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Researchers Study Arab Migrant Teachers in the Gulf in Effort to Inform Education Policy

Al Qasimi Foundation
September 08, 2014

Between November 2013 and January 2014, the Al Qasimi Foundation research team surveyed over 100 teachers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar as part of an exploratory study to investigate the status of Arab migrant teachers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the implications for education systems in the region, including students’ academic performance and drop-out rates.

“The relevance of research on Arab migrant teachers to education in the region is clear in that making informed decisions requires education policymakers to understand the situation surrounding teachers working in the UAE and Qatar’s educational system,” explains Ms. Soha Shami, one of the Al Qasimi Foundation’s researchers.

In light of the GCC’s current educational landscape, this study is part of a wider examination of Arab expatriates working in the GCC through the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

“There are about three to four million non-Gulf Arabs present in the GCC states,” says Dr. Zahra Babar, Associate Director for Research at CIRS, who also notes that this initiative is “providing a new, in-depth, and empirically-based understanding of the experiences of Arab migrants [in the region].”

As the UAE strives to create a knowledge-based economy, improving the country’s education system is a priority. However, high drop-out rates among male youth and students’ poor performance on international assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) have raised questions about the quality of the UAE’s education system.

A striking characteristic of the UAE and Qatar education systems is the degree to which they depend on expatriate Arabs to fill their classrooms.

“With approximately 90% of teachers in boys’ government schools and 20% of teachers in girls’ government schools being expatriate Arabs in the UAE, it is impossible to ignore the influence of Arab teachers on the region’s education systems. The case is similar in Qatar, where 87% of all teachers in government schools are expatriate Arabs,” says Dr. Natasha Ridge, Executive Director of the Al Qasimi Foundation.

Accordingly, this study examines the factors that bring and keep Arab public and private sector teachers in these countries through both educational and institutional lenses.

In the study’s first phase, survey responses painted a clearer picture of Arab migrant teachers and their experiences in the two countries, including the factors that motivated them to leave their home countries (“push factors”) and those that drew them to the GCC (“pull factors”). The study’s second phase included in-depth interviews with a group of survey respondents.

As shown in Figure 1, the majority of respondents reported moving to the Gulf with the hope of being able to support their families. They expressed a commitment to the region and a lack of desire to return to their home countries within the next ten years.

“Life is a lot easier here. The laws in my home country are a somewhat complicated . . . even water is difficult to get, and the power goes out frequently. You wake up in the morning and have to think about all these things,” says one educator, who works in Ras Al Khaimah.

Figure 1:  Push and Pull Factors Related to Teacher Migration


The survey results also point to professional development and career opportunities as a major pull factor that attracts workers to the Gulf region. Despite many migrant teachers’ hopes for professional development opportunities in the UAE and Qatar, though, 59% of respondents suggested that their career progression in the Gulf did not meet their expectations.

While expatriate teachers may find more political stability in the UAE and Qatar than in their home nations, working conditions abroad contribute to an atmosphere of professional instability. Many teachers are only awarded contracts one or two years at a time, making their futures uncertain.

In addition to this, the economic burden often placed on Arab teachers as a result of their supporting family both in their host nation and home country has contributed to an environment in which Arab migrant teachers are generally most concerned with providing for the immediate future. As such, male teachers in particular may be incentivized to engage in additional income-generating activities such as private tutoring, although teachers in the UAE are technically prohibited from offering such services.

“I spend around three hours a day on external activities,” says a respondent from the UAE, adding that “being a private teacher is not an easy or respectable thing.”

As both classroom and private instructors, Arab expatriate teachers currently represent an indispensable part of the national education systems of the UAE and Qatar. Moreover, research indicates that host countries should make every effort to engage and motivate teachers so that national students, boys in particular, receive the best quality of teaching possible. 

According to a 2012 UNESCO report, “It is critically important to provide frameworks that protect [migrant] teachers and to acknowledge that, formally recognized and properly supported, these same teachers can present an important resource for recipient countries to educate children.”

This study suggests ways that the trend of migrant education workers should be addressed and leveraged, particularly in the Gulf, for the benefit of local students and the national economy of the UAE, which is increasingly relying on human capital.

“At the end of the day,” observes Dr. Ridge, “investing in Arab expatriate teachers means investing in the next generation of Emirati and Qatari workers and leaders.”