Editor’s note: This article is part of a package of five articles about the obstacles that researchers in Arab countries face. Readers can access all of the articles on this page.
The vast majority of researchers in the Arab region want to work elsewhere. This desire holds true across age groups, fields of research and country income levels. These are the findings of a regionwide survey of 650 researchers conducted by Al-Fanar Media.
When asked if they would like to move abroad for a permanent research position, 91 percent of researchers said yes. When asked where they would like to go, the most popular option—at 68 percent—was Europe, including the United Kingdom. This was followed by North America at 55 percent. (The total exceeds 100 percent because respondents who said they would like to leave were allowed to choose more than one answer.)
Some of the participants did say, however, that they would like to move within the Arab region. One-third of those surveyed (34 percent) said they’d like to go to a Gulf Cooperation Council country and 27 percent said they would like to go to an Arab country outside of the Gulf.
As high as the proportion of professional wanderlust is, observers of Arab research were relatively dispassionate—although still disturbed—by the survey’s results.
“I’m not astonished because I know the situation in some Arab countries is bad for researchers,” says Abdelhamid Nechad, an economist at the Ecole Supérieure du Commerce et des Affaires in Casablanca who has previously written about the brain drain in Morocco and what causes it.
As Arab universities try to move up in global rankings, they will be judged heavily by their research output. And regardless of rankings, many Arab universities aspire to produce new knowledge that will be useful to the region instead of just recycling past knowledge in their classrooms. Solutions to local problems are more apt to come from local researchers, many university research administrators believe.
“It’s very important to study the brain drain because we need our researchers in developing countries,” says Nechad. “The region needs human capital to improve and overcome our weaknesses in terms of health, education and technology.”
Others agree with Nechad’s remarks.
“Sadly, this whole phenomenon is not new. It is an issue that really needs to be addressed,” says Nasser Loza, a psychiatrist at Behman Hospital in Cairo who has reviewed the emigration patterns of Egyptian psychiatrists.
Loza found that the desire of researchers to leave the region is shared by other well-educated professionals, such as doctors. A study of the migration patterns of psychiatrists, for instance, has found that 58 percent of psychiatrists who are trained in Egypt will leave, mainly heading to the United States and the United Kingdom.
“It’s very important to study the brain drain because we need our researchers in developing countries.”Abdelhamid Nechad
An economist at the Ecole Supérieure du Commerce et des Affaires in Casablanca
“It’s the best and brightest who leave first,” says Loza. “If we could invest, then they’d stay.”
Motivations Vary by Country
The desire to emigrate varies by country. “You’ll find different percentages of people wanting to move in different countries, the region isn’t homogeneous,” says Loza.
Says Nechad: “In the Gulf it’s because of the lack of democracy. Researchers need academic freedom. When they don’t have it, they look to leave these countries to go somewhere like Germany or England.”
The Al-Fanar Media survey found that researchers in Gulf countries are the least likely in the region to want to leave, but a clear majority are still eager to emigrate. In Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, 81 percent of the survey participants said they did want to leave, compared to the regional average of 91 percent.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 95 percent of researchers in the conflict-ridden countries of Yemen, Syria and Libya want to leave, the region’s highest rate.
In North Africa, researchers who want to emigrate are more likely to be motivated by better salaries than are researchers in the Gulf countries, says Nechad.
Al-Fanar Media’s survey data backs him up; 62 percent of researchers in the Gulf said they wanted to move abroad to benefit from more academic freedom and just 26 percent said they were motivated by higher salaries. For researchers in Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, those figures change to 43 percent for academic freedom and 49 percent for improved salaries.
Some Arab institutions have tried to reverse brain drain through active recruitment programs and efforts at retaining and rewarding current research employees. (See a related article, “Brain Drain Can Be Reversed, One Lebanese Physician Says.”)
Other researchers are calling for governments to put money into research and researchers. Nechad says Morocco should increase researchers’ salaries and offer more career opportunities. “Most researchers would stay in Morocco, it’s a very beautiful country,” he says. “People don’t want to leave by default, they’re forced to look for other opportunities.”