After the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the ensuing quadrupling of oil prices, oil-exporting countries embarked on ambitious development plans that included expansion in the education sector.  The International Organization for Migration estimates that in 1970 there were about 1.9 million migrant workers in the Gulf States.  By 1985, there were 5.1 million. 

Many governments have introduced initiatives to establish English as part of the national curriculum, consequently the demand for native English speakers has increased. “Getting Migration and Mobility Right” found continued migration of Jordanian teachers to Gulf States, but also American, British, and Australian teachers working in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. On top of competitive salaries, many schools offer benefits, including housing, settlement allowance, paid flight home once a year and health coverage.  However, not all foreign teachers receive the same pay or benefits.  

A wealthy Gulf nation with a small local population, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has long relied on international recruitment to staff schools. As far back as the 1970s, this meant importing teachers from within the region and treating them as a source of cheap labor.  Government figures from 2009-2010 showed that only 1,787 of the 3,154 teachers working in the state system were Emirati.

In 2011, hiring practices began to change when the Abu Dhabi Education Council instituted a new school model curriculum intended to make English a medium of instruction by 2030. This policy change meant that the Egyptian and Jordanian teachers who had been staffing Emirati schools were sent home and replaced by a new crop of English speaking recruits, largely from developed Western nations, who were hired under much more favorable terms and afforded generous benefits. 


Focus groups of teachers on both sides of this policy change reveal striking differences in their experiences. Jordanian teachers who had worked in the UAE spoke of discrimination, lack of support, and wide pay disparities between themselves and the teachers who were nationals of their host country. Jordanian teachers were paid between one half and one quarter the salary of local teachers. Most felt discriminated against by their employer, and some felt mistreated by parents and teachers as well. Few felt the experience had met their expectations.  

By comparison, the Americans and Australians who were hired as English Medium Teachers reported in a focus group that they were treated lavishly. Upon arrival, they spent the first month at the five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi, where their only job was to acclimatize. They earned a tax-free income that exceeded their home country salaries, in addition to free housing, health care, several trips home, and even a furniture allowance. They noted with concern the inequity between their treatment and that of their predecessors from Egypt and Jordan, and suggested that there was even a third tier of salary and benefits reserved for the South African teachers, who fell mid-way between the Westerners and the teachers from the region.

Despite their upscale accommodations in Abu Dhabi, American and Australian teachers were assigned widely varying schools. Some reported being assigned to poorly resourced schools in desert regions, lacking even pencils, paper and books. Others reported placements in well-resourced schools located in more affluent communities. The teachers also noted differing levels of support from school administrators. 


Strikingly, American teachers explained their reasons for working in the UAE by describing their frustration and despair at conditions in U.S. public schools. With an average of 22 years of experience in public school districts, six female teachers used stark terms to describe the forces compelling them to leave the U.S. education system. One described her anguish about the high stakes mandates that set her English as a Second Language students up to fail year after year by requiring that they pass tests for which they were not prepared.  Another made her decision after a round of budget cuts in her school district that required her to take leave without pay for 10 days and made it difficult for her to pay rent. One was demoralized by the negative media attacks on teachers, and another had grown disenchanted with the direction of reforms in the public education system.


Edarabia. “Expat Teachers Aren’t the Only Ones Leaving UAE Public Schools.” The National, 2011. 

Nassar, Heba (2010),"Intra-Regional Labour Mobility in the Arab World: An Overview”, in Intra-Regional Labour Mobility in the Arab World. Geneva: International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Arab Labour Organization (ALO).