By Mary James
Attention-grabbing comes naturally to the United Arab Emirates. Whether it’s shaping the vision for the world’s largest man-made harbor, laying the foundation for the tallest ferris wheel, or even creating the biggest piece of paper handmade from date palm. For all its showiness, though, what a great culture to nurture and educate the next generation. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the UAE is host to the world’s fastest-growing educational market.
Recent statistics suggest that the UAE has amassed the most private international schools in the world, and with more than 500 English-language schools, it even surpasses China. During the current year alone, schools have opened at the rate of one a month in the small emirate of 1,500 square miles. At the same time, UNESCO tells us that UAE has overtaken the UK as the third most popular country for students seeking an education abroad.
This growing education market should be attractive to educational publishers, of course, particularly when seen alongside the Emirates’ determination to foster a culture of reading, highlighted by the annual Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the Sharjah International Book Fair and the Emirates Festival of Literature — next year to be expanded to two weeks of literary entertainment and which also enjoys a sizable educational program. So given that publishers will be considering the global perspective in their publishing plans, surely growth on this scale and the level of local investment would serve to entice publishers to look more seriously at opportunities in the UAE for increasing their educational market share.
However, despite the nation’s “look-at-me” tendency, there isn’t necessarily a great deal of evidence that international educational publishers have seriously taken this growing market on board.
To what extent is the local publishing industry in the UAE responding to the nation’s education teaching and learning resources needs? In practice, it’s probably not quite there — at least not yet. There are, however, strong efforts to invest, particularly in Arabic where the need for high quality, Arabic-language educational resources tailored to the requirements of the region has never been felt more keenly. But local publishing efforts still leave room for educational publishers from abroad.
Whilst the UAE on its own may not present a lucrative enough opportunity for any educational publisher used to much bigger markets, you can’t escape its privileged position as a feisty and energetic hub for the Middle East region as a whole. And, after all, the immense growth in the educational market is not only true of the Emirates but spreads wider across the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, healthcare and education represent a whopping 44% of the Kingdom’s total annual spending this year — an indication of their long-term view of investing in economic development outside of oil.
UK publishers have a strong reputation for top quality teaching and learning resources, and some have responded to the market’s growth by launching local sales offices in the Gulf. But precious few are developing new market-appropriate product from within the region, despite all the benefits that having a local presence brings to your publishing business. That leaves teachers and students with new products and services that have been developed 6,000 miles away from their classrooms.
So what’s the solution? Clearly, educational publishers in a growing market can’t afford to be complacent. Any early success creates a long-lasting foundation in the long-term educational market. Missing out now might mean missing out for quite some time to come. Most importantly, as educational publishers remote from some of our target markets like the UAE, we will have to engineer effective market research to help us understand how teacher and learner needs should shape new product. With today’s technology, of course, there is much greater opportunity for publishers to have a research relationship with customers, but who’s to say the market for international education is quite ready for that research superhighway yet?
Without underestimating the challenges, the opportunities are there in this growing education market. After all, whilst coming out of school every day and catching sight of the world’s tallest building is a valuable lesson in “thinking big” for children in Dubai, perhaps a few UK publishers could take a page out of that book, too.
Mary James is a Market Sleuth-come-Researcher who has been based in the UAE for the past 5 years. Having developed a specialist insight into the educational markets of the Middle East, she regularly carries out research for educational publishers and other educational organizations who want to understand the needs of students, teachers, and lecturers in the region in more detail. Find more information about her work at Innoved online.