With 2015 declared a “Year of Innovation” by the federal government, public and private stakeholders in the emirate have increasingly focused on post-graduate education, particularly research and development (R&D) activities at the PhD level. Both private and government-funded universities have actively sought to expand their PhD offerings, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education taking on increasing prominence as the emirate moves to develop a skilled workforce in its transition to a knowledge-based economy.

Enrolment Growth

Post-secondary enrolment in Abu Dhabi recorded a sharp increase between the 2008/09 and 2013/14 academic years, from 32,360 to 51,333 students, according to data from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR). PhD enrolment has shown an even more dramatic expansion, rising from 32 students in the UAE in 2008/09 to 537 in 2013/14. Abu Dhabi’s first 48 PhD students began their studies in 2010, with PhD enrolment in the emirate rising 425% in just three years to 252 students in 2013/14. In an effort to boost the emirate’s attractiveness to Emirati and international PhD students, the MHESR, together with the Abu Dhabi government, has emphasised STEM-based research, much of which has been developed in partnership with industry in a bid to build a domestic workforce capable of supporting the emirate’s economic diversification in areas such as military training, robotics, aerospace and aviation, and ICT.

Khalifa University

Aviation and aerospace development is supported by Khalifa University (KU), which was established in 2007. Although KU is fully owned by the Abu Dhabi government, it is an independent institution and has risen to become a leading post-secondary innovator through a host of targeted partnerships with the private sector. KU offers bachelor’s degrees in engineering and science, master’s degrees in electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, information security and nuclear engineering, as well as PhD specialisations in engineering, including mechanical, aerospace, nuclear, biomedical and robotics. Tod Laursen, president of KU, told OBG, “We think it is really important that our curriculum reflects an emphasis on preparing people who can contribute to the country. This requires a core of innovation and big development, and answering questions such as ‘How do ideas make it to the market?’ and ‘How do we ensure protection of intellectual property?’.”

The university maintains partnerships with over 20 corporations and private bodies, which have been critical to the development of the university’s expansive portfolio of research facilities. At present, KU offers four R&D centres: the Aerospace Research and Innovation Centre (ARIC), the Etisalat-British Telecom Innovation Centre, the Khalifa Semiconductor Research Centre, and the UAE Advanced Network for Research and Education (Ankabut). The university’s research institutes include: the Gulf Nuclear Energy Infrastructure Institute, the Institute of International and Civil Security, the KU Robotics Institute and the Nuclear Energy Research Group. The university also offers three research centres: the Information Security Research Centre, the Khalifa University Centre of Excellence in Biotechnology, and the Visual Signal Analysis and Processing Centre.

Abu Dhabi University

Abu Dhabi University (ADU) was established in 2003 with around 1000 students at its Al Ain campus, opening a second campus in Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa City in 2006. ADU provides market-relevant, internationally benchmarked bachelor’s and master’s degrees at its College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business Administration and College of Engineering. In 2010 the school partnered with the UAE Armed Forces to offer three new military training degrees, including bachelor’s degrees in military sciences and administration, and military science and specialised management, and a master’s degree in human resources management.

Although the university does not presently offer a PhD programme, students can earn Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business-accredited professional doctorates in business administration. The school’s department of aviation, launched in 2011, offers a four-year bachelor of science degree designed to prepare graduates for master’s and PhDs in the field of aviation, and is starting a master’s in business administration programme in aviation in 2015. Furthermore, in a June 2014 press release the university said that by 2020 it hopes to see total enrolment grow to 8000 students. The university is also looking to improve the environment for R&D and offer both students and professors more opportunities. Nabil Ibrahim, chancellor of ADU, told OBG, “Research is very important, and a focus on this, as well as high-quality faculty members, is vital. We have started to allocate funds for research internally, while in the past such programmes were largely funded externally. Faculty can now devote more time to R&D, and staff can even go on mini-sabbaticals to other institutions in order to collaborate.”

