The growing importance of English language proficiency in the Middle East

As industries continue to evolve and the Middle East further entrenches itself as a global economic powerhouse, the importance of English proficiency will only amplify

By Ipek Aydin

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Published: Wed 22 Nov 2023, 5:25 PM

In 2023, approximately 1.5 billion people globally communicated in English, either as their native tongue or as a second language. This widespread proficiency mirrors the linguistic evolution of regions like the Middle East. Historically a melting pot due to its trade routes, empires, and migrations, the Middle East's linguistic tapestry has been enriched by the growing influence of English. As the lingua franca of the international community, English has transcended its role as merely a language, becoming a pivotal skill that opens doors to rewarding career avenues

The Globalisation Catalyst

The rapidly growing international business ecosystem significantly shaped the career opportunities available in the Middle East. As countries like the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia diversified their economies beyond oil, the influx of international corporations and expatriates led to an ever-increasing demand for English language skills. In Q1 2023, the Dubai International Chamber successfully drew in five multinational corporations (MNCs) and 20 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This achievement surpasses Dubai’s entire count from 2022.

Industries Where English Holds Predominance

The Middle East's pivotal role in international trade, especially in oil and gas, mandates the use of English in negotiations and partnerships. English ensures clarity, reduces misunderstandings, and fosters strong international ties.

In the IT landscape, fundamental hubs like UAE’s Dubai Internet City are home to myriad global technology giants. For these corporations, English is the only medium of communication, the key to their global operational efficiency. This sector's dynamism is evident in the spending patterns seen in 2022. Particularly, Saudi Arabia's ICT market was valued at $33.43 billion that year and is projected to experience a growth of 5.6 per cent in 2023, with the UAE also making significant contributions to the Middle East's burgeoning ICT market.

In the financial domain, cities like Dubai and Riyadh stand as the region's epicentres. With several international banks and institutions headquartered here, most transactions, deals, and strategic discussions are conducted in English to guarantee clarity and precision. The healthcare sector also leans heavily on English. Given the influx of international patients to the region's state-of-the-art medical facilities, English has become essential. It ensures consistent communication and service delivery to a global clientele.

As English increasingly becomes the preferred language for subjects like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in these countries, governments have initiated programmes to promote its use.

Educational Endeavours for English Enhancement

It's imperative for educational stakeholders to recognise the importance of English Language assessment tests in forecasting students' future performance. Recognising the significance of English proficiency, governments across the Middle East have taken proactive measures. Incorporating English into school curricula and promoting bilingual education are just a few of the steps taken.

Moreover, private sector initiatives, often in partnership with global educational companies like Pearson, have established training centres offering a range of English Language Learning (ELL) courses that cater to various age groups and proficiency levels. From interactive digital platforms to comprehensive textbooks, these companies provide solutions tailored to the unique linguistic and cultural nuances of the region.

The Road Ahead

As the Middle East progresses, so does its linguistic needs. With approximately 89 per cent of the UAE’s population being expatriates, moving abroad for higher education and job opportunities and as a gateway to overall growth is common. In fact, in 2022, UCAS International, which handles university applications for the UK, reported that it had received 2,950 applications from UAE students, 17 per cent more than in 2021. To be able to move to English-majority countries, English proficiency is necessary for residential, student, and work visas. English, in this context, isn’t just a language—it’s a passport to a world of opportunities, ensuring that individuals don't just compete, but excel on the global stage. Those adept in English will find doors of career advancement readily open, reaffirming the language’s status as a valuable asset in the modern Middle Eastern economic landscape.

The enduring importance of English proficiency is evident. As industries continue to evolve and the Middle East further entrenches itself as a global economic powerhouse, the importance of English proficiency will only amplify. Continuous learning, upskilling, and reskilling will become the norm. Educational stakeholders and partners are poised to support this growth, ensuring that learners are equipped to navigate the ever-changing global landscape. Investing in English education now is an investment in a prosperous future.

— Ipek Aydin is the director of PTE for the Middle East and Africa.

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