Gulf states have invested heavily in both higher education and economic development. Yet there remains a need to rethink and reconcile the relationship between the two.
Historically, the development of the educational infrastructure and associated education reforms goes back to the early stages of Gulf states’ formation in the 1960s and ‘70s. In the past two decades, Gulf states have increased their partnerships with foreign universities – hosting branch campuses and addressing expanding educational needs as the drive toward economic diversification and knowledge-based economies gained momentum. Debates about the feasibility of economic diversification projects and stimulating a locally driven private sector continue to make the headlines, with arguments tending to focus on the skills mismatch of the younger generations.
Gulf states have similar development objectives, especially concerning the building of local capacity and human resources. This is reflected in the long-term Vision strategies of Gulf governments and the nationalization of Gulf workforces. The employment of nationals and decreasing the reliance on the public sector to create job opportunities is a common and urgent priority.
This is particularly a concern as Gulf youth are increasingly entering the labor market and facing high unemployment rates. Gulf writers and researchers are becoming more vocal about deficiencies in understanding these underlying challenges of youth employment and other unexplored issues that would provide more nuance to economic debates. Topics include cultural perceptions toward the value of education and international experience as well as the impact of existing economic structures on local labor market behaviors.
To gain a perspective on the key issues of diversification and youth employment in Gulf states, AGSIW spoke to Abdullah Al Bahrani, an assistant professor of economics and the director of the Center for Economics Education at Northern Kentucky University as well as an emerging public voice in Oman.
Abdullah’s dedication to teaching young students about applied economics goes beyond his everyday job as a professor at a U.S. university. Abdullah actively engages with an Omani audience. From creating a broadly accessible YouTube series and participating in podcasts to designing and offering innovative educational programs such as Data Summer Camps and Econ Games on his website, Abdullah’s eagerness to share his knowledge is hard to miss.
AGSIW: What motivated you to specialize in economics?
Abdullah: The pursuit of economics was never really intentional. Being an Omani national influenced by the local culture, I was expected to either become a doctor or an engineer. I had a good background in math, so the initial inclination was always to pursue engineering. So, I studied chemical engineering for three years, intending to go back to Oman to work in the oil industry, just like most Omani students at the time. But I ended up taking an elective economics course during my third year in the program. I fell in love with the course and found that it explained many of the things happening around me. So, I took a couple more classes and quickly changed my major to economics.
AGSIW: What inspired you to become an advocate for economics education?
Abdullah: I finished my undergraduate studies, then I pursued a master’s degree from the American University in Washington, DC, intending to get into a PhD program right after. When I finished my master’s, it was the period during the housing boom in the United States, and it was difficult for me to give up the opportunity to work in the housing industry. I took three years off to gain professional experience in the United States. I saw people making suboptimal decisions in the housing industry, the opposite of what I learned during my education, and I couldn’t understand it. That’s when I realized that many people lacked skills in the decision-making process of evaluating what is happening in the economy. I also realized that it was not just an American problem, that many people just didn’t know how to operate within the economy. So, I pursued my PhD. Since then, my mission in life has been to increase access to economics education and knowledge about financial literacy.
AGSIW: What challenges have you faced researching the Gulf?
Abdullah: As an applied microeconomist, my research relies heavily on access to data. That is one thing that we lack in the Gulf: transparency and access to data, especially decision-making data. It becomes hard to evaluate policy – hard to evaluate a policy’s impact if you do not have the data. What you end up relying on is just theories of economics. But then it becomes difficult to apply it to the local context. This is a position that I’ve held publicly through social media and through the articles that I’ve written.
Most of the research and textbooks we read are U.S. or Western based. But what does it mean if we eliminate the minimum wage laws in Oman? How is that going to impact an Omani? We don’t want to know what happens in Washington, DC; we want to know what happens to Ahmed in Muscat, Oman. I really think that we would benefit more from having researchers ask the questions about our local issues.
