Health & Education

New Horizons


After making significant advances in school quality in recent years, government and educational leaders are working to strengthen international ties and turn Dubai into a new hub for research, better equipped to increase human capital and create a knowledge-based economy.

Dubai’s multifaceted educational system reflects the city’s global nature. Arab, British, Indian, and American educational traditions are just a few of those represented thanks to the Emirate’s growth and development bringing in citizens of those regions. As Dubai seeks to diversify its economy, increasing knowledge-based skills is one of its top priorities. To this end, government officials have worked to increase connections with foreign universities, opening up satellite campuses and establishing research partnerships to increase the transfer of skills.


Dubai’s primary and secondary education system is free and compulsory for all citizens from age five through 15. Public education is conducted primarily in Arabic, with strong emphasis on English as a second language. Dubai has a well-established private school network, with classes offered in a wide scale of international curriculums. American, British, and Indian are the most popular among private schools, but Dubai’s global community has allowed it to support French, Canadian, IB, Iranian, Japanese, and Russian private schools, among others. Dubai’s private schools are overseen by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which was created in 2006. As of the release of 2016 report from the Dubai School Inspections Bureau (DSIB), the KHDA’s inspection arm, Dubai had 173 private schools that educated some 265,000 enrollees, or approximately 90% of all students. Over 240,000 of these students were international, a marker of the city’s globalization and international population.

Balancing the different educational needs and demands of such a wide-ranging population has its challenges, and improving the quality of its primary and secondary schools through standardized testing and application of leadership best practices is one of Dubai’s top priorities. As measured by the DSIB, the system has made significant gains in recent years; its 2016 report found that 61% of students attend schools that provide a “good or better” quality of education, as measured on their inspection scale. This is a marked increase from 2008-2009, which found that only 30% of students were in this category of schools. Even as recently as 2014, just 53% of students could be found in schools that made this cut.

One challenge facing the Dubai school system is that its schools are not evenly distributed by curriculum; the proportion of Outstanding-to-Good schools with UK, IB, Indian, and French curriculums is much higher than in US or Ministry of Education schools. This gap, in large part a reflection of the demographics of international workers from these countries, is one of the Dubai government’s top priorities. To improve US curriculum schools, for example, KHDA has partnered with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges to align standards and assessment policies and begin the process of obtaining accreditation by this body. With over 48,000 students—including 20,000 Emirati—in these US curriculum schools, meeting high standards will have significant positive effects as the Emirate looks to create a more skilled population. Another point of emphasis has been to improve educational outcomes for students with special needs and disabilities (SEND). A 2006 UAE Law guaranteed SEND students the right to educational accommodations, and the Emirates have spent more than USD2.4 million in the years since ensuring that schools are outfitted with the support systems needed. Within the past three years, Dubai schools have doubled the rate at which they identify students with SEND and have made key strides in developing new curricula and finding qualified teachers.

Overall though, Dubai’s educational system is trending upward. Standardized test performance has been rising sharply across all educational areas, and self-reported leadership and student support assessments have reported growth even as the rigor and expectations of the schools has risen. Dubai will be piloting a new Emirates Standardized Test in spring 2017 in an effort to measure readiness and skill acquisition throughout the years. Administered in grades one, four, six, eight, and 10, the EmSAT will help the Emirates better understand how they measure up to international standards and become a new admissions test for public post-secondary schools in the UAE.


Heavy investments increased the options available for post-secondary education in Dubai, but the system is still working to find a balance for success in the modern world. The influx of foreign investment has brought a new wave of universities to the Emirates, allowing talented students to attain a good education without leaving the country, a major step for creating a strong and sustainable economy. However, there is a clear split between public and private schools; public universities are free but usually lower quality, while private schools offer the opportunity to interact with top global institutions but are some of the priciest in the world. Despite the high prices, the private sector has been thriving in recent years, with international students and Emiratis alike drawn to the world-class educational quality at these institutions. The Dubai government has been happy to welcome private foreign entrants, passing a law in 2012 that gave degrees from licensed foreign operators the same status as public degrees, removing a major barrier to acceptance by Emirati citizens. Today, more than 60% of all Emirati citizens are at private universities.

Private universities started arriving in Dubai in the 1990s and now constitute the majority of the market. Fully aware of the potential of the sector and the need to create areas of close interaction between universities, Dubai’s government has created free zones where private and foreign schools cluster, creating zones conductive to collaboration and research. The most important such centers is the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), which, with more than 24,000 students from 145 nationalities studying in its 25 international schools, is one of the largest educational centers in the world. Mohammed Abdullah, DIAC’s Managing Director, sees DIAC as an important host for educational infrastructure in the region. “We have specific infrastructure that caters to the requirements of academic institutions [including] robust connectivity with their main campuses,” Abdullah told TBY. “For example, Amity University came to Academic City in 2013 and immediately set up shop on one floor of a pre-built learning space, which was followed by an expansion the next year into a second floor and in 2016 it launched its brand new campus, which it built. Infrastructure has been put in place to help these universities be proactive and grow.”

The next steps for Dubai’s university system is to solidify its position in the country, and improve research capabilities in order to develop a knowledge-based economy. To do so, several universities are working to expand their physical presence in the Emirate, moving from DIAC to larger and complex university complexes. Amity University’s growth and development is a representative example; the Indian-based school has become the first foreign institution accredited to award law degrees approved by the indian Bar Council. Other institutions making key advancements abroad include the University of Manchester’s Dubai Business School, which has become one of the most successful professional programs in the region since its arrival in 2006. Director Randa Bessiso views the program’s public-private partnerships and global connections as emblematic of the new kind of education needed in Dubai. “Business education is key to developing knowledge economies,” Bessiso told TBY. “Public-private partnerships have a huge impact on business, and we have invested a lot of effort in bringing in partners to help develop business ideas into tangible projects… Ultimately, we are helping to provide the academic framework to stimulate and promote innovation within the Emirates with an ecosystem to foster innovative business ideas.” The continued development of programs like these bodes well for Dubai’s daring ambitions.