Once at the forefront of science, literature, and trade, the cultures of the Middle East are today more marginal to cutting-edge research and economic production. But change may be coming to the region.
Half of the population of the Middle East is under 30, and it has become clear that the public sector cannot afford to employ all of them. In addition, petroleum and gas-rich countries understand that carbon-based economies will soon become a thing of the past. In the past two decades, these countries have invested more in education – a wise decision considering their young populations.
The Gulf States have transformed their higher education systems in the past two decades. Among other reforms, government leaders have loosened public universities’ monopolies, supporting private institutions that bring in Western-trained academics and offer courses in English. Officials in the U.A.E. and Qatar have also invited elite Western universities to set up satellite campuses in their countries. This competition has pushed public universities to reform, westernizing their curricula and switching to English for some degree programs.
Proficiency: Very low
EF EPI score: 48,19
Proficiency: Very low
EF EPI score: 47,21
Proficiency: Very low
EF EPI score: 46,79
Unfortunately, progress in teaching basic skills to schoolchildren has been slower, and many countries have been forced to set up programs to help transition students from secondary school to university. Literacy rates have risen rapidly across the region, but in the latest PISA testing, 15-year-olds in the three participating Middle Eastern countries – Jordan, Qatar, and the U.A.E. – scored at the lowest available benchmarks for reading, math, and science. In the latest TIMSS tests of fourth graders in math and science, eight of the world’s 11 lowest-scoring countries were in the Middle East. Our data tells the same story: English proficiency in the region is by far the lowest of any region in the world.
In some ways, it is surprising that English proficiency is not higher. The Middle East is diverse; in most countries in the region, more than 30% of the population is foreign-born. Although a portion of those immigrants speak Arabic when they arrive, many do not. Additionally, nearly a million students are enrolled in private, English-language K-12 schools in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, representing 20% of the total population of students at international schools worldwide. Many higher education institutions in the Gulf States teach some or all of their courses in English, and government-funded scholarships have sent more than 200,000 university students to the US or UK to earn a degree. Yet the average level of English in the region remains low.
In some countries, the problem appears to be uneven access to English education resources. Our data finds that Dubai and Tehran, for example, have much higher levels of English proficiency than their countries as a whole. Saudi Arabia’s population is spread over a huge and unevenly developed territory, with varying levels of access to English instruction in schools. Placing qualified English teachers in every school is admittedly difficult, particularly when the number of English-speaking adults is so low, but other large countries like China have tackled the same problem. Hiring teachers from abroad is the solution preferred by many private schools and universities in the Middle East, but building a local professional class of English-speaking teachers would be a more sustainable solution.
In other countries, the arrival of large numbers of refugees has stressed the education system, redirecting resources towards provision of basic services. More than one million Afghans live in Iran, and more than two million Palestinians and one million Syrians live in Jordan, a country of fewer than 10 million people. Some countries have experienced gains in English proficiency despite turmoil; Iraq, emerging from the tumult of the past two decades, has the most improved English proficiency of any country in the region.
Fragile economies, persistent conflict, and over-reliance on public sector employment are among the challenges facing Middle Eastern countries that want to equip their youthful populations with the skills required for the global workforce. Meeting these challenges could have a transformative effect on the region, and improving the region’s poor English proficiency will be an essential part of that transition. It remains to be seen whether that transition can be made smoothly amid regional tensions and a changing global energy market.
A significant gender gap in English proficiency in the Middle East has appeared this year, with men outscoring women by nearly three points. Although women represent more than 50% of the university population in every country in the region, unfortunately they are still far less likely to work after graduation, giving them few opportunities to use the English they have learned in school.
The Middle East has a relatively narrow spread of proficiency scores among age groups. Unfortunately, this data suggests that schools are teaching English no better than in the past, as both the 18-20 and 21-25 age groups experienced significant drops in English proficiency. Indeed, as in Latin America, young graduates in the Middle East speak English at roughly the same level as adults over 40.