Students Studying in the United States from 2018 to 2019: 5.03%.


Education remains a top government priority in the UAE. The UAE Vision 2021 plan, launched in 2010, emphasized the development of a first-rate education system. This sector continues to experience rapid expansion. The UAE’s 2020 federal budget allocated $2.8 billion to public K-12, higher education, and university programs - roughly 15% of the total budget, including the federal budget and all seven Emirates. The estimated cost of public education programs amounts to AED6.7 billion, or 9.5% of the total budget while higher and university education is expected to cost AED3.7 billion, or 5.3%.

The UAE’s education market was expected to grow from $4.4 billion in 2017 to $7.1 billion by 2023 according to a 2018 report released by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) entitled “Where to Invest Now in GCC Private Education”. In line with Vision 2021, the UAE’s Ministry of Education (MoE) developed the Education 2020 Strategy, which is designed to bring significant qualitative improvement in the education system. Smart learning programs, new teachers' codes, licensing and evaluations systems, as well as curriculum revision, including teaching mathematics and science through English, are all part of the strategy. STEM education along with technical and vocational training are a major focus by the UAE government.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, schools were closed, and homeschooling was implemented until the end of the academic year. As a result of the pandemic, Colliers International conducted a recent survey with education operators and investors to get their perspective on online learning for K-12, the challenges they are facing, and their outlook for the academic year 2020-2021. The survey results indicate that the K-12 sector is significantly impacted by the pandemic, which is expected to last beyond the current academic year. Although there is no uniform approach, some schools are looking to offer fee discounts, flexible payment plans, and are taking other necessary measures to retain students. This will ultimately impact cash flows, compelling operators and investors to revisit operating expenses, especially the more significant costs including rental commitments with landlords.

As of June 2020, UAE schools will reportedly re-open physically but with very strict parameters in place including limiting capacity in classrooms.

In June 2020, the UAE's Ministry of Education also announced that it is seeking to hire teachers to work at some of the UAE's government schools. While several sectors have seen hiring freezes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry has posted job listings for teachers of kindergarten, chemistry, mathematics, and Chinese among other subjects. The ministry did not mention the location for the positions in the job postings and selected candidates could be asked to work at a public school in any emirate.

The UAE’s leadership also expressed its willingness to advance the UAE’s higher education system, noting that the allocation of an additional budget of $87 million to support national universities reflects the vision of the country’s leadership to prioritize higher education, to ensure the country’s readiness and supply vital sectors with qualified citizens capable of achieving success, as well as to guarantee the implementation of the country’s strategic plans and enhance its future competitiveness.

The education system in the UAE is divided into public schools, private schools, and higher education. Private institutions are generally not under direct government control but are nevertheless bound by guidelines set forth by the federal ministry and local authorities. In addition, charter schools exist in Abu Dhabi.

The MoE oversees all UAE-based education councils and authorities as per the following:

Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK) – Established in 2005, it was formerly known as Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) and was primarily responsible for the management and administration of Abu Dhabi’s public schools while also acting as the regulatory body that provided licensing and accreditation to private schools in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, and the Western Emirates. It sets the minimum standards that must be met in terms of educational outcomes, health, safety, building, and site requirements.

In September 2017, President Sheikh Khalifa renamed ADEC the Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK) and made it a government department. Under this new mandate, ADEK is responsible for fully regulating private schools and higher education in Abu Dhabi. In 2018, the Ministry of Education and ADEK announced a plan to achieve the standardization of the UAE’s education systems to support a unified and highly performing education sector across the UAE. The plan will unify the education sector through the development of the Emirati School Model across all emirates.

Established in 2006, Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in Dubai is responsible for the growth and quality of private education in Dubai, from early learning to higher and continuing education.

Due to the transient nature of the expatriate population in the UAE, parents prefer to enroll their children in international schools. The demand for private education has been on the rise, leading to strong overall growth in the education sector. In the UAE, private school enrollments were expected to increase from approximately 56% to 66% over the course of the next five years according to the BCG report cited above.

The majority of in-demand international schools follow the UK curriculum. According to a recent presentation by Colliers International titled “K12 Schools in Dubai – Academic Year 2018-2019”, 75% of total new student enrollments in the 2018-2019 academic year came from UK curriculum schools; Indian schools comprise 27% of the market share; U.S. curriculum schools maintained their market share at 17%; and IB schools recorded a net addition of 1,371 students, second only to UK curriculum schools, growing their market share slightly from 4.9% to 5.2%.

Similar to K-12 education, higher education enrollments in Dubai have steadily increased according to a 2018 report by Colliers International entitled “Higher Education in Dubai, UAE Coming of Age”. The supporting factors identified include: the growing population, the popularity of Dubai with students from neighboring emirates, and the variety of institutions available. There has also been a growing preference towards international higher education institutes among Emirati parents and professionals seeking to complete their higher education while working in the emirate.

