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Are educational institutions in the Middle East preparing students for the skills revolution?

Millions of workers in the region will need to adapt to changing roles over the course of their careers as automation is increasingly deployed.

Are educational institutions in the Middle East preparing students for the skills revolution?
[Source photo: Pankaj Kirdatt/Fast Company Middle East]

Students leaving university this year will enter a different world than when they began their degrees. Not only did the pandemic change the way we live and work – at least in terms of digital adoption – but inroads made by advanced technologies such as generative artificial intelligence (AI) mean that once-valued skills, including copywriting and coding, look likely to be less in demand than they were just a few years ago.

Educational institutions in the Middle East and elsewhere have had to adapt to keep pace with what is being called a skills revolution. Technology has been a feature of most classrooms for several years but is now making deeper inroads into curricula and pedagogy. 

Across the region, universities are offering courses in developing fields such as AI, digital transformation, space, sustainability, and even refugee studies. At the same time, more institutes at all levels are focusing on equipping students with the life skills they need to thrive in the face of these seismic shifts. 

“Over the past decade, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has undergone significant educational transformations, influenced by global trends and regional dynamics,” said Dr James Trotter, Academic President and Dean at Murdoch University Dubai. He said that digital transformation, continuous educational development, STEM subjects, entrepreneurship, and global partnerships are some of the current key features of the education sector in the MENA region. 

“Educational institutions in the region are positioning themselves to prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of the future,” he adds. 


Universities are launching new bachelor’s degrees in AI and autonomous systems so students can learn about and gain hands-on experience building software for smart systems such as driverless cars, robots, intelligent diagnostic systems, and generative models such as ChatGPT. 

To tackle future economic and technological challenges, universities offer a new Master’s in applied AI alongside cybersecurity and data science courses. Qatar’s University of Doha for Science and Technology launched eight new programs this year, including smart manufacturing engineering.

Saudi Arabia is capitalizing on the growing space economy with a scholarship program to give students access to space majors at the world’s top universities. 

These new courses aim to create domain experts in the emerging business sectors already transforming economies everywhere. 


“There is already a new space in the industry for AI-related jobs. Current jobs in the market now require AI-based skills to be incorporated into their existing job profiles. Like an accountant in the past requiring additional skills like MS Office, now specific jobs require AI skills,” says Salih Ismail, Murdoch’s Discipline Lead, Information Technology and AI.

Dataiku, an artificial intelligence player, partners with five universities in the region to foster hands-on learning experiences in machine learning, data analysis, and AI for students and educators.

“By bringing AI concepts into classrooms, we’re enabling students to explore real-world applications and understand AI’s relevance. The outcomes are remarkable — increased student engagement and improved learning experiences. Anecdotal feedback reveals that engagement with AI tools like ChatGPT results in students grasping complex concepts better and applying them creatively,” says Sid Bhatia, Regional Vice President and  General Manager of Middle East, Africa, and Turkey at Dataiku.

The pace of macroeconomic change in recent years has shown why workers will need to be able to adapt and pivot on an ongoing basis throughout their careers. 

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Future of Jobs report, employers estimate that 44% of workers’ skills will be disrupted in the next five years. The research indicated a demand for analytical and complex problem-solving skills, lifelong learning, and technological literacy.

“Competencies or skills are distinct from subject-specific knowledge, skills, and understanding, encompassing transferable technical skills, personal attributes, and behaviors. They underpin students’ academic achievement, access to top universities and global career opportunities, and overall well-being,” says Bharat Mansukhani, Divisional CEO for Middle East and Europe at International Schools Partnership (ISP). 

Mansukhani feels we are headed for an era of creative problem-solving, agility, and innovation in response to volatility, uncertainty, and complexity. He says ISP has programs focusing on understanding their interests and skills, growing decision-making skills, and community and alumni programs supporting continuous education.

“Schools, students, parents, universities, and employers all prioritize the development of life skills as part of a well-rounded education,” he says.


Indeed, as automation becomes more widespread, millions of workers worldwide will need to adapt to changing roles for their careers. Besides embracing new technologies on an ongoing basis, they may find themselves in different occupations as automation is increasingly deployed, according to consultants at McKinsey. 

In the MENA region, the existing work activities that can be automated today are close to the global average of 50%. An estimated 130 million young people will enter the labor market, and another 30 million will likely be exposed to automation by 2030. 

Accordingly, education and skills systems need to prepare learners to become productive workers and citizens and to adapt continuously to changing trends in the labor market and society.

In May, the International Labour Organisation, UNICEF, and the European Training Foundation called for the MENA region to develop and implement market-relevant skills training and job-creation strategies targeting young people. 

Some nations are adjusting policy approaches accordingly, particularly in STEM subjects. 

In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology announced a $1.2 billion plan to improve the digital skills of 100,000 young nationals by 2030. Likewise, the UAE’s Advanced Skills Strategy supports lifelong learning and flexible career skills across sectors. This year, the country announced to upskill 10,000 UAE public school female students in STEM subjects.

“The focus in the MENA region will be on upscaling its e-learning and online education to promote a ‘learn-on-the-go’ environment. Within this, language learning and bilingual education are a focus to allow students to pursue international opportunities, and STEM education is a focus to equip students with the skills for the modern workforce,” says Isil Berkan, Marketing Director, Middle East, Africa & Turkey at global learning company Pearson. 

Pearson recently surveyed 4,000 employees globally and found most were most interested in careers in tech and business-related fields such as e-commerce, data science, and financial services, Berkan adds. “However, they believe human skills – like problem-solving, leadership, and teamwork – are the most attractive to employers now and in the future.”

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Keith J Fernandez is a senior editor, writer and content strategist with more than 15 years experience across digital, broadcast and print. He has worked with and contributed to Gulf News, The National, Al Hilal Publishing and Digital Ink Media. More