Director of Trade & Investment for Saudi Arabia and Deputy Trade Commissioner for the Middle East
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Why independent schools should take a closer look at Saudi Arabia: an opportunity not to be missed in the sleeping giant of the Gulf
There is growing demand in Saudi Arabia for British independent schools. While this market may not be top of mind today when independent schools consider their options for overseas expansion, I’m keen to outline the opportunities and dispel the myths about Saudi Arabia.
As the OECD acknowledges, ‘Saudi Arabia has embarked upon an unprecedented reform agenda known as Vision 2030, which aims to create a dynamic, diverse and sustainable economy. To meet the demands of a 21st century, knowledge-based labour market, Saudi Arabia must develop a highly-skilled population, which puts education at the centre of Vision 2030.’
In 2022 the Saudi Government allocated the equivalent of £37.5bn to education – more than any other sector. Despite having the largest student population in the GCC area (approximately 7 million), private K-12 enrolment in Saudi Arabia is much lower than neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, the market value of the education sector is expected to grow from $4bn in 2017 to $15billion by 2030, driven by the country’s increasing population, increased enrolment in private schools, and increased tuition fees. Government incentives for overseas schools are further supporting the transition to higher-quality private education, with the National Centre for Privatisation aiming to privatise 60 schools in 2021 and increase private enrolment to 25% by 2030.
Worldwide, the British education system remains the most popular international curriculum by far, with 41% of International Schools following the British curriculum, followed by the US (22%) and IB (21%). There is an increasing awareness about the importance of a globally recognized qualification and an immersive English language environment both leading to improved job outcomes and a wage differential. This, alongside a lack of supply of high-quality local school places and a shortage of places in the community international schools in Saudi Arabia lead to a very unique opportunity for independent British schools able to fill the gap in the market.
High demand for the UK curriculum, values and ethos that British schools project are creating huge opportunities for first movers. Saudi nationals comprise over two thirds of the student population, so a steady stream of students is an added bonus for UK schools not reliant on expatriate students to ensure economic viability. In fact, over ten thousand Saudi students are currently studying in UK universities, with yearly increases demonstrating that having the option to receive British K-12 education locally will certainly be of interest to more conservative parents who want the top quality education without having to send their children abroad.
The pace of social change in Saudi Arabia has been dramatic. In just a few years, they have removed the religious police; introduced judicial reforms; dramatically eased restrictions on women; increased female workforce participation from 17% in 2016 to 36% (reaching a 15-year target in 5 years); allowed cinemas and many forms of entertainment from concerts to sporting events; and opened up to non-religious tourism for the first time. By 2030, the capital of Riyadh aims to become one of the world’s top 10 most competitive and liveable cities, and as a result is looking to attract leading global companies, educators and schools. With Vision 2030 Giga projects already valued at almost $1 trillion and expected to further increase in scale, more and more UK organisations are actively seeking to establish a physical presence to gain a foothold in this high-growth market. These top companies will also bring families whose children will need the best education possible.
Significant incentives available evidence that Saudi Arabia is most definitely open for business. The ‘Super License’ offered by the Royal Commission for Riyadh City (RCRC) as part of their International Schools Attraction Program, enables easier market access, lower regulatory requirements and government awarded school sites. The exemptions offered to leading schools include allowing co-education up to year 7, giving flexibility in offering their curriculum, allowing the school director and administration team to be appointed based on qualification (not subject to Saudization requirements), and supporting visa requests (for example, for teaching staff). Kings College Riyadh, the first British branded private school to establish in Saudi Arabia, having opened its doors in September 2021, saw success in partnering with RCRC, as have Aldenham Prep Riyadh (announced 2022). More schools are expected to join the program in the coming year, with those interested strongly encouraged to take advantage of these attractive market entry conditions whilst the initiative is new and the market still unsaturated.
To set up in Saudi Arabia, as is typical for most investor projects globally, UK schools need a local investment partner who will provide the capital and facilities. The most popular partnership model for Independent schools is a management and franchise model or “manchise” in which the school can maintain a strong degree of education management control and the investor will provide the working capital for construction and operational costs, whilst maintaining management control over site development, the buildings and a degree of school operational control through board representation. In this model the investors will receive a good return in the long term from the annual tuition fee revenue and the independent school will receive service fees on school set-up and during school opening.
As a father, it genuinely excites me that the UK’s educational offering is so highly respected and recognized, and that access to the quality of teaching leading British independent schools provide is becoming a possibility locally in Saudi Arabia. I look forward to further supporting leading UK independent schools as they announce their openings in the Kingdom and strongly believe it is an opportunity not to be missed.
If you are interested in getting further information on the Saudi Arabian schools market, or exploring further opportunities, please do not hesitate to contact the DIT Education team who would be very happy to advise you: