A billionaire Emirati industrialist started the region’s largest scholarship fund last week. Abdulla Al Ghurair—who made his fortune in iron, steel and banking—has set aside a third of his family’s wealth to get tens of thousands of Arab students enrolled in universities to get science and engineering degrees. The Abdulla al Ghurair Foundation for Education has an initial budget of $1.14 billion for the next ten years, which the foundation’s chief operating officer Maysa Jalbout says will allow 15,000 underprivileged Arab students to go to university.
“It’s ambitious,” admits Jalbout, “but I’m excited by that number. We should all start thinking at this scale, but it’s still a very small number in terms of the demand.”
The first batch of scholarship recipients will study within the region, but Jalbout is working to expand internationally to give future students the chance to pursue their education outside the Arab world.
While scholarships are the foundation’s main goal, the foundation will also help prepare Emirati students for university with training in English, mathematics and science.
The deadline to apply online for a scholarship this year is relatively soon—May 30th—and potential recipients need to meet a number of criteria. They must be a citizen of an Arab League nation, be under 30 years old, speak good English and have an impressive academic background. Only applicants who want to study for a master’s or a bachelor’s degree in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) subject will be considered.
The foundation has chosen to focus on science because the foundation’s leaders believe it’s an area where the Arab world needs progress. “We want to train people in fields that the Arab world needs to catch up in,” says Jalbout.
Not everyone agrees with the new foundation’s focus. Some scholars say that until the humanities and social sciences get added into the curricular mix, the Arab region won’t get the creative, thoughtful leaders it needs. “When I saw the scholarships announcement, it became clear that as usual we’re not talking about social sciences and humanities,” says Sari Hanafi, the chair of the American University of Beirut’s sociology department.
He says that high-achieving students rarely opt to take social science because the field is not respected. “We need to encourage top students to do social sciences,” he says, “and that means things like scholarships.” He adds that the most pressing issues of conflict and terrorism in the Arab world need more a robust take from social science. “How will we solve the problems of ISIS and authoritarian regimes?” he asks. “You need real social sciences to properly study this problem and understand it, in order to do anything about it.”
The foundation emphasizes on its website that undergraduates who study STEM subjects are apt to get well-paying jobs at a time when youth unemployment is high in the region. To get the new scholarships, students must demonstrate financial need, in addition to being academically qualified. “To be eligible, they must not be able to pay for it themselves,” explains Jalbout.
Determining financial need can be tricky in many Arab countries, where reliable financial documents are not always easy to come by and can easily be doctored. Jalbout’s organization isn’t specifically seeking refugees, but she stresses their applications would be welcome.
There isn’t a single, arbitrary household income figure that applicants’ families have to be under in order to qualify. It’s a more tailor-made process, she says. “Income is relative. It depends on the size of your family and what country you live in,” says Jalbout. “We’re taking those things into account and we’re trying to be as fair as possible.”
The foundation will conduct interviews of shortlisted candidates in June and then announce the full list of scholars in August before they start the fall semester in September.
Successful candidates will be offered a fully funded place at one of the more elite institutions in the region: the American University of Cairo, American University of Beirut, American University of Sharjah or Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. Depending on their needs, some students will also get help with living expenses and relocation costs.
The foundation hopes to offer places at more universities in more countries in the coming years. “We really want to send students to universities where they offer the best STEM programs in the world,” says Jalbout, “and so we’re looking at the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada primarily.”
Through the scholarships, Jalbout hopes to create a generation of leading Arab scientists, engineers and innovators. “The Arab world really needs a ‘good news’ story,” she says, “and we hope this could be one.”