TSG IntelBrief: The Middle East and Best and Brightest Flight
December 5, 2013

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• Some Middle Eastern countries are subject to persistent and significant brain drain—the emigration of educated professionals, generally due to lack of employment and advancement opportunities, exacerbated by political instability, economic slowdowns, and high costs of living

• The economically prosperous Persian Gulf continues to attract some of the educated and professional class of impacted countries, and are generally less susceptible to such large-scale human capital movement.

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Through late 2013, several countries in the Middle East (alphabetically)—Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Syria, continue to experience a brain drain of substantial segments of educated and professional citizens. As with other types of mass human migration, such as the outflow of refugees fleeing violent conflict, the reasons for brain drain usually include chronic and systemic problems in the source country which the educated, professional, and ambitious seek to overcome in more affluent and opportunity-affording host countries. These problems generally include lack of employment opportunities and prospects for advancement within their economic sectors, especially in technical and scientific disciplines; economic depression; poor living conditions and sometimes high cost of housing; political instability; oppression, or discrimination against a specific community; and high level of health risks. In the host countries, factors contributing to brain gain include developed and expanding economies, political stability, freedom, better health care, and liberal—and sometimes welcoming—entry rules. Consistent in long-term emigration patterns for some are family influences such as overseas relatives who can assist in re-settlement.

To the source country, a large-scale brain drain presents a high economic cost, since such skilled native sons and daughters usually take with them extensive professional training, sometimes sponsored by their governments and national institutions. In this respect, brain drain parallels the economic costs associated with large-scale financial capital flight.

While brain drain is common among developing nations such as India, where many scientists, engineers and physicians have settled in the West and North America, the Middle East, which previously had seen an economic growth spurt, is now facing a significant flight of human capital. Even the highly developed economy of Israel is experiencing some brain drain.

Reliable figures on the magnitude of the brain drain are difficult to determine, but according to consisent reporting and capsule overviews (below), several million Middle Eastern professionals have emigrated to host countries, with rate of return to source countries considered notably low.

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Syria

As a result of its protracted civil war, Syria faces the largest human capital flight of any Arab country, with the extraordinary exodus of educated and skilled Syrians, including medical doctors, business owners, and executives. One consequence of the situation is that many native professionals have difficulty obtaining visas to North America, Europe, and the Gulf states, forcing them into refugee camps in neighboring countries where relief agencies have few resources to fully use their skills. As of September, an estimated two million have left the country, with upwards of 30 percent with higher education backgrounds, according to Al Fanar. Seventy percent of Syria’s medical professionals have fled the country, according to a June 2013 NPR report. Many of those left are in hiding, according to the New York Review of Books. Some of the most prominent doctors and department heads, including Damascus University professors, left the country, leading to increased pressures at the hospital, which now depends on graduate students.

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Lebanon

Lebanese of the college-educated population are estimated to be leaving the country in larger numbers for work abroad than at any time since the aftermath of the 2006 war. It is predominantly the middle class of well-educated, young Lebanese seeking to emigrate. According to a Lebanese Center for Policy Studies survey, 53 percent of under-30 year olds are considering leaving for work abroad, with figures for the 30-45 age group at nearly 48 percent. According to one report, many Lebanese medical students are studying German to enable them to apply for residency programs there, and many high-tech start-ups are seeking to move to Europe, primarily due to continuing instability.

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Jordan

Though the government is actively promoting technology-based opportunities and growth, many Jordanians continue to seek work in Gulf countries. Dubai’s economy, in particular, is host to a significant portion of the professional Jordanian labor force, due to lack of sufficient employment opportunities at home. Youth unemployment remains high, with the government unable to stimulate new work opportunities—greatly compounded by the effort to manage some 600,000 Syrian refugees.

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Palestinian Authority (West Bank and Gaza Strip)

A 2012 estimate of unemployment for Palestinians age 20-29, with a BA or intermediate diploma, is 50.6 percent. Moreover, many are dependent on work in Israel (to include disputed Israeli settlements in the West Bank). With a conservative estimate of 25 percent unemployment overall, Palestinian universities are graduating between 30,000—45,000 students annually, creating additional pressure for a contracting job field. Many educated Palestinians are seeking improved prospects abroad, with such brain drain further damaging prospects for local economic and social development. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, approximately 7,000 Palestinians—many of whom have a university degree—emigrate every year in search of improved professional prospects abroad, with actual numbers likely much higher.

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Egypt

Since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, a significant number of the country’s middle class has left, seeking improved prospects overseas. Though reliable figures for the current wave of brain drain vary greatly, there is consistent reporting of tens of thousands of the country’s Christian population—many in the middle class—fleeing because of the rise of extremist violence against them (though the current government is attempting to contain it). While members of the Egyptian middle class and educated elite have been leaving Egypt for decades —for countries like the US, UK, and Australia — the recent upheavals have substantially increased departure rates.

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Israel

In a 2013 estimate, 330,000 native-born citizens (230,000 Israeli Jews and 100,000 Israeli Arabs) are living abroad. However, unlike its Arab neighbors, a significant number (estimates vary) of immigrants return to Israel. The primary motives for professional flight include significant salary gaps between Israeli and Western academic institutions and opportunity for professional advancement. These expatriates include many with advanced degrees in scientific, engineering, and social sciences. In 2009, Israel’s Council for Higher Education estimated that 25 percent of its academics were living overseas, with one of the highest brain drain rates among developed or developing countries. With two of the 2013 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry holding Israeli citizenship and living abroad, a national debate has ensued about “the ones that got away.”

Regionally, in contrast, most of the Persian Gulf Arab states have shown consistent economic growth, with advancing technology-based critical infrastructures and living standards comparable to the West. Although its impact is indirect, persistent slowdown in economic growth in Western countries, accompanied by flat job markets, could spur “brain gain” return to home countries—chronic strife in Egypt and Syria, for example, notwithstanding.

• According to one estimate, the Arab world will need to create 100 million new jobs in the next 20 years (in effect, doubling the current level of employment), in order to meet the needs of the younger population, especially the educated, who will be entering the labor force, as well as to incentivize the return of Western-educated Middle Easterners who would become job creators in their own countries.

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