Travelling talent: which countries attract the best people?

New data suggests professionals are opting increasingly for the Middle East

The crew of Zilzal, a dhow captained by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, sails towards the finishing line off the coast of Dubai to win al-Gaffal traditional long-distance dhow sailing race which started at the island of Sir Bu Nair in the Gulf, on May 14, 2017. / AFP / Karim SAHIB
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The world owes a great deal to the talent cradled by the Middle East. For centuries, ancient Alexandria protected the texts and traditions of the ancient Greeks; Iraq kindled the medieval Islamic Golden Age, during which our understanding of mathematics, geography, science and history expanded at a pace that rivals any other period of major intellectual progress. Centres where brilliant people from across the world gather, change over the years. Perhaps the Abbasid Baghdad of our times is not a single city, but an increasingly virtual network of startups and innovators that is spread across many countries. The IMD World Competitiveness Centre gathers data on where we might find these locations today. It recently published its annual World Talent Ranking, which measures the ability of more than 60 leading countries to train, attract and retain the world's most gifted professionals.

RYP3WE Amazing Dubai city center at sunrise, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Alamy
The Dubai skyline. The city offers a number of rental options, including Airbnb properties, serviced apartments and traditional rentals with one-year contracts. Alamy
More than 250 million full-time jobs were lost in 2020

Key trends from this year's issue are the ongoing dominance of European countries, which have taken eight of the top 10 slots, with Switzerland in the lead. Britain, on the other hand, has fallen by seven places to 23rd overall. Researchers say the fall could be down to uncertainty over Brexit. "Inward looking" countries, the authors argue, jeopardise their own success.

Closer to home, the Gulf continues to consolidate its position with the UAE and Saudi Arabia among the top 35 countries. The UAE leads the region, having moved up six positions from 30th to 24th, one of the biggest jumps in this year's table. In a sub-category measuring workforce skills, the UAE comes third among the 63 countries analysed in the study.

The Emirates hosts one of the most diverse workforces on the planet. Recently, the UAE Government has been paying particular attention to the attraction and retention of skilled professionals, wherever they might come from. It has expanded a talent-focused "Golden Visa" scheme that makes it easier for expatriates to work and reside in the country, and continues to invest in education and emerging industries in an attempt to create an innovation hub in the Gulf.

The post-pandemic recovery will not be smooth. While the International Labour Organisation forecasts that 100 million jobs will be created this year and 80 million in 2022, more than 250 million full-time posts were lost in 2020, according to the World Economic Forum. That figure is four times greater than during the 2008/09 financial crisis. In the Middle East, an increasingly young and growing population will have a particularly hard time finding work in this challenging environment. They will be looking to regional success stories to offer a lifeline. The UAE, therefore, presides over an epoch-defining responsibility.

Describing the intellectual connectedness of the Middle East, an Arabic aphorism goes as follows: “Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads.” The beauty of the region's development is that all corners have at certain points led the way. As countries such as the UAE climb global talent rankings, evidence is mounting that parts of the GCC could be next.