How Gulf Universities Could Be a Regional Reservoir for Arab Talent

(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 second part of a two-part essay. The first part was How the Gulf Countries Could Help Retain Arab Talent.”

In part one of this commentary, I described how my own journey from Yemen to better educational and career opportunities in the West is also the story of many thousands of other Arabs who go abroad to study. Though many initially hope to return to their home countries, where their talents are needed, hard realities often get in the way.

I proposed a new formula that would allow the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to contribute to slowing and countering the brain drain from the Middle East and North Africa region, transforming it into a “brain gain.” The idea is for the GCC countries, which draw on Arab scientists and professionals trained in other countries to staff their advanced education and research facilities, to do more to help keep Arab talent in the region. I believe this would be a win-win proposition for the whole region. Let me explain in more detail how it would work.

Give Expats Equal Chances to Advance

First, there is a motivational problem for Arab expats who hold academic and research positions in GCC countries but have no prospects of ever being granted citizenship or even permanent resident status. They live in these countries for decades without being able to plant roots or call them home. In most cases, they are not competing on a level playing field, and their chances for advancement are limited by a glass ceiling that can only be broken by peers who are citizens of the host country.

The expats and their families become increasingly frustrated by constant reminders of how their growth and ability to make an impact are restricted by local laws, boundaries, and practices. This prevents them from realizing their full potential and getting satisfaction from the job and the profession they have dedicated their lives to. There are no signs that these realities will change soon, as is evident in the recent rise in nationalism and populism in the region and austerity measures imposed by many GCC countries that selectively target the expats in these countries.

With that in mind, providing bridges and channels allowing Arab expats to reconnect with their roots and people in their home country would give them a renewed sense of purpose, and greater motivation to continue to excel and innovate in their field, and not just to keep their job. More importantly, they would develop a greater sense of appreciation for their host country and become more invested in the development of its human capital and institutions. In the absence of a path to citizenship, this could be a great mechanism to ensure the retention of talent and expertise in the recipient country.

Encourage Expats to Engage With Home Institutions

Second, there are additional benefits to the host country and institutions. The active engagement of Arab expats with their home institutions provides unique opportunities to attract talented students and engage them to work on projects of mutual interest, to the benefit of all parties. In addition to mobilizing additional human resources, these links could help foster collaborations and access to data and human resources. That could open the door for new possibilities for research and innovation that are not possible in GCC countries, because of their small population size (with the exception of Saudi Arabia).

If there is one thing that we have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that distance learning and remote collaboration can be effective. Thus, a great deal of expats’ interactions with home institutions could take place without leaving their host country.

Six months ago, such a proposition would have been a hard sell because of the fear that this would mean that faculty and scientists would spend time physically away from the campus and thus away from their students and other duties. If there is one thing that we have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that distance learning and remote collaboration can be effective. Thus, a great deal of such interactions could take place without leaving the country.

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In the coming years, distance learning and remote collaboration will become a greater part of mainstream higher education and research. More courses and material will be developed and shared online. More research collaborations are now happening through Zoom and Skype than ever, and we will soon see more innovative technologies and tools that enhance the quality of online education and collaborative experiences. All of these changes should enable universities in GCC countries to share content they develop with other universities in the region without additional costs, while at the same time tapping into the talent in the region to create more courses and content of mutual interest without the need to hire new faculty.

Such collaborative initiatives are needed today more than ever, especially given that the budget for higher education and research in most GCC countries has been decreasing steadily since the oil prices crashed in 2014 and more recently as a consequence of the economic costs of the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation has been made worse by the near-collapse of the Lebanese economy, the blockade of Qatar and increasing tension between the GCC countries, and wars and conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Failing to capitalize on the huge untapped talent and expertise in the region has enormous costs and negative consequences for both local and regional governments and economies.

Leverage the Arab Disaspora’s Resources

It is time that we accept that reversing the brain drain to the West is a lost cause, at least for the next 10 to 20 years. This, by no means, suggests that we should abandon the cause of engaging the Arab diaspora and leveraging their expertise, resources, and networks for the benefit of their countries and the region. This no longer demands that they move physically back to the region. The Internet and rapid development of new media for communications today make it possible to effectively engage, collaborate, and share knowledge and expertise without the need to travel.

In May, U.S. President Donald Trump, who has advocated for limiting immigration from the Arab and Muslim world, found himself having to choose between two leading Arab-American scientists to lead the U.S. efforts to develop a vaccine for Covid-19.

A few months ago, U.S. President Donald Trump, who has advocated for limiting immigration from the Arab and Muslim world, found himself having to choose between two leading Arab-American scientists and executives to lead the U.S. efforts to develop a vaccine for Covid-19.  He appointed Moncef Slaoui, a Moroccan-born Belgian-American, as his vaccine czar. Like Slaoui, thousands of scientists, engineers, doctors, business leaders, and professionals from the Arab diaspora occupy influential positions in the West. They are recognized for their leadership in their fields and their contributions to the advancement of their new home countries. The fact that we are not prepared or able to bring them back should not stop us from engaging them and benefiting from their wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise.

It is also time to recognize the tremendous benefits and missed opportunities in the Arab and other expatriate communities present in the region, particularly in the rich GCC countries. Helping them maintain connection with their home countries and institutions would provide a unique opportunity to access talent and new markets, which could bring economic benefits to GCC countries. If they are given the opportunity to both succeed and contribute to the development of their home country, they would be more likely to stay in the region.

We must also accept the fact that there isn’t a single country in the MENA region that has the human capital, natural resources, and financial means to build sustainable and competitive ecosystems for research, innovation, and development. The only chance for us to see a vibrant MENA region is to collaborate, coordinate and work together to ensure that we continue to support the development of talent and skilled workforces throughout the region.

Hilal A. Lashuel is a Yemeni-born professor of neuroscience at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne.


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