AGSIW: What particular challenges do Gulf students face studying and finding opportunities abroad?
Abdullah: I want to highlight two elements that I think are important because this question is multilayered. The first layer comes from the demand side, so the firms. U.S. firms, for example, are reluctant to hire international students because they fear the process of international paperwork. When I was looking for an internship, it was right after September 11, so Abdullah Al Bahrani was not going to get hired by anybody, right?
But there is also the supply-side issue of labor and that’s related to the students themselves. When you leave your home country and study internationally, the advice is always to keep your head straight, “Don’t do anything, just focus on your studies.” I think that’s advice with good intention, but the application becomes negative. What ends up happening is that Gulf or international students tend to seclude themselves. Obviously, I am generalizing here; this might not apply to every single person. But on average, what I experienced was, and what I see is, that people just want the degree. Even if an internship opportunity is available, faculty are not going to recommend a student that they don’t see around, a student that just goes to class and leaves.
AGSIW: Are attitudes toward education and knowledge acquisition changing in Oman?
Abdullah: We have to evaluate what we mean by education. What is the purpose of education? Education can be defined in different ways by different people.
Historically, in Oman, and until recently, your minimum wage was directly tied to how many years of education you had, or what degree you had. Labor economists will tell you that there is a positive relationship between education and income. But our pay scale and minimum wage laws have tied it even more aggressively in the Gulf. This approach makes you lose sight of the importance of learning to be knowledgeable.
I see that with my Econ Games and Data Camps. Students that I personally know tell me, “Thank you Dr. Abdullah, but I don’t have the time right now.” Obviously, I don’t take it personally, but I worry about what other opportunities are being presented to them that they are passing on.
AGSIW: How do you encourage young people to move into the private sector?
Abdullah: There is prestige attached to being a government worker versus a private industry employee. As a graduate, the first thing you hear when you go back home is, “When will you get that government job?” We keep on reinforcing the efforts or government dominance, but the government cannot sustain overall economic activity. In Oman, the issue is how do you develop private industry, a thriving small to medium enterprise industry. Well, to do that, you have to change 50 years of culture, where we said being an entrepreneur is risky, and if you have a risky job, then nobody will want to marry you, and you won’t be successful.
AGSIW: What do you think about nationalization policies such as Omanization?
Abdullah: From a sociopolitical standpoint, I understand why you would push for Omanization as a policy. From an economic and educational standpoint, Omanization is not the solution, because you are reducing competition for those positions. It actually makes it more difficult to value education and the skillsets that you develop, and you become solely focused on your citizenship to get the job. It becomes unfair for the applicant and the foreign labor, and for the economy as a whole, because you are reducing the possibility of innovation.
Now, I think you need to look at the labor market and evaluate if there is any discrimination happening. Are there any policies that are making it more favorable to hire foreign labor over domestic? We’ve had Omanization since the ‘80s. The problems have only gotten worse. I would rather see more investment in trying to understand overall labor market dynamics.
AGSIW: Do Gulf countries rely too much on Western expertise in the academic and the business world?
Abdullah: I struggle with that divide. I struggle with the divide among Western, local, expat, and all of this separative language. I don’t think anybody in today’s world can succeed just with their local talent. With globalization, you want to import as much innovation as possible. So open immigration policies are welcome in my point of view. Just attracting talent is what economies and governments should be doing. The issue that arises, though, is when you are subsidizing or supporting international firms at domestic firms’ expense. And that’s where we want to be looking at the data, to understand actual behavior.
The market is changing; the higher-education market is changing. Some of it is due to the coronavirus situation. Some of it is due to the oil price situation. We are going to have to spend more money domestically on upskilling. That means that we will have to invest more in our local institutions since now traveling abroad to study will be less likely. Or, we are going to import more talent to teach, which has pros and cons. The downfall of all this is that we move away from international experiences, and that’s one area that I worry about.
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Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.