Growing demand for international schools in GCC

11 October 2023 2 min. read

With a rapidly expanding expatriate community of workers in the GCC countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE) there is a growing demand for international schools that teach in English or other non-local languages.

The Middle East leads global growth in international schools due to a rising population, a post-pandemic surge in expats, and a strong demand for English-language education.

According to analysis by strategy consultancy L.E.K. Consulting, the GCC region is the global leader in international school enrollments, boasting around two million students and an 8% increase in schools over the past five years.

Growing demand for international schools in GCC

Source: L.E.K. Consulting

“The region punches above its weight in terms of market size. There is a large degree of private participation in the region and the market size – when you just look at the enrollment and the fees – equated to billions and billions of dollars,” said Ashwin Assomull of L.E.K. Consulting at the recent EdEx MENA conference in Dubai.

In the region, Dubai is the largest market for private school services. The demand is fueled by a growing number of expats, especially from China, Ukraine, Russia, and Southeast Asia, alongside the return of western expats after Covid-19. Dubai’s population is set to nearly double in the next two decades.

Furthermore, there is a noteworthy uptick in demand from locals in Saudi Arabia, driven by parents who experienced international education and aspire for the same for their children. Qatar is also a rising star in international school education.

K-12 market in Qatar

Source: L.E.K. Consulting

“There is a greater preference from the local Qataris for private schools as well, as well as expats coming into the market. Saudi is open to international operators and investors, but clearly the successful operators in the UAE and the rest of the region are in a perfect position to come into Saudi. They know what it means to deliver quality education to a mix of locals and expats,” said Assomull.

L.E.K. Consulting reports that Dubai's premium education sector is nearly at capacity, with 88% of seats occupied at the end of 2022—a number projected to rise to approximately 95% by October 2023.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are front runners in the international education sector, with more and more international students thanks to their overall rising status as international cities and also, in part, due to the demise of China as an international education destination.

“What characterises a lot of the market in the GCC is that it’s not just an expat story. There are locals and long-term residents, which leads to greater resilience for the K-12 markets in the GCC.”