Qatar’s economy may be in the midst of expansion, with oil and gas income nearing an all-time high and GDP tipped to expand by up to 19%, but the country’s planners are looking to a far-off future where hydrocarbons play a less significant role in the economy, and their plans for diversification are based on education.
In late July, a senior state official said this policy of diversification needed to be taken a step further, shifting the base of the economy not just away from oil and gas but towards providing increasing employment for locals, instead of bolstering the number of foreign workers which in turn marginalised nationals.
Ibrahim Ibrahim, the head of the General Secretariat for Development Planning, said Qatar should look to focus on developing an economy that emphasises technology and capital-intensive businesses, rather than industries that are reliant on manual work.
"We are recommending a different type of development path that will reduce the dependence on foreign labour," Ibrahim said in an interview with the Bloomberg news agency on July 23.
The direction that path will take has been set out in the Qatar National Vision 2030 (QNV), the policy document launched in late 2008 as the broad social and economic plan for the future of the country.
The central objective of the blueprint is for Qatar to be transformed by 2030 into a country capable of sustaining its own development and providing for a high standard of living for Qataris for generations to come.
Acknowledging that there will come a day when the country’s vast reserves of oil and gas will run out, the QNV says that the economic future will increasingly depend on the ability of the Qatari people to deal with a globalised economy that is knowledge-based and extremely competitive. To win that competition, the government has recognised the need to develop an advanced education system and to boost the effective participation of Qataris in the labour force.
To that end, the government has been increasing the levels of funding for education, both to ensure higher teaching standards but also to vastly expand the system’s infrastructure.
The projected education spend for the 2010/11 fiscal year – which began on April 1 – is $4.8bn, more than double the allocation under the 2007/08 budget, when just over $2.2bn was dedicated to the education system, and more than 10 times the $440m budgeted for in the 2004/05 term.
Of the total education budget for the present fiscal year, $2.1bn has been earmarked for buildings and educational facilities, a figure close to half of the entire national capital works budget of just five years ago. However, while the government has been investing heavily in education over the past decade, it does seem that it may take a little longer for those investments to pay off, at least in terms of employment in the private sector.
According to the results of a recent study undertaken by the International Bank of Qatar, 88% of Qatari nationals in employment work in the public sector. The report, issued on August 8, said that Qatar had the highest ratio of public employment for nationals among the member states of the GCC, followed by the UAE at 85% and Kuwait with 82%.
Sanjay Modi, the managing director for India, South-east Asia and the Middle East for global online employment agency Monster, believes even greater steps have to be taken to ensure the region’s education systems provide skills training that will prepare graduates for work in the private sector.
"What you have to look at is education and employability. What the corporates and the employers are finding a challenge is the skill set, and I think that is where government support is required," Modi told news portal Arabian Business on July 29.
While the higher spending in the education system may not as yet have been translated into stronger participation rates within the private sector, this can in part be explained by one of the underlying tenets of the QNV, which sets out that there should be incentives for Qataris to enter professional and management roles in education, as well as the business and health sectors.
Qatar is still trying to fill the remaining gaps within its educational sector, developing local educators who in turn will be entrusted with providing those coming after them with the skills needed to take the policy of diversification a step closer to the goals of 2030. Once these trained education professionals are in place, then Qatar will be well on its way to turning this vision into a reality.