A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

What a waste it is to lose one’s minds: reversing the Arab world’s brain drain

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 10, 2007

On Wednesday, the Oxford Business Group published a briefing on Qatar’s efforts to reverse the Arab world’s decades-long “brain drain” of scientists and other trained professionals. The Qatar Foundation has been at the vanguard of creative, problem-solving approaches to build a better future for the region, and its latest two initiatives, the Qatar National Research Foundation and the Qatar Science and Technology Park, look equally promising.

Qatar’s efforts are admirable because they address not only the problem of training, but also, and more importantly, that of retention. As conference proceedings published by the Dialogues Project last year indicate, many Arab world scholars would like to return home, and put their talents and professional experience to work for their countries of origin. However, these countries have done a remarkably poor job of supporting scientific research and – worse – scientific inquiry.

The proceedings read a bit choppily but are worth slogging through for the issues they raise:

Mr. Bulliet launched this portion of the [panel] discussion by questioning the relationship between Western–trained Muslim scientists and scientific development in their home countries[, asking why so few return]. Just as the repatriation of U.S.–based Chinese and Indian scientists has contributed in no small measure to these countries’ recent economic successes, could the same not be true for the Muslim world? Mr. Ali responded that, at this point, many Muslim scientists return to their countries of origin only to find that they cannot make a significant contribution in the absence of a professional environment conducive to sustained scientific creation. With scarce research possibilities and a culture of bureaucratic and institutional impediments—and with no apparent leadership invested in resolving these problems—Muslim scientists often find it impossible to live and work in their home countries. The Islamic world must culturally reinvest in the sciences to stem this brain drain.

What I like about the Qatari initiatives is how broadly they define science and scholarship. During the month of February, the Qatar Foundation ran an advertisement here in the Lebanese press, requesting that scholars working in the field of Islamic studies (broadly, and self-, defined) send their cv’s to the Foundation. The Foundation is working to build a database of scholars, as the first step to establishing an ‘Islamic Studies Program’ – a think tank of sorts, with fellowships, scholarships, and conference programs promoting research and debate within the ‘diverse’ field of Islamic studies. Here is the (English language) advertisement:


And here is the OBG article:

Strategies for Scientific Development

In the past, the countries of the Middle East have had trouble holding onto their scholars, with the Arab world accounting for over 30% of the global brain drain from developing countries to the West. A 2004 study by the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo found that 45% of Arab students who studied abroad did not return home after graduating, choosing to apply their skills not in the institutions of their homelands, but in the better-funded labs of the West, primarily in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.

Speaking at the Founding Conference of Arab Expatriate Scientists in Doha last year, Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a senior research fellow at the London-based Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University, attributed the lack of pro-active scientific research and development in the Middle East to political and social factors, the lack of inter-institution cooperation, and what he described as, A systematic pattern of didactic and innovation-discouraging of education. Harsh words, but are things now beginning to change?

Last year saw the establishment of the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), which, it is hoped, will be able to steer the country along its intended path of becoming a knowledge-based economy, with a base of high-value industry to make up for the low population in the country. While an official strategy is expected to be announced in April, the QNRF stated the first phase will focus, primarily on goals related to building human capital, while the second and third phases will address other national needs and opportunities, expand non-QNRF funding and raise Qatar’s profile in the international research community.

We will have to wait until April to see the exact details of the strategy, but Qatar has been seen as developing a dialogue between the key players in the country – the government, academia and the private sector – in order to steer the development along a sustainable route. Anqi Qian, the director of Strategic Initiatives at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, said: The challenge is to keep a balance between patience and urgency. Patience in that establishing research takes a whole ecosystem of universities, industry and governmental support. Urgency in that the future of Qatar will be shaped by when the national research strategy begins to bear fruits.

Qatar is also developing relations with other countries in the region and last year, the Qatar Foundation organised the 1st Conference of Arab Expatriate Scientists in Doha, under the patronage of Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned. Abdulla al-Kubaisi, the chairman of the Qatar Science & Technology Park, said that Qatar was seeking to pool resources from its neighbours and the entire Middle East in a bid to make up the shortfalls of its own small population and limited human resources. The topics covered in the conference, which brought a number of highly-respected Arab scientists from across the world, were a clear indication of Qatar’s desire to diversify its industrial base, including working sessions on such matters as biomedicine, biotechnology, ecology and information technology, among others. While the traditional oil and gas sector in the country remains key to investors, 2006 witnessed a growth in investments in the electronics, minerals and processing sectors, as well as in tourism and property development.

