“No, Your Highness, you’re NOT allowed any more pudding! And while we’re at it, why haven’t you finished your prep?!”
Not words you’d imagine many royal or senior Arabs to hear very often, as another tray of baklava arrives to complement the boxes of Patchi chocolates, but, of course, it is a fact that many of the Emirati, Saudi and other GCC grands fromages were educated through the English public school system. The plush palaces of Abu Dhabi are a far cry from the icy dorms of Gordonstoun, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan rested the royal bonce after a few laps of the grounds of a frosty December morn. Perhaps his cousin, the popular and amiable Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan found his study at Millfield slightly cosier, as did Prince Waleed bin Talal bin Saud… the ideal preparation for his recent extended stay at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. As I was watching England play cricket at the Oval last year, our guest, Sheikh Nahyan’s son, Sheikh Mohammed, politely remarked that I needn’t explain the laws as he had played the game whilst at Malvern College, gently putting me in my place. Jordan’s former Deputy Prime Minister, the eminent Nasser Judeh, learnt his Latin declensions to the sound of squawking seagulls high above the cloisters of Eastbourne College, the understated alma mater of comedian and political aspirant, Eddie Izzard and Abu Dhabi based CNN correspondent and war zone enthusiast, Sam Kiley. It would take too long to count the number of GCC royals to have passed out at Sandhurst, but it’s an impressive gallery whose friendships with their fellow cadets have endured.
Fly in the reverse direction, however, and investment in schools in the Middle East is thriving. The Yellow Jersey is indisputably worn by Sunny Varkey, the Chairman and founder of GEMS Education, where Tony Little, former Master of Eton, is but one of his retained advisors. GEMS has 250 multi-award winning schools globally, with 32 in Dubai alone. With a largely expat population, where contracts last for 3-5 years on average, this is THE crucial factor that parents have to weigh up when moving here. All nationalities are supported with a range of curricula, and fees are generally less than those in the UK private school sector. Brighton College, Cranleigh, Repton College and many more have set up twin establishments here in UAE, filling up very quickly with 1200 to 1500 pupils each.
No wonder, then, others are keen to get in on the act. UK based International Schools Partnership (ISP), represented in the Middle East by BME Growth Managing Director, Richard Draycott, has acquired four schools in UAE and two in Qatar, one of which is Park House, recently sold by the founder and former Irish Guard, Niall Brennan. I wonder how many British families started a school in the Middle East 25 years ago? Talk about ahead of the game. ISP are actively on the expansion trail in SE Asia as well. To compare those pesky fees between Brighton College in East Sussex and Abu Dhabi might bring tears to the UK parents’ eyes. Whilst Mummy and Daddy from Ditchling are forking out a cool GBP 35,000 per year per child, and that’s after paying Spreadsheet Phil, their tanned counterparts in Al Bateen are saving about half that with no Phil to worry about. Little Johnny in Jumeirah may have to be at his desk at 7.15am, but he’s out at 3pm and is whisked off by the driver to Harlequins rugby coaching, sailing at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club (DOSC to the locals, and a real haven of civility), or playing cricket at the ICC training ground. Not a bad start in life.
And the economics of school ownership and investment stacks up too, especially with the ISP model. As Draycott explains, “historically, schools in the Middle East were either part of a conglomerate or built by successful businessmen who wished to diversify their family portfolio. The market has become increasingly sophisticated with structures familiar in mature markets being implemented. ‘Opco/Propco’ models were unheard of 10 years ago, but REITS and specialist property investors are now major players in the market. ISP’s initial foray was to purchase outright; we have graduated to a leasing model and are now developing assets both on balance sheet and with third parties. The key for property investors is comfort around the covenant, as ever, and generally this is achieved with 25 year terms”.