Owen Seymour Arthur was born in Barbados on 17 October 1949. He gained his primary and secondary education at All Saints Boys School, Coleridge and Parry School, and Harrison College. He attended the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Barbados and Jamaica, the latter on a postgraduate scholarship. Arthur holds a bachelor of arts degree in economics and history, and a master of science in economics. He began his working career in Jamaica as a research assistant on the faculty of social sciences at the UWI. However, Arthur's career has largely been one of a technocrat. In 1974, he became assistant economic planner at the Planning Agency in Jamaica and within five years was appointed chief economic planner. Between 1979 and 1981, Arthur served as director of economics at the Jamaica Bauxite Institute. He represented Jamaica at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Intergovernmental Group of Experts on the transfer of technology in 1975 and 1976 and was a member of the Caribbean Technology Policy Studies Project between 1977 and 1978. Arthur has also served as a member of the board of directors of the Jamaica Scientific Research Council.
In 1981, Arthur returned to Barbados and took up the post of chief analyst in the ministry of finance and planning. Two years later, he joined the Institute of Social and Economic Research, UWI, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados. In 1985, he returned to the Ministry of Finance and Planning as a parliamentary secretary for one year before assuming the post of part-time lecturer in the Department of Management Studies at the UWI.
Arthur, an avid hobby gardener, is married to Beverley Jeanne Bachelor.