The realm of education has undergone a significant transformation with the pervasive influence of digital technology. In a recent Q&A session with Soraya Beheshti, Managing Director at Crimson Education - EMEA | Vice President of Columbia Alumni Association UAE, we explored the profound effects of this digital revolution on education in Ras Al Khaimah, as well as the investment prospects it has unlocked in the region.

#RAKIS: How is the global education sector changing, especially in terms of cross border education and international collaboration? In what ways do you see the  educational landscape in Ras Al Khaimah evolving within this global context?

Soraya Beheshti: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, education was largely a stable and traditional industry. Seeds of change had begun to sprout, but it was really the pandemic and the shift in global culture it produced that spurred a period of unprecedentedly fast change for the industry. School closures around the world had a significant impact on education and forced people to rethink normative models of delivery.

The UAE specifically has invested into edtech and there is a strong push from state and federal government to invest further into educational innovation. The MENA region displays higher digital penetration than many other parts of the world, which will be helpful in facilitating this transition.

The regulatory environment is also favourable to cross-border education, particularly for expats, as the government makes it relatively easy for those students to explore non-traditional options, such as online or distance learning.

We are also seeing a boom in the establishment of satellite or branch campuses, regional offices and global centers from leading international education providers - for example, NYUAD. The Universities of Bolton, Stirling, West London, as well as Swiss Business School, Bath Spa University and Birmingham City Universities have all established branch campuses in Ras Al Khaimah, signifying the increasing internationalization of education. This permits students to access quality international education without leaving the region, but also draws inbound students from around the region to the Emirate. Local universities also offer international exchange programmes, which enriches the learning experience for students at both ends. In addition, the leadership of the Emirate has invested in bringing other kinds of opportunities to the academic ecosystem - the 14th International Workshop on Advanced Materials (IWAM) was held in RAK and brought academics, scientists - including a Nobel Prize winner and a member of the Nobel Prize Committee for Chemistry - together to discuss the role of science and scientific research. This demonstrates top-down alignment with the goals of developing the educational ecosystem and instilling a love of science and learning in younger generations.

We are also seeing a greater emphasis on skills-based learning, especially in STEM. The Ras Al Khaimah Teachers Network, for instance, offered a free course on Project-Based Learning. Through role-playing, real-world scenarios, assessments, and practical skills training, the course is focused on helping students to ‘do’ as well as to ‘know’. The establishment of centers such as the Youth Hubs further emboldened these efforts by providing a central public space for young people to be exposed to new technologies, as well as to build them.

Finally, the work of foundations like the Al Qasimi Foundation, as well as government departments, supports professional development for educators through teacher-centered initiatives, workshops, training programs, partnerships and more.

#RAKIS: What specific areas within the educational sector in Ras Al Khaimah or UAE  in general do you see as promising investment opportunities, and what factors  make them particularly attractive for potential investors?

Soraya Beheshti: International and cross-border education is growing in the Emirate and could be promising for international and regional investors. In addition to the branch campuses mentioned above, there are opportunities for investors in EdTech and e-learning platforms to develop innovative tech solutions aided by the support of the government. The tax free environment, paired with smart government platforms and the generally lower cost of operating and acquiring talent in the region, make RAK an attractive business environment. Since the market is smaller than other Emirates, entering the online education segment - which can extend its provision beyond borders - would allow investors to reap the benefits of the regulatory and operational environment in RAK while serving more markets.

Research and innovation can also be a lucrative area for new and existing players. The UAE aims to position itself as a global hub for innovation and has invested accordingly across the Emirates. Labs, conferences, research centers, technology parks and educational programs are abounding - but there is definitely scope for more players to enter Ras Al Khaimah. Technical skills training is also in high demand, so STEM-focused institutions could do very well.

#RAKIS: From an investor's standpoint, what strategies or approaches would you  recommend to capitalize on the growth potential of the education sector in this  region?