Private Partnerships

Private partners also play a major role in KU’s activities. The Etisalat BT Innovation Centre, for example, was launched in joint partnership with Etisalat and British Telecom with the aim of developing intelligent systems technologies for next generation technology networks and ICT applications. ARIC, established in 2012 to encourage R&D in aerospace engineering, is working to develop manufacturing processes for new and novel lightweight materials and structures. The centre will collaborate with the emirate’s growing portfolio of aerospace companies to help design the next generation of high-performance aerospace structures, supporting the emirate’s transformation into a leading aerospace centre. Laursen said, “Our real focus, at least initially, has been the manufacture of composites for Strata and Boeing, and we will be intensifying this focus in the future with a view to automation. If we want to get a competitive advantage in composite manufacturing, we need automation.”

With connections to over 60 campuses, a 10-GB backbone and 1-GB access links, Ankabut stands as a provider of one of the few supercomputers in the UAE, in addition to providing 155-MB of international connectivity, enabling the transfer of real-time services such as converged instant messaging, voice and video communication, and cloud computing. The Ankabut network also extends to 27 partner institutions, including ADU, the Abu Dhabi Education Council, the Petroleum Institute (PI) and New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). The network, which was first launched in 2006 and financed by the emirate’s ICT fund in 2009, is expected to be extended to 100 universities and 420 K-12 schools over the medium term.

In 2013 Ankabut partnered with Internet 2, a member-owned advanced technology community. The arrangement allows the two networks to explore high-speed interconnections and an open-access environment between participating researchers and educators. In November 2015 the MHESR sponsored a two-day event to discuss innovation and Ankabut. The conference featured breakout sessions during which the UAE’s strategy for education and innovation were discussed, including cloud computing, supercomputing and uses for information in teaching and learning. KU is currently in the midst of an expansion project that will see its Abu Dhabi campus quadruple in size from 34,600 sq metres to 135,000 sq metres, including a new 500-seat auditorium, a student centre with restaurants and recreational facilities, and new classrooms and laboratories, which are expected to further bolster PhD enrolment.

Working Together

The PI is an example of successful partnership between industry and post-secondary institutions. Established in 2001 and funded by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), which offers students full scholarships in exchange for a commitment to work for the company for a number of years, the PI offers prestigious bachelor’s and master’s programmes in science and engineering, most notably petroleum engineering. The institute also hosts visiting PhD students, with current enrolment standing at about 1800. Abdul Munim Saif Al Kindy, CEO of ADCO, said, “The availability of human capital is an issue most sectors are confronted with, but it is exacerbated within the hydrocarbons sector due to the high level of technical capabilities required. That is why organisations like PI are so important in ensuring that graduates have the expertise required to solve the challenges that lie ahead.”

PI also offers students opportunities to travel for professional development, such as trips to Wintershall’s geo-processing operations centre in Germany. Murray Gray, senior vice-president academic and provost at PI, told OBG, “From the perspective of oil companies, we are undertaking fundamental activities which underpin their work. The students are here because they have made a career choice, one which is seldom motivated by financial incentives.”

Like KU, PI is actively expanding its R&D activities after partnering with numerous private players including BP, Royal Dutch Shell, the Japan Oil Development Company and Total. According to a November 2015 press release on the institute’s website, the school is set to launch its 8000-sq-metre PI Research Centre (PIRC) in 2016, which will significantly advance petroleum extraction research activities, with a focus on training and education for PhD students and researchers. PIRC clusters will focus largely on enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and supporting activities in engineering and geophysics, emphasising petroleum reserves located in the emirate, with a focus on corrosion, as there are high levels of hydrogen sulphide in its oil and gas reserves. Abu Dhabi-based daily The National reported in October 2015 that PIRC was part of wider push in the emirate to add as much as $500bn in value to oil reservoirs, to which PIRC is tasked with contributing 5%. The new $90m building will house hundreds of staff and 32 laboratories, with an annual operating budget of $33m. A second facility, although half the size, is also planned for the near term, with no date set for construction as of yet.

“We will also have a number of labs working on downstream research, covering polymers and gas processing. The overwhelming attitude I have seen here is an understanding that oil and gas is a huge part of Abu Dhabi’s economy and will continue to play a major role in its economic development over the next several generations. The push from industry that I see is also clear: reduce costs and improve recovery from existing fields. That is why there is a huge emphasis on EOR at PIRC,” Thomas Hochstettler, president of PI, told OBG.

