Why everyone young I meet wants to leave the region

Arab students’ reluctance to return from overseas is in sharp contrast to their Chinese counterparts.
Sunday 09/09/2018
On the move. People line up to apply for visas outside the German embassy in northern Beirut. (AP)
On the move. People line up to apply for visas outside the German embassy in northern Beirut. (AP)

A couple of months ago, I received desperate messages on Facebook Messenger from Marwa, a 25-year-old management graduate in Tunis. She wanted me to help get her out of Tunisia and find work in Turkey.

Marwa had three solid internships on her CV but was struggling to find a junior position in her field at home. Jobless, like 35% of young Tunisians, she spent her day browsing the internet for work. Desperate, Marwa thought of Istanbul as a place to launch her career.

Marwa is one of thousands of Arab Millennials who want to be on the move. They yearn to leave the countries of their birth and pursue their dreams elsewhere. In 2015, the UN Development Programme estimated that one-quarter of Arabs aged 25 or younger had left their home countries for job opportunities elsewhere. The World Government Summit 2016 in Dubai said that 95% of young Arabs studying overseas, mainly in Europe and North America, do not choose to return to the region after they graduate.

Brain drain is not new to the Middle East and North Africa. More than 30 years ago, Lebanese scientist Antoine Benjamin Zahlan edited the proceedings of a seminar organised by the UN Economic Commission for Western Asia into a book titled “The Arab Brain Drain.” Zahlan examined possible solutions to retain manpower in the region.

At the time, the exodus was largely because there weren’t many institutions in the region that could provide high-paying permanent jobs. There were other reasons, too, but that was a major one.

Today, there are other reasons for young Arabs’ yearning to leave. The reasons might seem obvious when it comes to conflict-ridden countries such as Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen but why the exodus from other countries in the region?

Career fulfilment remains the biggest driver in the decision to leave. Ahmad, a 24-year-old Jordanian getting a master’s degree in Germany, said he expects a “donkey job” at home. “Unless I start my own project, I expect a job that doesn’t fit my skills and degree,” he said.

Ahmad said he foresees a dispiriting work ethic in Jordan, “no communication at work, a poor work culture.” It would be “survival” levels of pay with high living expenses, he said.

If that sounds damning, consider the experience of Hamza, who works in a bank in Tunis. “As a junior client officer, I was insulted by my manager for asking a simple question. I could not really defend myself because I was afraid that I would lose my job. It is so oppressive I’m interviewing for jobs in Switzerland,” he said.

Omar, 32, a statistician from Morocco, graduated from Ecole Polytechnique in France. Currently working in one of Singapore’s top three investment funds, Omar said jobs that can use his skills don’t exist in the region. “The level of stock predictions and complex mathematical equations I write for stock markets are non-existent in banks [in Morocco and] even in the Gulf countries,” he said.

Farah, 24, said she’s not ready to return to Jordan from the United States. “I’ve just graduated from Harvard and want to do research,” she said. “[If I go back] I know I will not have proper professional mentorship.” She doesn’t rule out returning to the region as a mentor herself one day because that would be “in a senior role.”

Economic opportunity and career progression are major parts of the decision to stay away from the region but there is more. Many Arab Millennials like the personal freedoms they find in the West. Young women say they get used to the freedom of being able to walk down a street without being harassed by men, as happens at home.

Kenza, 23, left Morocco to work in Cairo but constantly harks back to a brief experience of living in Germany. “Simply walking out onto the street is a daily struggle whether in Morocco or elsewhere in the Arab world,” she said. “I get catcalled and insulted for no reason. I spent three months in Germany for an internship and that was a real relief for my mental health. I was a nobody in the streets and I loved it.”

Zineddine, 28, an Algerian pursuing a doctorate in London, said she’s trying to put off her return. “I am extending [it] as much as I can. As a political analyst and an atheist, I am not able to write or discuss my opinions openly [at home]. Not to mention that I am against our political establishment,” she said.

Arab students’ reluctance to return from overseas is in sharp contrast to their Chinese counterparts. Chinese students routinely return home to participate in their country’s development with 80% returning after graduating abroad, possibly lured by their country’s strong jobs market and favourable policies towards foreign-educated returnees.

NGOs working with young Arabs say the region must face up to the problem. “Giving [young people] a real career and chance to participate in our society should be key,” said Julie Maalouf of TalentLb, a Beirut NGO that works with exceptionally bright young people.

“We should be able to spot people’s talent and direct them to the right environment and give them the right conditions to learn, grow and impact the countries in which they live in.”