Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Afshin is an author and expert on global geo-political risk and geo-economics, particularly the Middle East and Asia. He is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, where he is co-director of the World Economy Roundtable, an ambitious exercise to re-map the global economy in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. In 2005, he was selected by the World Economic Forum in Davos as a Young Global Leader.
“Immigration,” quipped the American author and TV personality Jack Paar, “is the sincerest form of flattery”. It’s a nice line, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth. After all, the choice to migrate somewhere depends on many factors, including proximity, limited choices, family ties, and dozens of other reasons.
The 2016 ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey offers a cleaner example of Paar’s flattery because it simply asked young Arabs
an aspirational question: “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?” For the fifth consecutive year, young Arabs gave the same answer – the United Arab Emirates. The United States and Germany are a distant second and third, and only two other Arab countries cracked the top ten.
Over the years, I have been struck by this consistent result. Across the Arab world, over the past several decades, leaders have failed to deliver the goods for their citizens, especially young people. Of these ‘goods’ the one most prized by young Arabs is simply opportunity: the opportunity to reach their potential in a secure, safe environment, free of corruption, and open to innovation and creativity. This opportunity offers the dignity of succeeding or failing on your terms, not because of wasta (connections) or lack thereof, or any other factor.
When the Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest a predatory government that had taken away his means of making a living – his opportunity – he likely had no idea that he would ignite uprisings across the Arab world; uprising driven by a “burned generation” of Arab youth fed up with corruption, dictatorship, and lack of opportunity. The fact that, since 2012, young Arabs have chosen the UAE as the place they would most like to live and the country they would most like to emulate, begs further exploration.
As a regular traveler to the UAE (my first visit was in 1993), I have watched the country grow from modestly successful regional entrepot – Dubai-driven – and geopolitical player – Abu Dhabi-driven – to one of the most important global hubs and regional political actors today. The story of the rise of the UAE from a loosely formed union of struggling emirates in 1971 to global player is one of the great nation-building stories of our era, one that should merit careful and sustained study.
The UAE owes its rise to a number of factors but, in my view, they come down to two essential ones: visionary leadership and the people that live and work in the seven emirates. It’s hardly a secret that UAE leaders have been delivering the goods for their people and residents in terms of a growing economy, women’s empowerment, access to education and opportunity, efficient delivery of government services, and much more. Scan the rapidly proliferating list of indexes from the Global Competitiveness Index to the Global Innovation Index to the World Happiness report, and the UAE consistently ranks at or near the top.
The leadership already gets its fair share of headlines. It’s time to explore the other key factor for the UAE’s rise: the people, including the millions of talented and hard-working expatriates who choose to make it their home – the doctors and engineers, the artists and professors, the labourers and the services professionals, the investment bankers and real estate developers, and others who came from more than 150 countries to work every day to deliver, build, innovate, and create.
A sub-set of this group of talented expatriates are the young Arab professionals. A book should be written about these people, culturally at home in the Arab world, but globalised and cosmopolitan and highly capable in their fields. They came to the UAE because their own homelands offered them little in the way of hope or opportunity, or they simply wanted to challenge themselves among the best of their generation who were flocking to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Consider someone like Yasar Jarrar, who is today one of the Arab world’s most highly respected government strategy professionals. He has been a partner at two of the world’s leading firms, PWC and Bain, and co-chairs the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the future of Government. He came to Dubai in the year 2000 from the UK, where he studied for his PhD after leaving Jordan, to interview for a job, and was struck by the Emirati official who interviewed him. “Don’t come here to work with us,” the official said. “Come here to dream with us.” He stayed, worked in the Dubai Executive Office, and now leads his own firm advising corporations and governments.
It’s stories like these that explain why young Arabs consistently vote for the UAE as their number one choice of places to live. The word is out that the UAE will offer you an opportunity, and, in the end, that’s all young people want anywhere in the world.
There is nothing more tragic than stifled potential, of watching young, talented, hard-working Arabs unable to succeed in their homelands, lining up outside Western embassies, dreaming of a visa, an exit, a way out and up. Clearly, the UAE has emerged as a lodestar for young Arabs and while the UAE has given them an opportunity, it has also benefited from the combined efforts of the most talented, cosmopolitan, hard-working men and women of their generation.