Abstract Background There is a worldwide shortage of health care workers. This problem is particularly severe in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries because of shortages in certain medical disciplines, due to a lack of nationally-trained professionals and a less developed educational system compared to other high income countries. Consequently, GCC countries are heavily dependent on an expatriate health care workforce; a problem exacerbated by high turnover. We discuss challenges and potential strategies for improving and strengthening capacity building efforts in health care professions in the GCC. Main text In the GCC, there are 139 schools providing professional health education in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, midwifery, and other specialties. Health education school density reported for the GCC countries ranges between 2.2 and 2.8 schools per one million inhabitants, except in Oman where it is 4.0 per one million inhabitants. The GCC countries rely heavily on expatriate health professionals. The number of physicians and nurses in the GCC countries are 2.1 and 4.5 per 1000 respectively, compared to 2.8 and 7.9 among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Interestingly, the number of dentists and pharmacists is higher in the GCC countries compared to OECD countries. A nationally trained health care workforce is essential for the GCC countries. Physiotherapy and occupational therapy are two identified areas where growth and development are recommended. Custom-tailored continuing medical education and continuing professional development (CPD) programs can augment the skills of health practitioners, and allow for the expansion of their scope of practice when warranted. Conclusion Capacity building can play an essential role in addressing the major health challenges and improving the overall quality of health care in the region. Efforts aimed at increasing the number of locally-trained graduates and developing and implementing need-based CPD programs are vital for capacity building and lifelong learning in health care professions.