Doing business in the Gulf: six tips for UK ELT centres
30 January 2020

StudyWorld 2017 Gulf zone delegates meeting 600x230

Doing business in the Gulf: six tips for UK ELT centres

The Middle East is key source region for UK ELT. With UK education having a strong presence at ICEF Dubai next month, Spencer Fordham, Managing Director of Capital School of English Bournemouth, shares his top tips on succeeding in the Gulf region.

1. Adapt your working hours 

Spencer says the most important thing to be aware of is to adapt your working hours: and you must be prepared to work on a Sunday.

"The main logistical issue with dealing with the Gulf is their calendar because they work Sunday to Thursday," says Spencer, "hit or miss response times" and "haphazard reception by the relevant people" can compound the difficulties. 

"You've got to be available, got to be prepared to work. The time difference is okay, but people work spread shifts. Often offices work a morning slot, usually 8-midday… and then the office will reopen from 4 or 5 until 10 in the evening. More often than not you're receiving registration emails and urgent correspondence very late in the day so if you only work UK business hours you are restricting yourself to only working four days a week with them."

The busiest times of the year tend to be Eid and Ramadan, says Spencer, because people are off work.

2. Be flexible about communication, don't rely on email

"Whereas with many other countries generally formal information is transmitted by email, that's not the case working in the Gulf. "So you need to be aware of other forms of communication – WhatsApp in particular is a key channel with agents– and if people are serious about that market they need to be prepared to be bombarded on Sunday with requests or demands for urgent information." 

These first two tips very important.

3. Be prepared to deal with limited documentation

 "Only very recently you'd receive a passport copy with a 12-week booking plus accommodation and a taxi from Heathrow, please send invoice," jokes Spencer. He says there can be lots of to-ing and fro-ing on documentation and detail and processing bookings can take time, with frequent last-minute changes and requests. Information can sometimes be inaccurate.

Be careful about over-promising. If late requests or decisions from an agent can't be delivered, it may not just be your school but also your region's reputation that is damaged. 

4. Try to ensure expectations match what you're offering

The expectations of Middle Eastern students and their families of what a UK homestay host will offer can be outdated, says Spencer. "They may anticipate a mum and dad there to receive the student and talk in English for four hours every evening.  

"It doesn't happen like that. It is very different to when there was a stay-at-home mum, so what schools are promising, and the expectation of the student needs to be aligned. This comes down to agent training, so they are not misleading their clients about the reality."

This is where the relationship with the agent is very important.

5. Identify what information Middle Eastern students need to have about life in the UK

You need to anticipate potential issues and problems which would be unusual in other markets. For instance, says Spencer, Swiss students are happy to walk half an hour to school each day but this would be a problem for a Middle Eastern national. "You need to make it very clear where accommodation boundaries are, and that they will need a bus or transport ticket to travel around the town," he says.

6. …And be prepared for the students to be night owls

What schools and homestay hosts need to know about their Middle Eastern guests goes beyond prayer rooms, proximity to a mosque and dietary rules. "Students from the Gulf are night owls," says Spencer. "Because of the way their society works, it's OK to be out at 1,2,3 in the morning at a very young age though there are many restrictions on what they can and can't do culturally. If these students aren't counselled correctly before coming to the UK they will assume life is the same and you'll often have a 15 or 16 year old thinking it's OK for him to go out at midnight and meet his friends in the park and of course that sends a shiver down our spines."

Regardless of how much this message is given on the first day of induction, the students will still want to go out and eat at midnight or 1am and they will do this out of naivety rather than any desire to push boundaries, says Spencer – so the message needs to be clearly repeated.

Key market data

  • Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman consistently rank in the top twenty UK ELT source markets
  • In 2018, the Middle East was the second biggest sending region for the private sector, with over 20% of total student weeks
  • For state sector members it was the third most important source region for both student numbers and weeks 
  • In Q1 and Q2 2019 Saudi Arabia and Oman were amongst the fastest growing markets in terms of absolute student weeks
  • Whist most students are adults and individuals, there is growing interest in summer junior groups from Saudi and Oman; and one year's group leaders may bring their own groups the next year. 


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