(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part essay.
In 1988, at the age of 16, I left Yemen with a one-way ticket to the United States and with only one goal in mind: to get high-quality education, earn a university degree and return to live with my family and serve my country. After obtaining my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, I considered returning to Yemen, but the job prospects there were poor. Having discovered my passion for research, I decided to pursue graduate studies and obtained my Ph.D. in biological chemistry in 2000. The first few years after graduation were tough. I was always torn between the feeling of guilt for abandoning my country and my parents, and my desire to follow my passion and protect the investments and achievements I had made during the 12 years I spent in the United States.
In 2000, I accepted a job offer in the Center for Neurologic Diseases at Harvard Medical School. It was a life-changing experience that paved the way for me to secure a faculty position and launch my independent research program at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. After 32 years, I am still living and working outside Yemen.
This is not only my story, but the story of thousands of Arab students, scientists, engineers, and medical doctors who left their country with the dream of returning and helping make it a better country. This is also the story of hundreds of thousands of students and professionals who fled their homelands because of wars, economic hardship, and political or religious persecution. All left in search for a place where they could be safe, realize their potential, and secure a better and life for themselves and their families.
The result? Hundreds of thousands of doctors, scientists, and engineers that countries in the Middle East and North Africa region desperately need are now working in the West and have no intention of going back to their country of origin. These numbers have increased dramatically in recent years as conflicts and instability have spread, even to countries that for decades represented major learning hubs in the region. A survey by Al-Fanar Media last year revealed that if given the opportunity, 91 percent of researchers working in Arab countries would emigrate, with a preference for Europe or North America.
A survey by Al-Fanar Media last year revealed that if given the opportunity, 91 percent of researchers working in Arab countries would emigrate, with a preference for Europe or North America.
(See a related article, “Most Arab-World Researchers Want to Leave, a New Survey Finds.”) More than 50 percent of Arab students studying abroad do not return to work in their home country or the region. What’s more, in recent years more people are planning to relocate permanently.
What could be done to address this brain drain? One interesting perspective through which to look at the problem is to consider how talent from developing countries in the region flows not only to the West, but also to neighboring rich countries, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Between 2005 and 2013, we witnessed the creation of new and well-funded national universities and research centers in the Gulf, such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, Education City in Doha, and Khalifa University in the United Arab Emirates. This, combined with the recruitment of Western universities to establish branch campuses in the region and the creation of national science and research funding agencies, sent a strong signal that these countries are committed to creating ecosystems that foster entrepreneurship and innovation. Thus, countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates became more attractive for young Arab graduates, scientists, doctors and other professionals living in Western countries. Today, Arab expatriates make up a large proportion of the workforce in the Gulf countries and play essential roles in the development of human capacity and public and private institutions there.
The GCC countries are a draw for the large number of Arab expatriates who are eager to move back to the region. They are motivated in part by the attractive salaries and the opportunity for family members to access high quality education and training, while maintaining proximity to their own culture. But there are drawbacks, too, in the lack of job security (for example, tenure-track positions) and the dim prospects for obtaining permanent residency or a path to citizenship and equal opportunities for their children and spouses.
Can it be argued that the Gulf countries have contributed to the brain drain from MENA countries? Often, GCC countries are “end users” of faculty members trained elsewhere, benefiting from the investment made by the home countries to train their population without acknowledging these contributions or reciprocating.
In response to such claims, it has been argued that remittances from Arab expats in the Gulf contribute to the economic development of their home countries. What this argument ignores is that the economic, social, and societal benefits that could be gained from retaining local talent far exceed those of remittances. But the necessary condition is that local talent is supported and people are allowed to practice their profession and innovate in their home country—and that is a challenge.
Here, I would like to propose a new formula that would allow the GCC countries to contribute actively to not only slowing the brain drain from the region but also to transforming it into a “brain gain” that would bring great benefits to all countries in the region. In this scenario, we can think of the GCC countries as reservoirs that help keep the talent pool and skilled workforces from neighboring countries in the region. This would increase the chances that such talented expats could one day return to their home countries.
Here, I would like to propose a new formula that would allow the GCC countries to contribute actively to not only slowing the brain drain from the region but also to transforming it into a “brain gain” that would bring great benefits to all countries in the region.
For this to happen, the link not only to the home country but to their profession and relevant institutions must be maintained and developed. For example, a professor or a scientist from Egypt, Morocco, Iraq or Yemen working at a university in Saudi Arabia or Qatar should be encouraged to maintain strong links to universities in their home country. This can be achieved through maintaining a joint appointment, engaging in research collaborations, or by actively contributing to teaching, which can now be done through distance-learning tools without the need to travel physically.
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It is likely that the initial response of local administrators of the host universities will be to dismiss this idea. In their view, these professors and scientists were hired to serve the host university and are expected to dedicate all their time and energy to advancing its goals and mission.
What I am proposing here is aimed at achieving this goal while allowing these universities to reciprocate for the direct and indirect benefits they have gained from these countries and contribute to advancing higher education in the region, all through a win-win proposition. I will explain this proposition in more detail in the second part of this two-part commentary.