Gulf states can teach the Arab world about brain gain

Gulf states can teach the Arab world about brain gain

Brain drains have existed as long as there has been economic disparity between geographic areas. More recently, they have been among the primary negative effects of the lopsided globalization that has long favored the developed world at the expense of developing economies. The brain-drain phenomenon occurs when skilled, educated people migrate to pursue better living standards and quality of life, higher wages, more personal freedom, access to the latest cutting-edge technologies and solutions, and more stable sociopolitical and economic conditions.

This movement of talent, capabilities and experience has varying effects on the places left behind. For instance, medical professionals leaving in droves have decimated health care in developing countries already suffering from poor funding, loose regulations and nonexistent oversight. The departure of precious human capital compounds the problem, especially during virus outbreaks, natural disasters, events with mass casualties and other health crises. 

In education, departing teachers, professors and even administrators do not make it easy for yet another extremely crucial but underfunded, poorly regulated and mostly neglected sector.

Unfortunately, the brain-drain problem is a tough challenge. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 250 million people live outside their birth country. In nine countries, 20 percent or more of those born there now live elsewhere. Many, of course, are fleeing war and political instability.

In the Arab world, pervasive fears of a massive surge in departures by skilled professionals and young adults have turned into reality, particularly with the intensification of Arab Spring protests, escalations in the war on terror, religious extremism, poor economic conditions, severe income inequality and high unemployment, especially among the young. 

The United Nations Development Project (UNDP) estimates the Arab world must create 51 million jobs to reverse its catastrophically high unemployment. Indeed, many protesters during the so called “Arab Spring” said the lack of jobs was their motivation. 

Besides poor economies, violence and war, internal strife and instability have created tens of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. Such manufactured humanitarian crises worsen the brain drain, as it makes migrants of those not originally planning to leave. Migrants are quickly assimilated into new societies, immediately reaping the benefits of stability, relatively high incomes, wider access to health care and education, personal freedoms, welfare and even opportunities in fields largely unsupported or underfunded in their countries of origin, like the arts. The result is that about a quarter of young Arabs want to migrate elsewhere for better opportunities.

One survey estimated the brain drain costs the Arab world up to $2 billion a year, a painful number to swallow given the severely depressed state of most Arab economies. 

Hafed Al-Ghwell

One survey estimated the brain drain costs the Arab world up to $2 billion a year, a painful number to swallow given the severely depressed state of most Arab economies. 

A study by the Arab League’s Department of Population and Migration Policies found that high unemployment rates in the Middle East were responsible for 70 percent of university graduates seeking employment opportunities outside their birth countries. Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Lebanon suffer most from the departure of skilled talent to developed countries; more than 75 percent of Egyptian emigrants, for instance, have a university degree.

On the other side of the brain-drain phenomenon, however, is the brain gain, whereby developed or emerging countries reap enormous benefits from the movement of skilled, competent and experienced professionals from other countries.

The UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia have benefited enormously from attracting talents and skills from neighboring Arab countries, given their relative economic and political stability, and the availability of better income-earning opportunities. The UNDP has estimated the migration of Arab labor, talent and skills to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries has grown nearly 5 percent every year.

The success of the GCC in attracting talent should present an enormous opportunity for reform-minded Arab governments to design and implement appropriate brain-gain policies to create the necessary environments to attract talent by developing economic opportunities, political stability, public services like health and education, and open societies that give great personal freedom for the new arrivals to live their personal lives as they wish. 

It is also important for those immigrants who have had an enormous positive impact on the development of these Arab countries to feel they have a stake in the future of these societies beyond just a paycheck. It is, therefore, very wise that new policies aim at giving them a path forward toward some kind of permanent legal status and property rights in these countries.

It is worth remembering that every country throughout history that opened its arms to immigrants has benefited from them and succeeded greatly. Immigration is simply a net gain for host countries. 

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell

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