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Decline in Gulf country student enrollment hits US universities

Saudi student numbers in the United States plummet from 61,287 to 15,989, a nearly three-quarters drop, while Qatari students decrease from 1,443 to 404.

  • Many families in the Middle East are hesitant to send kids to US due to safety, costs, and distance.

  • Bahraini and Kuwaiti student numbers in US drop; interest shifts to East Asia

  • The number of Middle Eastern students in Western education destinations like the UK and Australia remain stable.

American universities are seeing a decrease in enrollment from Gulf country students, especially noticeable among those from Saudi Arabia. This decline is also reflected in the numbers of Bahraini, Kuwaiti, and Emirati students.

Moreover, the number of Middle Eastern students in other popular Western education destinations like the UK and Australia seems to remain relatively stable.

However, analysts note a growing interest in pursuing higher education in East and Southeast Asia, as reported by The National newspaper.

Data from the Open Doors for International Education report on international educational exchange indicates a significant decline in the number of Saudi students in the United States, dropping from 61,287 to 15,989 during the 2022-2023 academic year—an almost three-quarters decrease. Similarly, the number of Qatari students decreased from 1,443 to 404.

The numbers of Bahraini and Kuwaiti students in the United States have also significantly decreased, although the popularity of the United States among Omani students has remained roughly the same.

Security concerns, high costs drive students away from the US

Personal safety, including the risk of gun crime, as well as tuition fees, has been cited as factors pushing students’ out of the United States.

Vinay Loungani, sales director for the Middle East and North Africa at Crimson Education, stated that there is a decline in interest in the United States from the region.

He added, “Many families in the Middle East that we encounter are less inclined to send their children to the United States, citing reasons such as safety, financial obligations, and overall distance. They feel more comfortable sending their children to the United Kingdom or other European countries when their children insist on studying abroad.”

In 2022, in the Journal of International Students, Dr. Ryan Allen from Chapman University in Orange, California, and Dr. Krishna Bista from Morgan State University in Baltimore suggested that an unwelcoming climate may prevent Middle Eastern students, as well as some other students, from choosing the United States for higher education.

Top-quality local institutions diminish desire for overseas study

There are multiple factors that may be the reason why some Middle Eastern students decide not to travel abroad to receive higher education. Analysts have pointed to changes in scholarship systems by their governments as affecting Saudi students in particular.

The wide range of high-quality educational institutions at home also means that the desire to travel abroad may have decreased.

The opening of New York University Abu Dhabi more than a decade ago is a prime example of this, said Soraya Beheshti, the regional director of Crimson Education. Similarly, she pointed to institutions in Qatar linked to three American universities – Georgetown, Cornell, and Carnegie Mellon – as helping to encourage students to stay in their home country.

UK universities boost foreign student numbers

The UK, another popular destination for Middle Eastern students, has not seen the same decline in numbers as the US, with increases recorded over the past decade or so, as reported by The National.

Figures issued by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in the United Kingdom indicate that there were 12,925 first-year students from the Middle East in the United Kingdom in the academic year 2011/2012, while the number rose to 16,905 by 2021/22.

With a cap on tuition fees for British students, UK universities have dramatically increased the number of foreign students, who can be charged higher fees.

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