The first country in the region to begin developing public education, Bahrain opened Al Hidaya Al Khalifia Boys School on Muharraq Island in 1919, and the first girls’ school in 1928. From these pioneering efforts to today the system has continued to grow, both in terms of state-funded institutions and privately run entities. Education for all is a central tenet of government policy, and Bahrain has hundreds of sector institutions, including over a dozen universities offering degrees in subjects ranging from hospitality to Islamic finance.


The kingdom recognised early on that it did not have the quantities of hydrocarbons that many of its neighbours enjoy, and as a result began the drive to diversify its economy earlier than other GCC countries. It has had notable success in this, particularly in finance, establishing itself as a financial centre for the region. The policy document providing the framework for this ongoing strategy is Economic Vision 2030, and it underscores the importance of education as an enabler for the development of a knowledge-based, diversified economy, and puts human capital centre stage. This is particularly important given that the kingdom is facing competition from other Gulf countries as they also pursue diversification drives.

Between 2000 and 2012 the education sector’s contribution to GDP rose from 2.3% to 4.4%, according to the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB). Measured in raw terms, the contribution of education to the economy rose from BD136m ($360m) in 2000 to BD452m ($1.2bn) in 2012. Today 19% of Bahrain’s population studies in its education system, at a cost of 11% of the fiscal budget. The sector is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 2.5% up to 2018.

Bahrain’s education system consistently rates among the top one-third of countries in global development indices. The World Economic Forum (WEF) “Global Competitiveness Report 2013-14” ranks Bahrain 48th worldwide in terms of the quality of the education system, an improvement on its 56th place in 2008. The kingdom ranked second in the GCC in the 2012 Human Development Index (HDI). According to the same report Bahrain has a literacy rate of 91%.

Public Education

Bahrain has a gross enrolment ratio of 34%, and this is expected to reach 50% by 2025. Pupils attend one of 207 primary and secondary schools, 65 of which are private. Education is compulsory up to the ninth grade. The EDB puts the number of students who attend higher education institutions (HEIs) at 26%, a figure that is growing. Within the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Directorate of Private Education has responsibility for regulating and developing private education, though institutions which focus on vocational training can also get a certificate of approval for their activities from the Ministry of Labour.

The National Authority of Qualifications and Quality Assurance for Education and Training (NAQQAET), established by Royal Decree No. 32 of 2008, provides independent assessment of all educational institutions. Various units within the organisation review different institutions, such as schools, vocational training providers, HEIs and national examination boards. The NAQQAET reports directly to the Council of Ministers.


Tamkeen is a government fund that aims to help improve the employability of Bahrainis, as well as broaden human capital development. Sheikh Hisham bin Abdul Aziz Al Khalifa, undersecretary for resources and services at the MoE, told OBG, “The MoE has a strategy in place to refine the curriculum and ensure students develop skills for the job market and further education.” Bahrain has launched 100 programmes aimed at skills development for Bahrainis to meet local labour market demand. These have benefitted 56,000 nationals since Tamkeen was founded in 2006, providing instruction in everything from the government’s online e-tendering programme to entrepreneurial skills.

Bahrain was also the highest-ranked country among its GCC and MENA peers for grade four based on the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The TIMSS is released roughly once every four years, and allows comparison of performance between students in different countries. The 2011 TIMSS was the largest of its kind, involving 63 countries and 14 educational benchmarking entities. In each country at least 4000 students participated, and the rankings focus on maths and science exams from fourth-and eighth-grade students. The survey gave Bahrain a score of 436 in fourth-grade mathematics, ranking it highest in the Arab world and second in MENA behind Turkey (469). Bahrain was also the highest among Arab countries in fourth-grade science (449), and just behind Iran (453) and Turkey (472) among MENA states.

Its scores slipped slightly among eighth-graders in maths. With a score of 409, Bahrain’s maths students ranked behind Qatar (410), Tunisia (425), Lebanon (449) and the UAE (456). The kingdom ranks 48th among all countries participating in the survey. In eighth-grade science achievement Bahrain’s raw score of 452 put it 40th in the world, the kingdom’s highest global position in any of the four rankings. On this eighth-grade index Bahrain ranked behind the UAE, Turkey and Iran among countries in MENA. This position is more a reflection of the rapid development in other countries than a significant decline in standards in Bahrain, but it does underscore the growing competition in terms of quality of education across the region.

