Reversing the brain-drain: America's loss is Middle East's gain

Reversing the brain-drain: America's loss is Middle East's gain
6 min read
07 Feb, 2017
Comment: If Trump's #MuslimBan is reinstated, it could help reverse years of a Middle East brain-drain to the West, writes Anisa Abeytia.
Zayed graduated in Computer Science and works on Wall Stret as a Technology Analyst[Andalou]

The Middle East was among the last regions in the world to leave behind the yoke of colonialism. The pan-Arabism that swept through the region early in the 20th century was a result of an Arab Street fast becoming self-aware. 

Nationalism stirred the currents and fed the ebb and flow of life. Coup after coup allowed for the proliferation of dictatorships.

Released from overt governing by western nations, the Arab states teetered along, unsteady and unsure, as their economies remained hobbled to imperial interests. Lacking the capacity, infrastructure or expertise to run their newly minted nation states, the former colonies looked to the systems of imperial states.

Those with bright minds and deep pockets flocked to western universities and forged the links of a new form of dependency. Western advisers and consultants were brought in to assist in establishing the frameworks of commerce, education and governance. A western education and all things western became the gold standard.

Establishment of policies and laws that favoured a ruling elite - an elite cultivated during the colonial era - were put in place. This elite wrestled power away from a people hungry for self-rule. The elites often turned to their western handlers to depose legitimately elected governments, ensuring the survival of regimes loyal to western powers.

Dictators imposed draconian measures to quell dissent and solidify their rule, ending any democratic aspirations. People began to flee, eyes set west of the horizon. Early western immigration policies favoured religious and ethnic minorities. The minorities began to immigrate, forever altering the socio-political landscape of the Middle East.

Immigration policies welcomed political dissidents - and the intellectuals, artists and politicians of the Middle East joined the ranks of western nations.

Those with bright minds and deep pockets flocked to western universities and forged the links of a new form of dependency

Nepotism and cronyism ensured opportunities stayed within the confines of a small group of insiders. Corruption, lack opportunity and repression were ubiquitous, and forced many people to leave, draining away talent, skills and labour. Not only was the Middle East losing its natural resources to the West, but its people were following suit.

The opportunities offered outside the region were alluring and set off a brain-drain, attracting the brightest, most innovative and industrious minds of the Middle East. 

The option to leave created a draw that was far stronger than the desire to stay and work for social change. It was a difficult choice, especially when the decision to stay could result in death. The consequences for this nebulous region remain largely unmeasured.

  Read more: The legality and morality of Trump's #MuslimBan

However, we can imagine the repercussions for South Africa had Nelson Mandela decided to head to the United States, or for the Indian sub-continent had Gandhi decided to remain in England. When Abdul Fattah Jandali was forced to leave Syria for the US, the Middle East lost Steve Jobs.

Yet, could a dysfunctional Syria ever hope to cultivate a native-born Jobs? The cause is not an inherent inability for the Middle East to nurture scientific innovation - even a cursory perusal of the history of science would reveal the opposite.

The roots of dysfunction in the Middle East run deep into historic realities that connect a vast resource drain and a reliance on undemocratic governments to hold the region in a continued state of colonisation. These factors are what led Lebanese writer Khaled Ghazal to describe the Arab world as "repellent for scientific skills" and failing to provide opportunities for intellectual growth.

When Abdul Fattah Jandali was forced to leave Syria for the US, the Middle East lost Steve Jobs

The brain-drain has had an additional consequence that has yet to be understood; a shift in the demographics of the Middle East away from a society that was diverse. Wars and oppression repelled many "moderates", and pushed the region into an increasingly intolerant stance.

President Trump's proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from seven countries, he claims, is a continuation of a "War on Terror". Fortunately, last week Federal Judge James Robart blocked Trump's ban, and the Department of Homeland Security refused to enforce it. But if the block to his ban is overturned, it will do little to curb extremist violence.

Trump retorted accusing Judge Robart, a Republican, of placing the US in peril "from a terrorist attack". However, the seven countries banned are low on the list of "terror sponsoring nations" and the carefully vetted refugees coming to the US are far from inclined to commit "acts of terror".

Trump's statements attacking Judge Robart's decision is more demonstrative of Trump's affinity for "alternate facts", than they are rooted in reality. The Trump administration asserts it will use every legal means to stay the ruling. On Sunday, Trump expressed certainty the stay would be overturned. Hours later a San Francisco appeals court upheld the stay. 

As of Monday evening, the San Francisco appeals court continued to deliberate the Justice Department request to reinstate Trump's travel ban. The court scheduled an early morning oral argument for Tuesday. The ban is suspended for now and a long legal battle can be expected.

A renaissance in the Middle East may be the result of banning Muslims from the US

The trajectory on which Trump hopes to set the United States will make it an uninviting and uncomfortable place for Muslims and immigrants - gutting US industry, economy and universities.

The US is reliant on immigrants not only for population growth, but for their labour and more importantly, their unique technical skills. The loss of Muslim emigrants to the US could be a boon for other countries or regions.

A renaissance in the Middle East may yet be the result of banning Muslims from the US - and after years of bloody wars and ash, the soil is fertile.

In the long term, Trump's policy could inadvertently be doing the Middle East a favour. After decades of snatching up the brightest minds, the brain-drain would be stemmed. Arabs and Iranians would be forced to return or stay at home, turning their finest minds to solving their enormous domestic social, economic and political challenges.

Decades of war and instability have build significant hurdles, and western governments continue to resist democratic governments in the Middle East. A tremendous shift would need to occur for the region to be "successful".

Perhaps this ban will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back - forcing a creative solution out of the necessity to survive. Any boom is far in the distant future, but change requires a catalyst, and this could be the first step on a long road that hopefully results in a Middle East renaissance.  

Anisa Abeytia is a writer whose work has been featured in The Hill, Brunei Times, The Dubai Sun, Orient.net and the Middle East Observer. Abeytia holds an MS and an MA from Stanford University in Post-Colonial and Feminist Theory.

Follow her on Twitter: @AbeytiaAnisa

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.