Brain Drain and the “Arab Spring”

Author ········· Nadine Abu-Nasrah
Published ······ Online, January 2013
Section ·······  Current Affairs

The “Arab Spring” has not only voiced out the greatest frustrations that have engulfed the Arab world—including unemployment, gender inequality and political instability—but also strengthened the determination of those seeking change: the Arab youth. To date, nearly 200 million Arab youth have come together as catalysts for change from Tahrir Square to the streets of Damascus, not only by number but also by aptitude.

Over 50 million people in the region have turned to social media outlets, most notably Twitter and Facebook, to help rally the voices of activists who have gathered online to also gather in reality. Together, these young revolutionaries have successfully organised pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Occupied Palestine. During the height of the revolution, the number of Twitter and Facebook users in the Arab world dramatically increased to over 6.5 million and 43 million users respectively. The string of revolutions have ignited a firestorm of debate on the consequences that the “Arab Spring” has had on the brain drain of the most talented youth in the Arab region—has the power behind these uprisings contributed to or reversed the effects of the brain drain phenomenon?

The noise created by the Arab revolutions have shown signs in reversing brain drain trends as governments, international organisations, and private sectors are becoming increasingly aware of the “window of opportunity for the [Middle East North Africa] region to leverage its ‘youth bulge’ and introduce the transparent and accountable policies and institutions that will support increased competitiveness and higher living standards,” according to the World Economic Forum’s 2011-2012 Arab World Competitiveness Report. The heightened awareness to invest in policies in the Arab world that will help the dreams of youth become a reality has triggered an influx of youth returning to their home countries to become entrepreneurs, innovators, and even leaders in education reform.

Twenty-two year old Nora Elsheikh is an example of the brain drain reversal. Currently completing her Masters of Education (Ed. M in the Arts in Education) degree at Harvard University, Elsheikh hopes to return to her native Egypt and reform the public education system.

“I had long dreamt of working on education reform in the region. At the time of my initial plans, it was almost a hopeless case, but in light of the [Arab] Spring it seems as though there is an option to develop or make changes in the system…I do hope to work with a group of like minded individuals to design a school that inspires a love for learning through experiential learning.” Elsheikh said.

The reversed brain drain trends we are seeing are not only due to the organised opinions, entrepreneurial, and creative spirit that Arab youth, like Elsheikh, have, but also are reinforced by the presence of tools many countries in the Arab region are creating to help make the dreams of this generation a reality.

Her Highness Princess Ameerah Al Tweel of Saudi Arabia said, while on a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative: “My generation is very powerful. We shouldn’t be looked at as a threat but as an opportunity. We are not problems to be solved, we are problem solvers.”

In light of the “Arab Spring,” the governments of Arab countries have realised the opportunity to invest in their youth and have put in place world class universities and non-government organisations (NGO) to reverse brain drain trends by believing in and supporting local students and entrepreneurs. Since the early 2000s the Qatar Foundation has built branches of eight internationally renowned universities in Qatar including Texas A&M University, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Northwestern University, and Weill Cornell Medical College. By bringing world-class universities, along with their curriculum and professors, to the Arab world, the Qatar Foundation has not only provided the region’s youth the opportunity to a refined education on their own turf, but it has also contributed to reversing brain drain trends. Students from all over the region made up the 2012 graduating class in Qatar and are ready to pump their skills back into the regions economies.

The “Arab Spring” unleashed a movement of eager young entrepreneurs. To support these enterprises, local NGOs have stepped in to provide loans and sustainable solutions to unemployment and poverty alleviation. Alashanek ya Balady (Association for Sustainable Development) in Egypt, INJAZ in Jordan, and the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation in Saudi Arabia are locally based organisations that focus on encouraging enterprises through micro financing loans to men and women, supporting innovative projects, and using sustainable strategies.

This year there are approximately 12 million small and medium sized businesses that comprise the majority of the private sector across the Arab region. According to the World Bank 2011 data, the greatest factor affecting the start of businesses is the difficulty to find financing. However, steps have been taken to revise policies to make it easier for men and women to access loans and become entrepreneurs in their local areas. Jordan and Egypt have reduced the minimum capital requirements for those starting new businesses, as well as created “one-stop-shops” which drastically reduces the time it takes to start a business.

Although the “Arab Spring” has opened the doors of opportunity in the region driven by the power of activists coming together and the innovative ideas of this passionate generation, sustainable change does not happen overnight. Though governments in the Arab region have taken steps towards economic and educational reform, the gaps in the political structure still need to be filled to drive the full intellect of the Arab youth.

Nadine Abu-Nasrah is a graduate of The George Washington University School of Business and Harvard University. She is an Arab-American interested in women’s issues, philanthropy, and creating business opportunities in underdeveloped regions. @nadine_abu