As the GCC countries all face similar scenarios regarding the need to raise the number of nationals in the workplace, a historic reliance on expatriate skills and burgeoning youth populations, it is no surprise that regional strategies have been developed. At the 2012 meeting of the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States, which Bahrain hosted, the member countries agreed on their joint 2015-20 strategy. This committed the GCC to further education integration and raise standards, particularly for Arabic-language instruction.

Higher Education

The first university in Bahrain, the Gulf Technical College – later renamed the Gulf Polytechnic – opened in 1968. It was followed by other government HEIs, including Arabian Gulf University in 1979, the College of Health Sciences (1976) and the Teachers College (1966). In 1984 the University of Bahrain was founded by merging several other HEIs.

A new era began in 2001, when the kingdom’s first private HEI operating under a government licence, Ahlia University, was established. It offers a full range of courses, with faculties of arts, engineering, and finance and business. Another private HEI founded that year was University College of Bahrain (UCB), with a focus on using IT and conducting all instruction in English. UCB specialises in multimedia and IT, although it also offers traditional liberal arts and business programmes.

Since the turn of the millennium, 12 new universities and one new public university (Bahrain Polytechnic) have been launched in the kingdom. At present Bahrain has 11 private institutions, two public universities and one regional HEI (Arabian Gulf University, which is generally only open to GCC nationals, although on occasion students from other Arab states are accepted). These numerous institutions are spread throughout all of Bahrain’s governorates. As a result of this expansion in education, many private universities have relatively low student-to-faculty ratios. The University of Bahrain, for example, has a student-to-faculty ratio of 14 to 1, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland-Medical University of Bahrain has worked to ensure its student-to-faculty ratio meets global standards.

With the number of students in higher education in the kingdom set to rise over the coming years, Bahrain’s Higher Education Council released the National Strategy for Higher Education and Scientific Research in 2014, which lays out the plan for the long-term development of the higher education system (see analysis).

Female Participation

Female education and involvement in the sector has grown steadily. The kingdom’s educational achievements include a high level of Bahrainisation in public school instructional staff. Some 65% of all teachers in the kingdom today are Bahraini nationals. This has been achieved, in large part, by increasing the number of Bahraini women in instructional roles. The number of Bahraini female teachers at all levels grew by 74% between 2001 and 2010. Women now account for roughly 65% of all teachers employed by the MoE. While Bahrain has a number of co-educational universities, the kingdom’s first all-female college was the Royal University for Women, which was established in 2005. The school’s degree programmes were designed with input from McGill University in Canada and Middlesex University in the UK.

The gender gap has been narrowing. Bahrain became the first Arab state to achieve its commitment for education equality as part of the UNESCO’s 2010 Education for All Development Index. According to the WEF’s “Global Gender Gap 2013” report, it ranked 112th, second only to the UAE in the Arab world. Bahrain slipped one place from its previous ranking due to a slight drop in the number of female legislators and senior managers. The TIMSS 2011 for primary students also reflected positively on female education as Bahraini girls scored higher than their male peers in several categories.

The government has sought to increase the number of entrepreneurial and educational opportunities for females. Tamkeen’s human development programme has nearly achieved gender parity, with women accounting for 48% and men 52% of attendees. Private sector educational efforts aimed at women are also playing a key role. Over 1000 Bahraini women have participated in the Women Technology Enablement Initiative, a partnership between the Bahrain Women Union and Microsoft designed to provide vocational experience.

In addition, in May 2014, 10 female Bahraini employees were selected as part of aluminium giant Alba’s Women’s Vocational Training Programme, which will see them receive specialised training and a salary increase over a 24-month period. The costs of the scheme will be paid for by Tamkeen. Such efforts have helped Bahrain achieve the smallest wage gap between men and women in the GCC.

Vocational Training

In 2013, 26,000 new jobs were created in the kingdom, of which just 1000 went to Bahrainis. “To increase the rate of Bahrainisation, more emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring that citizens study for degrees that are demanded by the economy and which develop the employability skills that are so essential in a diversified economy,” Geoff Hancock, the director of education reform for the EDB, told OBG. “For those already in the workforce, retraining and professional development education will remain important.”