Masdar Institute

Established in 2009 as a graduate-level university with support from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology offers master’s degrees and PhD programmes in engineering at its research-oriented Abu Dhabi campus. The MIT and Masdar Institute Cooperative Programme (MIT&MICP) is one of MIT’s largest, allowing students at the Masdar Institute to access MIT facilities and work with its research team to design sustainability solutions, including advanced desalination systems, biomass to biofuel conversion, solar energy storage technologies and innovative power grid designs. Today the MIT&MICP oversees nine large-scale, multi-investigator projects focused on climate, energy, health, food and clean water. It is also benefitting from growth in the UAE’s security, aerospace and defence industries. In May 2015 US-based Orbital ATK announced that it will develop a master’s degree concentration in advanced space technologies in partnership with Masdar Institute, Al Yah Satellite Communications and the UAE Space Agency. The concentration will be available in seven of Masdar Institute’s nine master of science degree programmes and will include student-led design, integration, construction testing and operation of a CubeSat that will be launched and monitored via a ground station. The space concentration will also expand on Masdar Institute’s ongoing satellite-related R&D, which includes high-resolution imagery of surfaces using remote sensing and collaboration with the US’s NASA on a four-year joint pilot study regarding how soil moisture affects dust in deserts and dry environments.

Masdar Institute’s emphasis on sustainability also extends to the non-renewables sector, where partnerships with major oil and gas firms have furthered bolstered Masdar Institute’s research profile. In December 2014 Masdar Institute, PI and Total announced the launch of the Digital Rock Physics project, which aims to maximise oil recovery in the emirate, marking the first time Total had partnered with ADNOC and Masdar Institute on an R&D initiative. Masdar Institute also partnered with BP in January 2014 to launch a bold $14m, multi-year technology innovation programme aimed at supporting entrepreneurship. The institute also announced in November 2015 that it had launched the Masdar Institute Solar Platform in order to encourage UAE-specific solar power and thermal energy storage solutions. The facility will allow for the construction of high-performance concentrating solar power research anddemonstration infrastructure within the region. The platform includes collaboration with Norway’s EnergyNest and Japan’s Ibiden Company.

Consistent with the overarching framework of Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision 2030 and the goal of diversifying the economy, students at Masdar Institute are required to work on research projects with a global impact, encouraging use-inspired, leading-edge and practical applications for R&D.

In 2014 the school launched four Institute Research Centres to act as hubs for research in key areas of water and environment, smart and sustainable systems, microsystems and energy. An overarching Institute Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship was also established to channel research activities.


Established in 2006, Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi (PSUAD) has moved to enhance its STEM offerings, after opening its campus on Al Reem Island in 2013. The school offers bachelor’s programmes in geography, economics, philosophy and sociology, and foreign languages, as well as master’s degrees in social research, international law, banking and finance, and urban planning.

In 2013 the university established a physics department in partnership with Paris-based Pierre and Marie Curie University. The three-year, English-taught programme is the only bachelor’s degree dedicated to physics and mathematics in the UAE and is accredited in France and the UAE. The university is also focusing on improving French education offerings in the emirate, and in 2015 it worked with International Community School (ICS), an Abu Dhabi primary school, on a French programme.

Eric Fouache, vice-chancellor of PSUAD, told OBG, “We want to expand enrolment levels, and to that end we are currently developing grassroots French programmes in the emirate to generate more students who are fluent in French. One of the initiatives we are proud of is the pilot programme introduced at ICS which will allow young students to be exposed to French at an earlier age and get them interested.”


Meanwhile, research university NYUAD reported that its enrolment has tripled since it opened in 2010, with the launch of its permanent campus on Saadiyat Island in September 2014 bringing the total to 739 students.

The university offers undergraduate degrees across 22 majors in the areas of arts, humanities, social sciences, engineering and science. The university also offers students the chance to participate in the NYUAD Global PhD Student Fellowship, a collaboration between NYUAD, NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, and the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, which has a doctoral research focus.