However, the rest of the world is not standing still. In Europe, which trails far behind Japan and the US in terms of research spending, the European Research Committee (ERC) was pledged 7.5bn euros by the EU at the end of February this year to carry out fundamental, or blue skies studies up until 2013. The ERC said the types of projects it funds must be at the frontiers of knowledge, that it is looking for excellence and has directed its first grant call not at established names, but at emerging new talent, promising to hand out grants totalling 300m euros in 2007 to the most promising up and coming researchers. This may prove to be one more threat to Qatar in terms of brain drain that it can ill-afford.

While developing a long-term strategy is one element, the most forward-thinking strategy cannot succeed without financing and business incentives. To this end, in November last year, the Qatari government promised to pump 2.8% of GDP into scientific research (the US invests 2% of GDP) and offered incentives for firms involved in research work, including tax breaks and increased funding for schools and universities to improve education in sciences.

So the scene is set, and come April, the results of the labours of all those involved in setting up the strategy will become clear. The goal of becoming a knowledge-based economy may be a long hard climb, but the necessary elements of industry, finance, education and legislation are in place. How these are coordinated in the future will be the key to sustainability.


4 Responses to “What a waste it is to lose one’s minds: reversing the Arab world’s brain drain”

  1. Manas said

    Quatar Seems to move in the right direction. They have also helped AlJazeera become what it has become.

    I think it is not enough to have a scientific scholarship. A country willing to move forward has to have a think tank that can guide it. A pool of historians, philosphers and political analysts. What else is a better place for that than a university?

    Therefore I belive that they, or any country willing to grow should increase the amount of scholarship by providing a place where ideas can be exchanged. Also it is very important that they be committed to it.

  2. Ian Parker said

    How much is to do with religion? The Koran was dictated by the Archangel Gabriel. The world (accoring to Gabriel) was created in 6 days. I think that quite apart from financial factors there must exist a gulf between a scientist and their community.

    Dictated is a far stronger word than inspired. Dictation must be scientifically accurate in every particular. Inspiration need not be.

  3. Ian Parker said

    I have a further thought. The Middle East is tearing itself apart. The death toll in Iraq keeps on rising. Liberal opinion blames the USA but Iraq is totally Arab generated and witnesses to the intolerance and violence endemic in Arab society. It is not an American problem.

    The Arabs all blame the Americans and Israelis for the defects in their society. In fact the US is the only force that is stopping Iraq becoming even worse, if that were possible. If the Arabs were to take responsibility for their society and raise the position of women the problems would solve themselves.

  4. Oh, Ian. You raise as issues some of the very persistent stereotypes about the Middle East.

    You are right about religion – the region has the same trouble with the morality of abortion and things like stem cell research that we do. On the other hand, genetically modified crops and birth control have been almost non-issues here (aside from a few wacky clerics, just like our born again and hardline Catholics in the US).

    As for the Qur’an being dictated, and the idea that this is determines the outlook of Muslims (making them unreceptive to scientific thought), this is something I hear from un-educated Americans. It is quite disappointing to see the same ideas coming from a trained scientist, and particularly one married to a scholar of religion. This is the same type of Weberian thinking that produced “The Asiatic Mind” and other canards.

    I don’t mind wrong thinking, but I do mind how it narrows the mind of the thinker. Violence is far more endemic in our society than in the Arab world. I worry much more about being attacked, raped, robbed, or shot in the United States; such fears almost never occur to me here.

    Saddam Hussein was a terrible man who ruled Iraq as a tyrant. However, it is on our watch that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, and the region has been plunged into greater chaos and religious strife. I suspect that many of those dead, and of the two million and more Iraqis living as refugees in Syria and Jordan, would choose safety and life over the death and destruction that we have brought. As for the position of women in Iraq today, it is thanks to us that Iraqi women now cower at home and feel compelled to dress in robes and scarves when they leave the house. Iraqi women were some of the most liberated in the region; we have set them back decades.

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