In higher education, only five foreign universities have full campuses in the UAE including two U.S. institutions: New York University Abu Dhabi and Rochester Institute of Technology Dubai.


In terms of mobility, the United Arab Emirates has 2,361 Emirati students studying in the United States for the 2019 academic year, according to the latest IIE Open Doors report. EducationUSA’s “Student Mobility Fact and Figures” factsheet notes that “changes to the government program scholarship list, military service requirement and an increase in educational opportunities at home are possible factors in the decrease of Emiratis studying in the United States.”

The majority of Emirati students studying abroad come from a public-school background. However, there are a growing number of UAE nationals who are also considering private schools.

The IIE Open Doors report provides the following segmentation from 2018 to 2019:

  • Graduate Education: 285 students enrolled in graduate education, an increase of 7.1% from 2018.
  • Undergraduate: 1,873 students enrolled in undergraduate education, a decrease of 3.5% from 2018.
  • Non-Degree Studies: 135 students enrolled in non-degree programs, a decrease of 37.2% from 2018.
  • Optional Practical Training (OPT): 68 students enrolled in OPT programs, a decrease of 4.6% from 2018.

The 2019 Open Doors report states the top five states with Emirati students are: Arizona, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Top fields of study include: innovation, space science, engineering (artificial intelligence, nuclear, chemical, petroleum), alternative & renewable energy, business, and information technology (including cybersecurity).


K-12 Education

According to the BCG report cited above, there is an oversupply of international private schools with high and premium-range fees in Dubai, and not enough international private schools with low and medium-range fees. In 2017, schools with high- and premium-range fees reportedly began to advertise, implement loyalty programs, and slash their fees by as much as 33% to attract and retain students. In December 2018, education authorities in Abu Dhabi announced that a total of 10 new schools offering affordable fee structures were set to open and that they would readily make plots and vacant public-school buildings available to investors for the development of new schools. According to education experts and consultants, the emirate of Sharjah is also in need of affordable schools with tuition fees ranging from $5,500 to $9,500.

To meet the needs of Emirati students, there is a need in the UAE for high-quality schools, with a rating of “good” or better, that cater specifically to local preferences (for example, by offering gender segregation and adequate provision of Arabic and religious studies).

For expatriate families, there is a need for high-quality schools, with fees in the low to mid-tuition range, structured around the International Baccalaureate (IB) and U.S. curriculum among others. There is also an opportunity to leverage Dubai’s drive to become a testbed for innovation by introducing schools with modern, digital approaches to education.

Higher Education

According to Colliers International, the higher education sector still offers several opportunities for investors and operators to grow, as currently, only 15% of total K-12 students attend private universities in Dubai. Business related courses remain the most popular choice in Dubai, followed by engineering and agriculture, then media and design.

Simultaneously, there is continued demand for study in the United States for graduate, under-graduate, and non-graduate studies although this has recently been impacted by the COVID crisis. However, the largest number of tertiary level students from the UAE go to the United Kingdom according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The United States ranks second. There is also a demand to open higher education institutions in the UAE. There are a total of 13 government-affiliated scholarship-granting institutions, which offer several scholarships to a select number of top U.S. universities. Such institutions include ADEK, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), Abu Dhabi Police, Dubai Police, and the Presidential Department. Some of those institutions are specific to a particular emirate. Online programs are not covered under the scholarship programs. However, educational experts noted that there is a real demand for online programs in executive education. Scholarship granting institutions have raised the eligibility criteria and developed strategies to reach highly qualified students to raise awareness of potential education opportunities in the United States. There are consolidated efforts to create a local workforce to support “Emiratization”. Approved scholarship majors aim to meet the country’s labor needs.


Trade Shows and Exhibitions

International Education Show

Date: Oct 14-16, 2020

Venue: Expo Center Sharjah (TBC)


Najah Education & Training Exhibition

Date: Oct.28-30, 2020 (hybrid event)

Venue: Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center, Abu Dhabi


BETT Middle East and North Africa

Date: Dec 8-9, 2020

Venue: Festival Arena, Dubai


International Consultants for Education and Fairs (ICEF) Date: Feb 8-10, 2021

Venue: Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Dubai (TBC)


Global Education Supplies and Solutions (GESS)

Date: Mar 2-4, 2021

Venue: Sheikh Saeed Halls, Dubai World Trade Centre, Dubai (TBC)


Gulf Education and Training Exhibition (GETEX)
Date: Mar 25-27, 2021
Venue: Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Center, Dubai (TBC)