Reversing Arab brain drain can spur region’s development

Reversing Arab brain drain can spur region’s development

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The diaspora of Arab talent has the Middle East and North Africa region in a stranglehold, encumbering development plans as droves of people migrate in search of opportunities elsewhere. In any case, migration should be a choice made by personal life designs and not under any form of economic, social or safety duress. However, when numbers veer to the high end of the spectrum, it is worth taking a closer look at this unsettling trend in order to pinpoint the causes of the migration of Arab talent and, in turn, design human-centric policies and programs that reverse the brain drain that is affecting the region.
Last year, a group of UN-run agencies published the “Situation Report on International Migration in the Arab Region,” highlighting the long-term implications of high levels of migration and forced displacement. Its findings revealed that, in 2020, an estimated 32.8 million people — triple the number in 1990 — migrated from their native Arab countries, with only 44 percent staying in the region. The Gulf Cooperation Council states host almost three-quarters of all migrants and refugees in the Arab region, mostly migrant workers. Experts estimate that the cost of the Arab brain drain is about $2 billion annually.
A number of pressing factors can be ascribed to this exodus, each salient in its own way. From an economic perspective, working-age segments migrate in search of better job opportunities, improved wage options, enhanced living conditions and better education pathways that consequently lead to greater career prospects. Others exit their native countries to escape conflicts, violence, discrimination, food and water insecurity, or the interruption or cessation of essential services — factors that directly disrupt their lives and livelihoods. Increasingly, climate change is hastening the emergence of pollution, land degradation, droughts, desertification, floods and natural disasters, all of which are also contributing to forced displacement.
Considering this dire picture of migration in the region, policymakers can develop effective policies to reverse the brain drain from native Arab countries and the region as a whole. Doing so can accelerate the region’s economic and social development strategies, in addition to securing the long-term competitiveness of its workforce.
Currently, the Arab region is spearheading a radical transformation of labor policies in order to attract Arab talents. Migration policies and regulations across the region have become more attractive and flexible in the past few years, with migrants able to pursue pathways for specialized work permits, permanent residency and citizenships, in addition to home ownership opportunities.
Nevertheless, large-scale regional efforts should be implemented in order to yield more improvements. An interplay of strategic blueprinting and market-driven labor demands should be adopted, wherein central government agencies should actively identify the sectors, job classes and qualifications of migrant workforces needed to drive national strategies. At the same time, grassroots policies and programs should facilitate the synergistic flow of migrants to strategic professions, thereby fueling economic productivity, innovation and knowledge transfer. On a wider note, launching large-scale initiatives and programs focusing on lucrative, futuristic and strategic areas can bolster job creation and the attraction of Arab talents.

In order to fuel innovation and entrepreneurship, dedicated grants should be dispersed to fund promising business ideas led by Arab talents.

Sara Al-Mulla

Targeted programs to repatriate the Arab diaspora should be implemented, in partnership with strategic stakeholders. Networking and engaging with Arabs abroad can help to strengthen the links with their native countries and inspire a desire to be part of the workforces that contribute fundamentally to the region’s development. Focusing on administrative aspects, such as ease of travel, work permits and permanent residency pathways, can also facilitate repatriation to native countries. Standard employment contracts should safeguard important aspects, such as fair wages, hours of employment, all types of leaves and health insurance coverage.
Several channels are available for achieving this goal. University scholarship programs can encourage high-potential Arab students to pursue education pathways locally and regionally, prioritizing specializations that are in high demand. Opportunities for job upskilling and lifelong learning should also be a priority. A robust career counseling office must establish connections with top-tier enterprises in Arab countries in order to match-make talents with eminent job opportunities upon graduation. At the same time, central government agencies should have dedicated offices to establish connections with world-class foreign universities in order to reach out to Arab graduates and offer them tailored job opportunities in the region.
In order to fuel innovation and entrepreneurship, dedicated grants should be disbursed to fund promising business ideas led by Arab talents. Ideally, building clusters of free zones focusing on strategic sectors — such as the creative industries, technology and industrial or scientific parks — can produce synergies and productivity gains from the congregation of capable workforces. Providing funding for seminal research projects could open doors for the skills and competencies of high-quality workforces to execute them. A prime example of this is the UAE’s Great Arab Minds initiative, which aims to tackle the brain drain of Arab specialists, intellectuals, doctors and engineers by offering select individuals a 1 million dirham ($270,000) grant to fund their research and development projects.
Carving a reputation for robust and vibrant urban development can certainly make all the difference for people’s preferences for migration to the Arab region. City governments can focus on a number of fundamental factors that contribute to overall well-being, such as reliable services, world-class infrastructure, seamless mobility systems, state-of-the-art education and healthcare facilities, safety and security, luring recreational offerings, and green spaces. Home ownership schemes should also be lucrative.
By leading efforts to reverse the Arab brain drain, the region can benefit exponentially from the influx and input of local talents in their development agendas.
•  Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at

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