Study Abroad in the Middle East: 2002-2011

Megan Lee

Megan is an international educator, traveler, and writer. She has led study abroad programs in China and the South Pacific.

After a slow start to the new millennium, the Middle East took off as a study abroad destination. Although still just 3% of global study abroad, student numbers grew nearly fivefold from 2002 to 2010. Middle East study abroad is highly variable due to its unstable geopolitical climate. This was illustrated in 2011 when a huge decline in Egypt drove a decrease in the entire region.

What’s been happening:
  • Israel made up 42% of study abroad to the region in 2011. Despite a 16% student drop in 2009, it more than doubled over the decade.
  • After averaging 32% year-over-year growth from 2002 to 2010, the Egyptian Revolution dealt a blow to Egypt study abroad in 2011, causing a 43% decline from the prior year.
  • The UAE and Jordan have shown sharp growth, but still have fewer than 1000 students.
  • As noted in the Europe Report, Turkey's growth of nearly 1500% over the ten-year period is one of the major global success stories.

* Note: For the purposes of our study, Turkey is shown in both the Middle East and Europe reports.

Dr. Linda C. Angell, Director, International Exchange Office at the American University of Sharjah

"The region has obviously changed a huge amount since 2011, so in many cases the numbers showing in your report are not going to reflect the current realities within the region. For example, I would expect to see the numbers decline in future reports for countries such as Syria, Turkey (should unrest happening lately continue), and Bahrain.

The UAE figures also do not reflect current realities. The political and economic stability of the UAE has been attracting a lot of incoming students who initially or previously would have planned to study abroad in other countries within the region, especially after the economic, political and social turmoil of the Arab Spring in many of the countries surrounding the UAE (much of which is still ongoing, and has happened during/after 2011). All of this latest/recent turmoil has dramatically increased the level of interest in the region, but at the same time has reduced the number of perceived 'safe' study abroad destinations. I believe that it is very important to watch these numbers for the UAE - I believe we will see huge increases in the number of students coming to study within the UAE in future reports!

Ghina Elkasti, Doha Resident Director at API

“I believe the majors in international relations and politics have contributed to the rising interest of students to choose the Middle East. Social media, and media in general, have made understanding ordinary life in the Middle East more accessible to students. Nowadays, the Middle East has been the a center of attention due to both its political issues and diversity.

This has made it both an attractive study abroad destination (for the most intrepid of students) and a seemingly dangerous one (causing enrollment numbers to increase less steadily than other Asian countries). Although some countries may be considered unsafe, GCC countries (aka the Gulf countries, such as UAE, Qatar, Oman..some countries like Morocco in North Africa) are much more stable and hold better opportunities for study abroad seekers.

And that’s before mentioning the lingual opportunities - more than ever, we need more speakers of Arabic. Where else can you study to immerse yourself in this language (while still being able to survive with English?!).

Having lived in Qatar and the Middle East for the past 2 decades, I have seen this country grow, develop, and go through major changes. It is increasingly responsive to globalization but at the same time is preserving its unique cultural identity and traditions. This unique dynamic makes it a good place for students to feel both extremes on the same land. Culture, history, norms and traditions, and how they differ from one country to another, make the region chock full of learning opportunities.”

Jonathan Kaplan, Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“At the opening of this period (2002-2012) study abroad in general, and in the Middle East in particular, was hindered by international concern with terrorism, sparked by 9/11 and terrorist attacks in other major cities. Conflicts in the region exacerbated such fears and led many students to seek calmer locations, either in the Middle East or in other parts of the world. Rising transportation costs as well as economic uncertainty in North America and Europe also affected decisions to study abroad, with a resulting decline in the number of long-term students and an increase in summer or short-term options.

At present, internal instability in many Arab countries in the wake of the Arab spring constitutes the major factor affecting study abroad choices in the area. Countries with higher stability have become the preferred choices of schools and students, and several programs have relocated to safer destinations. At the same time, in some countries such as Israel, more operators have entered the market offering an increased number and variety of study abroad options outside the traditional areas of Religious and Middle Eastern Studies. Programs in Business Administration, Psychology, Law, Music, Dance, Art, Film, Public Health, Environmental Studies and Engineering are now available at top academic institutions. While these programs are generally stable, the number of participants continues to fluctuate due to the dynamics of local or regional conflicts and their portrayal in the western media.

The Middle East remains a focus of interest and importance. The dramatic and unforeseen developments of recent years continue to attract world attention to the interplay of economic, religious and political forces in the region. The rich history and culture of the region, the beautiful landscape, and the beaches and centers of entertainment offer students an exciting and meaningful experience that they will never forget. Study abroad options abound, many at very prestigious and internationally recognized universities. With all that the region has to offer, the Middle East will continue to be a major attraction for students world wide.”

Source: Institute of International Education. (2012). "Profile of U.S. Study Abroad Students, 2000/01-2010/11." Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from

Report Methodology

Analysis and graphics for this report were created by Leaf and Square Consulting, a data-consulting firm helping companies get the most out of their data through advanced analytics and visualization. Learn more at

Data for this report came from the 2012 Institute of International Education Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange and the National Center for Education Statistics. We tried to stay as true to the IIE report methodology as possible, but in some instances it was necessary to modify our approach or aggregate data in a different way. A few notes: "Years" in our report refer to the academic year ending.

In general, for countries that changed names or political boundaries during the time period covered in the report, data from years prior to the changes were updated to match the most recent assignment from IIE for consistency.

Exceptions: Egypt was reassigned from Africa to the Middle East. Turkey is assigned to the Middle East for the global report and shown regionally in both the Europe and Middle East reports.

Students traveling to multiple destinations, a significant group, were excluded from our report due to a lack of detailed destination information. Students classified as "Unspecified" to a particular region in the IIE report were spread proportionally to the countries in that region. Data and reports may be downloaded as a Tableau Packaged Workbook by following the link underneath the charts. Further inquiries about the data or methodologies may be directed to [email protected]