Why have Gulf students fallen out of love with the US?

While fewer are going to the US for higher education, the UK remains popular and Asian options are sparking more interest

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. US universities have seen a decline in the number of students from Middle East countries. AP
Powered by automated translation

While the number of Emiratis studying in the US nearly halved between 2015 and 2023, this appears to be part of a wider decline, with fewer young people from other Gulf nations also making the move.

The drop is particularly noticeable with students from Saudi Arabia, but Bahraini and Kuwaiti student numbers in the US also fell significantly.

What's more, Middle Eastern student numbers in other popular western higher education destinations, such as the UK and Australia, appear to be mostly holding up. However, analysts said there was increasing interest in travelling to countries in East and South-east Asia for higher education.

In the 2022-23 academic year there were 1,502 Emiratis enrolled at higher education institutions in the US – little more than half the total of 2015/16, when there were 2,920.

Figures in International Education's Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange also show that, over the same period, the number of Saudi Arabian students in the US fell from 61,287 to 15,989 – almost a three-quarters drop – while Qatari students numbers plummeted from 1,443 to 404.

Numbers of Bahraini and Kuwaiti students in the US also fell significantly, although the popularity of the US among Omani students remained roughly the same.

Safety, cost and 'mistrust'

Personal safety, including the risk of gun crime, and also tuition fees have been cited as factors putting students off the US.

Vinay Loungani, sales manager for the Middle East and North Africa for Crimson Education, which assists students looking to study abroad, said there had been a downturn in interest in the US from the region.

“Many Middle Eastern families we encounter are less inclined to send their kids to the US due to safety reasons, financial commitments and overall distance between the UAE and the US,” he said.

“They feel much more comfortable sending their kids to the UK or other countries, such as in Europe, when their kids insist on wanting to study abroad.

“However, there are a few families who still want their kids to go to the US to study, especially if they can get into a top school … The reason is the tremendous return in terms of opportunities these top schools can provide students.”

In 2022 in the Journal of International Students, Dr Ryan Allen, then of Chapman University in Orange, California, and Dr Krishna Bista, of Morgan State University in Baltimore, suggested that an unwelcoming climate may deter Middle Eastern and some other students from going to the US for higher education.

“Eventually, students from places that have been particularly targeted, such as China or predominantly Muslim countries, may choose not to come to the United States for study,” they wrote in a paper titled Talented, Yet Seen With Suspicion: Surveillance of International Students and Scholars in the United States.

“Universities and educators must continue to fight and protect this population from misplaced speculation and scapegoating.”

They said “mistrust” of international students “has been embedded throughout US immigration history”, with security concerns a key reason, adding that “the entire population of international students” should not be “scapegoated”.

This is something Robin Solomon, counsellor for public affairs at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi, sought to assure would-be students is not the case, saying US towns and cities are “welcoming and safe”.

“The concerns, I can guarantee, are being discussed in American homes, being discussed all around the world, with students and parents and educators for whom the US system of higher education has great appeal, but for whom there are very deeply felt concerns for safety,” she previously told The National.

Improvements at home

Multiple factors may account for some Middle Eastern students deciding not to go abroad for higher education.

Changes in scholarship regimes from their own government have been cited by analysts as affecting Saudi Arabian students in particular.

Also, a wider range of high-quality educational institutions at home means the desire to go overseas may have reduced.

The opening of New York University in Abu Dhabi more than a decade ago is a key example, said Soraya Beheshti, a regional managing director for Crimson Education.

“Without a doubt, the establishment of NYU Abu Dhabi, which is probably one of the best universities now in the entire region, would have made the UAE more attractive to both domestic and international people,” she said.

Likewise, she cited institutions in Qatar linked to three US universities – Georgetown, Cornell and Carnegie Mellon – as helping to encourage students to remain in their home country.

Better employment opportunities in the Gulf for new graduates is another factor, Ms Beheshti said.

High competition

The UK, another popular destination for Middle East students, has not seen the same drop in numbers as the US, with increases recorded over the past decade or so.

Figures from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency indicate that there were 12,925 first-year students from the Middle East in the UK in the 2011/12 academic year, while by 2021/22 the number had increased to 16,905.

With tuition fees for British students capped, universities in the UK have been heavily increasing their tally of overseas students, who can be charged higher fees.

Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham in the UK, said his country could feel less unwelcoming for Middle Eastern students than the US.

“I don’t think there’s the same degree of threat because people aren’t carrying guns … and we’re really committed to multiculturalism,” he said.

“The universities here are heavily dependent on overseas students to balance the books, so they’re very welcoming.”

He also said cost might be a factor, with courses at British universities likely to be less expensive than those at American institutions.

Australian government statistics paint a mixed picture of the nation’s ability to attract Middle Eastern students over the past decade.

The number of Emirati students has, overall, increased, from 1,633 in 2014 to 1,532 in 2018 and 2,095 in 2022.

By contrast, Saudi Arabian student numbers have fallen heavily, from 4,877 in 2014 to 4,100 in 2018 and 3,276 in 2022, while there have also been steep declines in numbers from Kuwait and Bahrain.

Sweden, which attracts only “very small” numbers of Middle Eastern students, has also seen a drop in the past five years or so from populous Middle Eastern nations such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, according to Dr Per Nilsson, a researcher affiliated to Umea University in Sweden.

The introduction of tuition fees for students outside Europe in 2011 has reduced the numbers from outside the continent, he said, although numbers from Asia have since picked up.

“Most of the students are European students or they’re coming from Asia,” he said.

Attractive alternatives

For Middle Eastern families who remain interested in an education in North America, but who have concerns about the US, Canada is an attractive option, Ms Beheshti said.

“Europe has some options although anecdotally I do hear some of the same concerns, the same sentiments about Islamophobia vis-a-vis Europe, especially France, then there’s the language concern,” she said.

“What I’ve seen growing much more in the UAE is East Asia as a destination. Malaysia, for example, has grown as a study destination. Not for your super highly academic top-of-the-class student, but the general student.

“Part of the reason is that if you go to any of these education fairs, the university admission expos, the Malaysian government invests incredible amounts into these fairs. They are always there, they always have a huge booth and they enrol students or enrol their interest right then and there.”

She also said that, tying in with the priorities of the UAE’s Ministry of Education, there were more students going to countries such as China and Russia for their education. Singapore and Japan are also sparking more interest among Emiratis, she said.

“With some notable UAE or even Saudi business people having graduated from some of these universities in Asia, that all helps to move the needle,” she said.

Having greater numbers of Emiratis with ties to, and language skills from, countries such as these is seen as helping to strengthen bilateral ties.

Tuition fees at top American universities – in pictures

Updated: April 05, 2024, 2:36 PM