No longer a privilege allotted to a select few, higher education is now a requirement in the Arab world, tied in with everything from social mobility to marriage prospects. Nowadays, the notion of traveling abroad for a quality university education has increasingly become a preferable choice for those with means, despite the hefty price-tag that often comes with it.
Yet, this phenomenon is not entirely surprising, as not a single Arab institution is listed among the top 200 universities in the world. Though there is no single benchmark for measuring the quality of education in international institutions, there are a number of international ranking institutions, such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, and the QS University Rankings.
In this list, we attempt to rank the Arab universities that appear in these three rankings.
1. King Abdulaziz University
Ranked among the top 250 universities in the world according to the Times Higher Education ranking. The university was established in 1967 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and includes over 24 schools and institutes with various specializations in the sciences and the humanities. It began as a private university, before it was turned into a public institution in 1973.
The university includes 32 research, training, and documentation centers in various scientific fields, and 21% of its students are international students.
2. King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals
The university was established in 1963 in Dhahran, a petroleum hub in the east of Saudi Arabia, with the purpose of providing specialized degrees in petroleum and mineral sciences. This came amid the petroleum goldrush at the time.
There are seven schools that fall under the umbrella of the university, specialized in engineering, sciences, and design. Classes are taught in English. The university is distinguished in that it includes a business incubator for start-ups and small tech firms, as well as an advisory services center focused on industrial projects in Saudi Arabia. About 21% of the university’s attendees are international students.
3. The American University of Beirut
Considered one of the oldest institutes of learning in the Arab world, the university was established in 1866. It was initially called The Syrian Protestant College, before its name was changed in 1920. Many prominent Arab figures and leaders have graduated from this prestigious institution. In 2016, it ranked as the 84th best university in Asia, and it is ranked among the top 600 universities in the world. It includes six different schools, and 22% of its student body are international students.
4. Khalifa University
The university was established in 2007 as a not-for-profit higher education institution. It provides 10 undergraduate programs in biomedical engineering, applied mathematics, and statistics. In 2012, the Aerospace Research and Innovation Center was established, with the aim of operating as an international scientific institution in the aerospace field. No more than 1,000 students are enrolled at the university, 22% of whom are international students.
5. King Saud University
The second oldest university in Saudi Arabia, it is a state-owned institution that has played an operative role in Saudi political and social history, having graduated various political, economic, and social figures.
The university was established in 1957, and offers a comprehensive range of educational and professional programs in medicine, biology, chemistry, and engineering. It has a number of successful research and innovation projects.
The faculty includes international experts, and its regional and international presence has been advanced through a number of agreements and partnership programs with international universities and research institutes. International students constitute about 7% of its student body.
Only seven Arab institutions make it into the top 600 universities in the world.
Why have Egyptian universities declined, while Gulf universities have flourished?
6. Qatar University
When it was established in 1973, only 160 students were enrolled at Qatar University. Today, over 14,000 students are enrolled there, 43% of whom are foreign students. Its alumni community numbers at over 30,000.
The university has nine colleges, including the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business and Economics, Health Sciences, Education, Engineering, and Law. Moreover, there are 14 research and training centers. Over 2,000 faculty members are employed at the university, including international experts.
7. United Arab Emirates University
The oldest university in the UAE, it was established in 1976. It includes nine colleges: Business & Economics, Education, Engineering, Food & Agriculture, Humanities & Social Sciences, Information Technology, Law, Medicine & Health Sciences, and Science. There are also seven research centers. The campus has two of the most distinguished libraries in the region; the Main Library and the National Medical Library. About 28% of the student body is foreign.
8. Alfaisal University
This private Saudi university offers a range of scientific specializations in the fields of business, engineering, medicine, and science, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. It was established in 2002, and has research partnerships with Partners Harvard Medical International, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Cambridge. Approximately 33% of its students are foreign.
9. University of Sharjah
Although it is affiliated with the emirate of Sharjah, students must pay for an education at the university. Over half of the student body is foreign, and there are 13 different colleges: Sharia and Islamic Studies; Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences; Business Administration; Engineering; Health Sciences; Law; Fine Arts & Design; Communication; Medicine; Dental Medicine; Pharmacy; Community College; and Sciences. It also includes a university hospital, a dental hospital, and an aerospace and astronomy center.
10. The American University in Cairo
Considered one of the oldest universities in the Arab world, the university was established in 1919. Since then, various prominent figures and politicians have graduated from there. According to the latest QS publication, it was ranked among the top 100 institutions internationally for development studies.
The university offers 36 Bachelor’s degrees and 44 Master’s degrees, as well as two PhD programs. Its library is among the largest in Egypt, and there are three modern theaters, as well as 16 research centers. About 6% of those enrolled are international students.
Gulf Universities Take the Spotlight
As the list indicates, Gulf universities occupy the largest number of top spots among Arab institutions, benefiting from the considerable technical and financial resources at the disposal of GCC governments, as well as the higher average purchasing power of their citizens.
Eight out of the top 10 institutions are from the Gulf in 2017, while six of these are in the top 600 universities in the world. This marks a great leap in the educational prospects offered in these Gulf states, both in terms of quantity and quality. Through the recruitment of foreign experts, as well as their large budgets, these universities have managed to make their mark on the regional landscape.
The results moreover indicate that state universities outrank private institutions, providing students with comparatively better educational syllabi according to international evaluations. Out of the top 10, only four are private universities, two of which are not-for-profit establishments.
The Maghreb Retreats
Egyptian public universities, which once occupied the top spots in the region for the larger part of the past century, have significantly declined, falling completely off the top 10 list, though six Egyptian institutions make it onto the top 20 list.
This can be attributed to the social and economic changes that affected Egypt over the past 40 years, and the trend toward privatization.
As for the Maghreb, which includes the two oldest universities in the Islamic world; Ezzitouna University in Tunisia and al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, the higher education in these North African countries have constituted the lowest in the region. Only two universities made it into the top 20 in the Arab world, with a marked decline in Algerian and Tunisian institutions in particular.
Political, security, and economic crises in the two countries have led to the deterioration of the quality of education, compounded by waves of brain drain.
In Tunisia, for example, where the enrollment rates at universities went up from 8% in 1990 to 35% in 2011, there is a lack of correspondence between higher education programs and the job market. The unemployment rate among degree-holders has registered over 30% over the past six years, according to World Bank statistics.