In 2016, less than a month after being inaugurated as the 16th president of the American University of Beirut, the region’s oldest and (I would say) finest university, I flew to Dubai to attend the World Governments Summit and sat on a panel. A senior executive at Google brought up the fact that less than 5 per cent of Arabs who spend two years abroad in academic or professional training return to their native countries during their prime working years. This represents the lowest rate of return of any region in the world – half that of sub-Saharan Africa. The disproportionate brain drain from Arab countries continues to constitute a fundamental danger to the future competitiveness of the Mena region nations.
Until this region can provide its young people with viable prospects for an attractive future in which they can put their ambition and talent to good use, the most promising will continue to depart for places that nurture innovation. But are there measures that public and private institutions can take to stem the tide, or even better, reverse it?
The panel I was on in 2016 was assembled to discuss this very issue. Although we proposed several novel approaches to an engaged and thoughtful audience, the problem remains a vexing one, with several core reasons behind its persistence.
War, instability, a lack of economic opportunity, cities with poor liveability, a dearth of social and public services and a lack of participatory governance are among many factors exacerbating the brain drain from most Arab countries. But another core reason for the loss of intellectual capital in the region is the depressing reality that many Arab countries invest the lowest percentage of their gross domestic product in science than any region in the world.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have begun to invest heavily in developing a sustainable culture of scientific enquiry and innovation, but these countries collectively represent less than 10 per cent of the Mena region. Lebanon, despite its myriad failings and lack of investment in research infrastructure, paradoxically continues to produce more successful entrepreneurs, academics and business leaders per capita than any other country in the region, almost entirely due to its longer exposure to higher education and international exchange of people and ideas. Which begs the question: Are we better off eight years later, as the 2024 World Governments Summit kicks off again?
The answer is: better in a few areas, worse in more, unchanged in most. Sadly, none of the major conditions that have long plagued the region and made a return less attractive to our best and brightest young people have meaningfully changed. Nor have most governments tackled the core issues of corruption, sustainability, the environment, participatory governance, affordable living, or political and economic stability that have long eluded the people of this region. The practice of self-expression and creativity is also too often stifled by the climate of repression present in many Mena nations.
Yet there has been substantial evidence for decades that highly trained individuals, who could have chosen to extend their careers in prestigious academic and professional institutions in the West, decided to come back to work and serve in their native lands. What can we learn from those who leave, but also from those who choose to return? Perhaps the experience of our academic institution could be instructive.
In 1966, the AUB celebrated its centennial, renowned as a destination institution of higher education, home to some of the most distinguished scholars in the region and in the world, with almost 65 per cent of its students being non-Lebanese internationals. With Lebanon’s painful, decades-long civil war, the university lost many of its scholars, international students and momentum. Remarkably, the university survived, at least partly because its medical centre served all comers. After the war ended, the university embarked on a series of capital campaigns, recruitment drives and friend-building enterprises overseen by the legendary Board Chair Richard A Debs. The AUB emerged reinvigorated.
Faculty and staff joining the AUB after studying or working abroad said they were excited by the chance to work with distinguished mentors and colleagues. They also sought to lead change in the country and contribute to building a community of free inquiry in a region where such spaces are sparse. Crucially, the university also offered world-class healthcare coverage, a strong retirement plan and covered their children’s education.
The past five years have not been especially kind to Lebanon or its premier university. A national uprising, political turmoil and massive debt led to the third-worst national economic collapse since the late 19th century; add on to that the devastating Beirut port explosion, along with the Covid-19 pandemic. This concatenation of major crises resulted in emigration to a degree not seen since the civil war and led to the university losing hundreds of top faculty, staff and students.
Nevertheless, the university has endured, recovered, and has now begun to thrive again. We have expanded into Cyprus, acquired our first-ever community hospital, and recruited exceptional faculty and staff members from pre-eminent global universities. We had our first alumnus receive a Nobel prize, another was honoured with the US National Medal of Science, and three of the six winners of the first-ever Great Arab Minds award in Dubai last year were AUB graduates.
Overwhelmingly, the faculty, staff and students who joined, returned or who chose to stay cite several critical factors in their decision. These include the opportunity to compete at the very highest level; to forge one’s career at a strong, stable institution; and, for those who trace their roots to the region, the opportunity to be near family and loved ones.
We can extrapolate these findings to what we see in young people from the 24 different Arab countries. Having met several thousand of them over my nine years as a college president, many indicate that their going back to their countries would depend on largely the same factors above. All things being equal, they would prefer to return to serve their peoples, in their nations of origin. But the best of them will insist on career and financial security for themselves and their families, the availability of high-quality not-for-profit educational institutions and medical centres, competitiveness at the highest level in their field of endeavour, and participatory governance, the last perhaps the hardest to secure in our region.
Therein lies, not only the challenge, but the opportunity for the Arab world. There has been material change in the future of work since the pandemic, with the recognition that much of it can be conducted virtually. Given the continued instability in the region and with nearly half of the world’s displaced persons, including internally displaced individuals, located in the Mena region, remote working and distance education could be embraced as an opportunity.
Conversely, living in such an interconnected world, it is much more difficult to contain a crisis locally, and to prevent the spread of a disease, a pandemic or a social catastrophe. Solutions at the national and regional level are becoming far more urgent. To truly stem the tide of this brain drain will require the governments of the region to become more participatory, transparent and dedicated to the cultural, political, and economic well-being of the societies they govern. This should challenge leaders at this year’s World Governments Summit and elsewhere to look to long-term sustainable solutions. Among these, an investment of government resources in education and in scientific endeavours is surely low-hanging fruit, but one with a great deal of urgency.
It may be a long journey, but it is certainly a worthy one to undertake. More than ever, I am convinced that we collectively have the tools to create opportunities for our best and brightest minds to forge their careers in these, their homelands. It will take determination and gravitas to enable participatory governance, dignified living, and long-term investment in science, technology and development. Yet, what choice do we have? The Arab world cannot afford another lost generation.