The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking the MBA qualification doesn’t have quite the academic cachet it used to have. Post credit crunch, many questioned the value of MBAs, especially as those who advocated the kinds of financial strategies which caused the near collapse of the Western banking system in 2007-08 were often those who had studied at top business schools.
Nevertheless, the crisis has not dimmed the shine of the MBA in the Middle East where both public and private companies have slowly woken up to the fact that a new generation of managers is needed to provide the necessary leadership qualities and management and decision-making skills in an increasingly competitive business environment.
The number of international students on MBA programmes at US colleges and universities increased by three per cent to a record high 690,923 in the 2009/10 academic year, according to a report published by the Institute of International Education. Growth was primarily driven by a 30 per cent rise in Chinese student intake. From the Middle East, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the region that featured among the top 25 listed countries. Some 15,810 students were enrolled on MBAs in the US last year, a growth of 25 per cent.
Yet despite the upbeat numbers not everyone in the Gulf necessarily has the inclination or the time to study overseas full time, especially actively working executives more desirous of furthering their business knowledge closer to home.
Major business schools such as London Business School (LBS), INSEAD, HEC Paris, Cass Business School and Hult International Business School, among others, have responded by setting up local campuses and instituting Executive MBA programmes (EMBAs). Or, in the case of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, establishing a research facility (in conjunction with Abu Dhabi’s Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training) where the principal goal is to foster collaboration among stakeholders, such as business and government, in order to strengthen entrepreneurship and family businesses in the UAE and the region.
LBS has had a presence in Dubai since December 2006, where it offers an EMBA programme.
This year LBS was ranked number one (of 158 schools surveyed) along with Wharton, by the Financial Times in its 2011 Global MBA rankings survey, which compiles data using a number of criteria, including alumni salaries and career development, the diversity and international reach of the school and its MBA, and the research capabilities of each school.
Naufel J Vilcassim, Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum professor of innovation and professor of marketing and faculty director at LBS Dubai, says that given the growth in the region, LBS felt there was a demand that wasn’t being satisfied by its London-based programmes, or by the other schools in the region.
"It was more than simply meeting local demand. It was also an opportunity for LBS to have a greater presence in the region, build our brand and create a larger group of influential alumni and supporters in the region, and to also contribute to the development of management skills in the region," he says.
LBS’s EMBA programme is a five-term, 20-month course – students in both the London and Dubai streams come together in London at the start and end of the programme to complete three modules.
The programme kicks-off with ‘orientation,’ a London-based residential week dedicated to understanding the principles of general management and leadership.
Following this, the two Executive MBA streams continue the core course curriculum in either London or Dubai – the latter involving teaching in a four or five-day block each month.
During the second academic year, students undertake between six and eight elective courses in chosen subject areas including accounting, finance, economics, marketing, strategic and international management, organisational behaviour, management science and operations, and entrepreneurship.
Students typically have between five and 22 years of managerial experience – the majority having worked in different countries around the world.
The programme fee for the EMBA in Dubai is $89,950.
International business school INSEAD (ranked fourth by the Financial Times) meanwhile has been operating in the Gulf since 2007, although it wasn’t until October 2010 – with the support of the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) – that it launched its Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) programme in its Abu Dhabi campus.
Javier Gimeno, Dean of the EMBA Programme and professor of strategy, says the Gulf offers major business opportunities with executives in the region quickly being promoted to increasing positions of responsibility.
"Many of these (people) know that an MBA education will help them progress in their career, but their busy schedules and high level of experience makes them ideal candidates for Executive MBA programmes that use a modular approach," he says.
The GEMBA programme – the same as the one run at INSEAD campuses in France and Singapore – has core courses focusing on fundamental business skills aimed at strengthening business knowledge in multiple areas. These are offered during the first half of the programme. Electives courses, going deeper into some of the disciplines, are offered in France.
At the end of the programme students take part in a computer-based business simulation allowing them to exercise their general management skills and analyse, over time, the effect and interdependence of complex business decisions. The game replicates a set of international competitors, each with multiple products.
The cost of the course is $90,000 for a 12 week modular programme delivered over a period of 15 months.
A more recent entrant to the Gulf has been HEC Paris in Qatar (HEC-Q), part of HEC Paris (ranked 18 by the FT), which launched Qatar’s first international Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) programme in February 2011.
The 14- to 16-month part-time programme – aimed at executives with an average 15 years of professional experience – includes a module on ‘The Fundamentals of Leadership’. Students are also expected to complete modules in business performance management, marketing, and corporate strategy.
This year’s inaugural intake will later select from a range of six majors delivered by partners in Europe, Asia or the Americas – options including entrepreneurship and innovation, and management in an energy-concerned economy. Tuition fees are set at €52,300 ($74,600).
Elsewhere, Cass Business School (ranked 32 by the FT) – part of London's City University – first started offering its Executive MBA (EMBA) programme in September 2007, in collaboration with the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). Dubai being seen then, as now, as an emerging regional hub for business, tourism and finance longer term.
Ehsan Razavizadeh, Cass’ regional director for the Middle East and North Africa says: "We have designed the programme to service the needs of the Middle East and its key sectors. Students can choose to focus on general management, Islamic finance or energy through our electives."
The Cass EMBA in Dubai, costing £34,000 ($54,923), is structured over two years and broken down across three key elements: core modules, elective modules, and the business mastery project.
Based at the DIFC Centre of Excellence in Dubai, face-to-face workshops are delivered over a long weekend once a month and are supported by a virtual learning platform.
Also present in the Gulf is Hult International Business School (ranked 61 by the FT) – the first international business school to offer a one year MBA programme to students across the Middle East when it rolled out its US accredited global MBA program in 2008 in Dubai Academic City. The programme employs elective modules offered for study in Boston and Shanghai, and later the London and San Francisco campuses.
Students begin their MBA at their home campus and can, during elective modules, choose to rotate to up to two other Hult campuses. Irrespective of the campuses chosen, students will study an identical curriculum and receive the same fully accredited one-year MBA. Core concepts taught include: micro-and macro-economics, general management and marketing and strategy. Tuition fees are Dhs203,700 ($55,445).
As international business schools become ever more firmly established in the UAE, so the fears of sub-standard schools offering sub-standard programmes continue to recede.
"As the market becomes better informed, and the UAE government enforces the accreditation processes on international business schools, hopefully these less reputable schools will disappear," INSEAD’s Gimeno says.
But he adds that candidates should always determine the quality of the programme they intend to join at the outset.
Does the school use the same admission standards in the Gulf as it uses in its home campus? And are the curriculum and faculty the same?
"Of course, we could have more participants if we relaxed the standards of business seniority and academic qualifications," he says. "We are in the Middle East to stay, and we are taking the long-term view in building the best EMBA programme in the region."
As MBAs continue to command a premium in the Gulf, the numbers of executives enrolling on regional courses is unlikely to diminish in coming years. As rival institutions continue to compete to provide the best courses – and prices – that can only be good for students.