Soraya Beheshti:

  • Market research: In addition to doing quantitative research on the market, it is also a good idea for new entrants to actually spend time in market, speak to people, get to know the ideal customer and better understand cultural or regional specificities. I would also recommend stakeholders consult with local players, or possibly even enter the market first through partnership with established players.
  • Procurement: Whatever the industry, there are ample opportunities to respond to RFPs and participate in government tenders. This can be a great way to enter a new market as the deliverables are established many months in advance and the awarded player can have a reliable income stream. These tenders range in size and scope - and they can take a lot of time to research, respond to  and design for. However, they will be the right fit for some organizations.
  • Partnerships: As noted above, prior to hard-launching in a market, it can be a good idea to first soft-launch through strategic partnerships with local providers and industry stakeholders. This will facilitate a smoother market entry, provide valuable local insights, enhance credibility and expost you to a network that you may not otherwise have.
  • Sustainability and Social Impact: The government of Ras Al Khaimah is investing into sustainable solutions and operations, so aligning your business to this broader vision is a good idea. Initiatives focused on environmental responsibility, energy transition, gender equality, inclusivity, accessibility for People of Determination, and community well-being will not only be good for your brand, but may also qualify you for certain grants, projects or benefits.

    Moreover, as the UAE was host to the COP-28 conference, there is even greater attention being paid to sustainability. Ensuring that your brand values and messaging genuinely align with these prerogatives will help your institution grow.

#RAKIS: Considering the current economic climate and regional dynamics, what  factors should potential investors prioritize when assessing investment  opportunities within the education sector here?

Soraya Beheshti: Like any go-to-market (GTM) strategy, a market entry plan for RAK should consider a range of factors, taking into account the current and future economic climate, cultural specificities, and regional dynamics. These may include:

  • Economic outlook: new entrants should study recent and historical economic trends, growth projections and economic policies. In addition, a GTM strategy should identify potential risks and opportunities that may arise in the future.
  • Regulatory environment: one should study the current government policies pertinent to the industry one seeks to enter, as well as communiques about changes to the law that may come into effect. The UAE has a unique licensing system with both on- and off-shore companies. Firstly, a new player must decide whether their business is most suited to on- or offshore licensing. In case of the latter, the player must then identify which of the manifold offshore free trade zones is the best fit for their business. Each FTz has its own rules and regulations, benefits, requirements, and operational possibilities. It is absolutely crucial to do your due diligence and make the right choice from the get-go. Education, specifically, is a more regulated industry than some others. Depending on your business activity, a market entrant may be required to be accredited, which would restrict your options to those permitted by the accreditation authority.
  • The customer: any GTM plan should include an analysis of the market’s demography, age distribution, socio-economic factors, in- and out-bound migration trends and purchasing power. A new player should identify their target customer and map out their ideal customer journeys, taking into account how and where these customers consume, how to reach them, what their values are, marketing trends and educational needs. It is absolutely essential that you are providing genuine value to your customer, which you can only do if you truly understand them and their needs.
  • Talent acquisition: the population of the UAE, being primarily expats, is a unique environment to hire in. The majority of residents require a work visa to live and work in the country, which is a cost that any organization must factor into their GTM plans. In addition, it is mandatory for employers to provide health insurance to its employees, as well as an end-of-service benefit. Some FTz have their own employer contribution scheme. Organizations should study and compare different options and identify which scheme or FTz makes the most sense for them. Investors should also consider how they plan to attract talent to their business. Universities can be a great source of entry-level talent, so having a plan to hire out of them could be a good idea. If they plan to recruit highly specialized/skilled labour, they may need to expand the scope of their search geographically, which may hike the cost of employment up.
  • Competitive landscape: some industries are still in a nascent stage, which could offer huge advantages to a resourceful, dynamic business willing to enter their market, get their hands dirty and build demand. This can be difficult and may require investment into education the market on the product or service you are offering. However, it is also very rewarding when done correctly as there will be little competition to start with. With time, however, new competitors may arise inspired by the success of your venture.
  • Cultural specificities: educational offerings must be sensitive to the local culture. Schools may be required to offer Arabic and Islamic instruction, and other content may need to be adapted to align with local values. As the UAE is a multicultural country, one may need to be aware of multiple cultures as your customer base could be extremely diverse. Getting this right will lead to deeper penetration of the market and a greater acceptance of your business.

#RAKIS: What is your assessment of the impact of the RAK Investment and Trade  Summit on the development and expansion of educational opportunities in the  region?

Soraya Beheshti: The RAK Investment and Trade summit plays an important role in shaping economic initiatives in the region by bringing together key stakeholders, government officials, investors, businesses, consultants, academics and investors to discuss challenges and opportunities and promote knowledge sharing. It also facilitates networking, collaboration and partnerships. It’s also a good opportunity for organizations or individuals to interact with the local government and thus learn more about the environment they aim to operate in. This platform plays a crucial role in permitting the government to signal its commitment to the development of the education sector, as well as their overall vision. Companies can then make sure that they align their business models accordingly, leading to a greater chance of success.