The past decade and a half has seen immense growth in the number of Middle Eastern students completing at least part of their university education abroad. This trend has been fuelled by government sponsorship schemes, exemplified by Saudi Arabia’s huge King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP), which is set to run until at least 2020.
While this is both the largest and best-known such scheme, many other Middle Eastern nations – including Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Oman, Libya and Iraq – operate similar initiatives, in recognition of the long-term economic benefits of boosting access to world-leading universities and international experience. And as perceptions of the benefits of studying abroad grow, the number of self-funded international students from the region has also increased.
As the total number of internationally mobile students climbs each year, Middle Eastern nations are not only keeping pace, but increasing their proportional representation. According to the latest available UNESCO data on international student mobility (from 2012), Saudi Arabia was the world’s fifth largest country of origin for those studying abroad and Iran the tenth – accounting for 62,500 and 51,600 students abroad respectively.
Middle Eastern students in the US
In the US, the world’s leading host of international students, the number of enrolments from the Middle East and North Africa has more than tripled since 2000, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). In 2013/14, the number of students from Middle Eastern countries increased by more than 20% compared to the previous academic year, much faster than the overall rate of 8% growth.
Overall, students from the Middle East now constitute almost 10% of all international students in the US. Saudi Arabia is by far the Middle East’s leading sender; accounting for 6% of all international students in the US, it is the fourth leading country of origin (behind China, India and South Korea), while Iran is the 12th and Kuwait 21st.
Middle Eastern Students in the US
Based on data from Open Doors 2014, IIE [i]
Country of origin
United Arab Emirates
Middle Eastern students in the UK
In the UK – the world’s second-leading destination for international students – Saudi Arabia is again the Middle East’s largest sending nation. As of 2013/14, UK universities were hosting 9,060 students from Saudi Arabia (a slight decrease from the previous year), making it the seventh leading place of origin for non-EU students in the UK. Overall, 27,520 students from the Middle East were studying in the UK last year, constituting just over 6% of all international students in the UK. This represents a 4% increase compared to 2012/13, a growth rate slower than that seen in the US, but again above the average.
International Students in the UK
Based on data from the HESA Student Record [ii]
Region of domicile
Other European Union (EU) countries
Regional hubs remain a popular choice
While Middle Eastern students are among the fastest-growing groups in leading international study destinations, the past few decades have also seen a rise in the popularity of regional education hubs such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The latest UNESCO statistics show that in 2012, 26% of internationally mobile students from Arab states stayed within the region – compared to just 12% in 1999 – and the UAE (specifically Dubai) overtook the UK to become the third-leading destination for Arab students abroad, behind France and the US.
As the table below demonstrates, there is significant variation between Middle Eastern nations when it comes to trends in students’ destinations. While more than two-thirds of Saudi Arabian students abroad are in either the US or UK, countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq see far more of their mobile students staying within the region.
Middle Eastern Students Abroad
Based on UNESCO data (2012) [iii]
Country of origin
Number of students abroad
% of all mobile students
Top destination countries
US (33,066); UK (9,773); Australia (5,392); Jordan (3,295); Canada (3,168)
Malaysia (8,170); US (6,763); UK (3,372); UAE (3,167); Italy (2,975)
Saudi Arabia (6,627); UAE (4,360); Jordan (1,990); France (1,828); Germany (1,570)
Jordan (7,337); UAE (3,875); Saudi Arabia (3,687); Qatar (840); Malaysia (376)
UAE (4,604); Saudi Arabia (3,453); US (1,997); Ukraine (1,943); UK (1,394)
Saudi Arabia (7,610); Malaysia (3,090); UAE (2,223); Jordan (843); Qatar (694)
Jordan (2,959); UAE (2,386); Malaysia (1,782); UK (1,251); India (957)
Jordan (2,876); US (2,412); Italy (1,619); Germany (1,533); Republic of Moldova (1,433)
France (4,567); UAE (1,326); US (1,308); Saudi Arabia (1,189); Italy (793)
US (3,605); UK (1,816); Jordan (1,722); UAE (1,053); Saudi Arabia (671)
United Arab Emirates (5,258); UK (1,202); Jordan (1,079); US (521)
United Arab Emirates
UK (3,089); US (2,031); Australia (1,133); India (748); Canada (255)
UK (1,112); Jordan (673); UAE (535)
UK (1,252); US (948); UAE (434)
As overall international student mobility continues to grow, it seems likely that the coming years will see the number of Middle Eastern students abroad continue to climb, putting the region increasingly on the radar of universities’ international recruitment offices. At the same time, the region’s own institutions are gaining greater global recognition. The past six months have seen several consultations and pilot editions of Arab-region university tables, including a pilot ranking from QS, which was topped by Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.
[i] “International Student Totals by Place of Origin, 2012/13-2013/14”; Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, Institute of International Education (IIE). Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/opendoors