Vocational programmes and on-the-job training have been identified as important methods for facilitating private sector opportunities for Bahrainis. Between 2008 and 2013, the Labour Market Regulatory Authority estimates that 90,831 jobs were created, 52% of them in the private sector, 34% in the domestic sphere and 14% in the government. Despite expanding opportunities in the private sector, poll figures provided by the EDB showed that 73% of Bahrain’s youth prefer to work in the public sector. However, once employed in the private sector Bahrainis tend to find more fulfilment in their work than those in government jobs, according to Aon Hewitt’s 2014 “Qudurat” study. The same survey found that 60% of Arab CEOs were satisfied with the skills of Bahrainis, well above the MENA average of 38%. This may be due to the fact that over the past two decades there has been increased interest in studying business in Bahrain. A local branch of the UK’s Strathclyde Business School has seen a 70% rise in student intake over the last 10 years for its internationally accredited master’s of business administration (MBA) programme.

There are an increasing number of centres in Bahrain which allow professionals and those aspiring to work in business to develop their skills, from the Gulf International Institute, which provides vocational training, to EY Training Centre, which offers professional qualifications in accounting and finance. Bahrain is a regional finance centre, and there is growing demand for financial vocational training. Bahrain Institute for Banking and Finance (BIBF) has trained Bahrainis for work in the financial sector since 1981. For those interested in Islamic finance, BIBF offers certificate degrees, while UCB offers an MBA in Islamic finance.

The Gulf Insurance Institute opened in 2007 to train insurance professionals for the Middle East. “Bahrain is ahead of the curve in terms of education, and there are many opportunities here for locals to work in reinsurance and insurance,” said Mark Buisseret, the planning and business development officer at Trust Re.

Bahrain Institute of Hospitality and Retail was founded in 1999, and efforts to increase training in these sectors are being launched by both the government and the private sector in order to increase Bahrainisation (see Tourism chapter). Meanwhile, Bahrain Polytechnic – which was established by Royal Decree No. 65 in 2008 – is focused on diversifying the skills programmes available, and offers everything from certificates to bachelor’s degrees in technical fields. In June 2013 it graduated its first class of engineering students.

Dhaffer Al Abbasi, the CEO of Gulf Aviation Academy, told OBG, “With the future growth of the aviation industry in the Middle East and the world, by 2030 there will a requirement to train about 40,000 additional pilots and some 60,000 new engineers. Airplane technology is rapidly changing and more prevalent, so academies must adapt their training accordingly.”

Private & Public Schemes

Through Tamkeen, the government supports private sector training initiatives such as Arabian East Trading Centre and Capital Knowledge. Government-owned companies also run schemes designed to prepare young people for employment. For example, Alba has been particularly innovative. In November 2013 the aluminium producer launched a new round of training aimed at recruiting 20 secondary school graduates and 40 national diploma grantees. Through such programmes Alba has achieved a Bahrainisation rate of 87%. Traditional vocational programmes, such as those offered by Bahrain Polytechnic, and proactive career counselling are likely to remain important for Bahrain to maximise the potential of its human capital. “Vocational training programmes are important for companies in Bahrain. They will help develop a workforce that is technically trained and with an internationally minded business culture,” said Hancock.

Foreign Languages

There is an increasing realisation that Bahrain’s primary, secondary and university students must be ready to compete internationally. One component of this is to increase their foreign language skills. The National Strategy for Higher Education and Scientific Research singled out bilingualism as an area of focus in future education efforts. Bahrain has a long tradition as a multicultural, bilingual society. The national curriculum requires English be taught to all students, but many Bahrainis are choosing to study a third language too. After English and Arabic, French is the most popular language of study for students, and the preferred third language of instruction.

The country already hosts a number of global language school chains in both the private and public sectors. There is an Alliance Française Bahrain and, although there is no Goethe-Institut, the German embassy provides classes in that language. In the private sector Bahrain is home to two branches of Berlitz Corporation. Lycée Français de Bahreïn in Muharraq is the oldest French-language school in the GCC. Founded in 1976, it is managed by the French secular mission. The newest language institution is the Confucius Institute, which opened in April 2014. Hosted by Bahrain University, it is a joint venture between the MoE and Shanghai University. It is the 431st Confucius Institute to be opened worldwide to provide instruction in Chinese.


Bahrain leads the GCC in maths and science education, but progress elsewhere in the region could narrow the gap. Additional increases in enrolment, completion ratios and graduation rates at all levels are key goals, while further privatisation could help Bahrain maintain its lead through innovative programmes and services. In the private sector there may be room for mergers, particularly in primary and secondary education, as competitors consolidate to achieve economies of scale. According to the Unified Arab Economic Report and the IMF, between 2013 and 2017 investment in the kingdom could reach $45bn, and Bahraini students can take advantage of the jobs this investment creates.