The Arab world is experiencing a silent yet multidimensional revolution that needs to be closely assessed: a surge in higher education, along with its privatization and its internationalization. While in 1940 there were only ten universities in the MENA countries, by 2000 there were 140 such institutions and by 2007 their number had reached 2601 —two-thirds of which were founded after the 1980s. Last to participate in this academic boom have been the GCC countries. Eight universities were operating in Saudi Arabia in 2003, but at least 100 additional universities and colleges have been created there since, and the country’s annual budget for higher education has reached $15 billion, for 23 million inhabitants.2 The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have established 40 foreign branches of Western universities over the same period.

This Brief explores the issue of higher education as a critical political problem in the Arab Middle East. After reviewing the main trends in higher education in the region, along with the principal locations and actors figuring in the current academic boom, the brief explains why higher education is a central issue in the Arab world and then proceed to analyze the broader political background underlying these new academic dynamics. Finally, the main challenges, domestic and international, facing higher education in the Arab Gulf are assessed.