How can healthcare and education in the Gulf keep pace with a fast-changing world?

The Gulf Cooperation Council has made big strides in the development of its social infrastructure
The Gulf Cooperation Council has made big strides in the development of its social infrastructure.
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  • The populations of the GCC nations are growing, and growing older.
  • While much progress has been made in the region's healthcare systems, demand is growing fast.
  • The private sector – as well as public education systems – will have a key role to play in meeting these needs in the future.

Education and healthcare form the backbone of our societies, and in some cases can make or break a civilization. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have been playing catch up with the more developed world for decades, despite making notable strides in these areas.

The GCC's demographics have been signalling the dire need for intervention – as evidenced by a growing and ageing population, the prevalence of lifestyle diseases, the need for democratization, and the provision of education for all. Over the past 20 years, reforms in the GCC have been driving change, yet this has not been fast enough to address unprecedented demand for – and shortages of – social infrastructure.

More recently, however, a fundamental shift has gotten underway across larger economies such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as a result of these countries' 'national transformation programmes'. The aim of these programmes is to shift gears from an emerging region to a region of opportunity and transformation.

Historically, this shift was enforced by the need to diversify local economies away from their dependence on oil production. This was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic; while reform was underway beforehand at a steady pace, the pandemic has catalysed faster and more impactful change around the globe.

Taking healthcare systems in the GCC for starters, the improvements over the past 20 years have certainly been impressive. Life expectancy rose from 60.5 years in 1978 to 73 years in 2004; in the same period, infant mortality fell from 69 deaths per 1,000 live births to 18.

Aside from the obvious regulatory changes and the big shift towards improving quality, efficiency and cost, governments are moving away from investing in and operating healthcare facilities and more towards regulating and policy-making. That said, a significant portion of GCC countries' budgets are still being dedicated to healthcare expenditure in the region, which is projected to reach $104.6 billion in 2022 from an estimated $76.1 in 2017, implying a compound annual growth rate of 6.6%.

While the intent for GCC governments may be to continue predominantly subsidizing healthcare for their citizens, demand in the next two decades can only be met with private-sector entrants. Governments are quickly adapting by promoting investment in the region through equal opportunities, major policy changes and regulatory frameworks to attract private players into the GCC while enabling them to create the scale needed to remain competitive and financially rewarded.

Ultimately, this will create a healthcare system that is accessible, cost-effective, and of a comparable standard to the rest of the developed world. However, more needs to be done to solve the fundamental gap in the numbers of physicians, a problem that stems from education provision across the GCC.

If we were to look at education systems in the GCC 20 years ago, we know we would see far fewer schools, graduates, and women in the classroom. According to the landmark Arab Human Development Report of 2002, the GCC had fallen behind the rest of the world in three main areas, one of which was knowledge acquisition.

Since then, the GCC has increased the provision of education from early years to higher education, creating accessibility for all students including women, improving standards of education, and allowing for private players to enter the market and provide education programs that are compatible with global job market requirements.

The improved educational backdrop has begun increasing human capital in the GCC and reducing the burden of foreign labour. This goes hand-in-hand with the shortage of physicians mentioned earlier. GCC economies, however, have begun facilitating research centres, programme offerings at universities, and provision of international degrees such as those offered by Middlesex University Dubai whereby local GCC citizens have the opportunity to gain a UK university degree from the comfort of their home countries.

Collectively these form the various metrics transforming the social infrastructure backdrop in the GCC. While GCC governments have been busy optimizing their expenditure, creating policies to enhance private sector involvement, and creating a more competitive landscape for healthcare and education institutions, they have made tremendous headway in repatriating patients and students. The real opportunity today lies beyond repatriation and more towards tourism.

Middlesex University Dubai, a university that attracts 30% of its student body from outside the region, is an example of the effectiveness of education tourism in the region. We could even look at the recently announced ‘Elderly Care Centre’ in partnership with Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) that aims to be a centre of excellence for Emiratis and ex-pats over the age of 65. These business models are being formulated to attract healthcare and education tourism, to drive more than just change for local citizens but citizens of the world.

Technology has become a byproduct of the region’s success and agility to overcome the implications of a global pandemic with an expedited rollout of technology-enabled solutions. These changes have increased the accessibility of education by improving the modes of delivery through various EdTech solutions that enable a more personalized approach to learning. Healthcare is no different; it is an area that has witnessed a more prominent and disruptive change with a massive shift towards prevention rather than cure through HealthTech solutions that are more data-driven and are creating efficiencies in operations, costs, and delivery of care.

These solutions are tools to enhance the provision of education and healthcare by providing social equity that is beyond the norm, comparable to leading global economies, and setting a precedent for years to come. The GCC has been busy driving reforms to strengthen the foundations of its social infrastructure, attracting foreign direct investment and diversifying its economies away from oil.

Today the GCC is home to the first EXPO in the Middle East and the largest reforestation programme in the world led by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates Mars Mission. More importantly, the GCC has become a land of opportunity where foreigners have come to build successful businesses that can capture growing demand.

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