Before his demise a year ago, Dr George Abouna – a world pioneer in organ transplantation – had another sad, albeit earthly departure from Kuwait in 1990. He had to rush out of Kuwait, contract term unfinished, presumably due to his Iraqi origins and after setting up in Kuwait an organ transplantation unit that was the first of its kind in the Middle East then. The departure of Abouna was probably a leading indicator of a serious and burgeoning national policy failure to attract world-class talent. The invasion of Kuwait indeed marked a decline – if not erosion – of the position this country enjoyed for three decades as an international hub for talent.
This worked to the advantage of the more ambitious GCC countries in their hunt for talent in most fields. The sojourn of senior expatriates in Kuwait is becoming increasingly short and full of residency, contractual and red tape challenges. The recent rhetoric to indigenize the national workforce is not helping either, leading to an existentially uneasy atmosphere for expatriates.
This sharp decline in Kuwait’s attractiveness for talent is not due to security concerns, because Kuwait became more secure after liberation, as it reaffirmed its sovereignty following its liberation in 1991. Worse, Kuwait saw also an exponential growth in unskilled labor, causing a serious capacity bottleneck in both quality and quantity. According to Amer Al-Tamimi (Al-Qabas – Sept 15, 2011) there are 129,653 illiterates in the country, of which 106,153 are expatriates, representing 82 percent of the total illiterate population in the country. This unskilled labor – many now observed straying on the streets – needs to be seriously addressed through a definitive solution to chronic labor trafficking, contracting policies and rules penalizing low-skilled labor and more mechanized technologies.
Replacing a highly-qualified expatriate with a citizen who may not have the qualifications does not benefit development in the long term, due to two reasons. First, real development is about job creation, only be achievable in a free, meritocratic, knowledge- friendly and democratic environment providing equal opportunities to all. Second, we are in the knowledge age, necessitating a clear policy to nurture talent in view of building capacity in our institutions and raising competitiveness of the economy.
Sadly, I know a growing number of highly-qualified expatriates who have left, are leaving to other Gulf states, or sending their families back to their countries of origin. Recruiters consistently report that neighboring markets have a much better success rates in attracting senior finance executives, Western teachers and doctors to name a few.
This trend has led to a decline in the competitiveness of our economy, both in the public and private sectors.
The private sector, a significant contributor to the development of national labor workforce (through training programs, national labor fund, corporate social responsibility) is in need of highly-skilled professionals, a need towards which the domestic labor market and educational system can be of little help.
International talent is courted fiercely by most international markets, granting them residency benefits to settle and integrate. The manifestations of this confusion towards expats is (varying from a rhetoric aiming to mass indigenize all the way to signing new employment contracts with shaky hands) are adding an unnecessary premium to our expat salaries, leading to an increased cost of doing business in our market and loss of its global competitiveness.
Knowledge-minded economies are geared and mobilized more aggressively to acquire global talent because they know that it is the essential resource to build capacity and to indigenize the workforce. The current local generation is showing an unquenchable thirst to learn, as evidenced by the proliferation of professional trainers, coaches and mentors, on many occasions short of experience, qualifications, or both.
According to Ebru Boysan in Bloomberg (Al-Qabas – Oct 4, 2017), commenting on GCC measures taken following the oil price shock, a number of Gulf countries are planning to implement long-term residency programs to minimize the impact of a potential talent exodus: Permanent residencies in Qatar, special visa for the talent in certain areas in the UAE, and a green card arrangement in Saudi Arabia.
The strategic challenge for Kuwait and the other GCC countries now is to implement national empowerment programs without undermining their competitiveness, for the downside of such a policy error would be slipping to discriminating in job markets. Such discrimination begins with estranging the precious segment of international talent, but will insidiously turn into a society far from inclusive, where bias, favoritism and nepotism displace work and knowledge as societal values. This would be a mistake we should have been mindful of long back when we started to lose George Abouna and his fellow innovators
By Manaf Abdulaziz Alhajeri
CEO, Kuwait Financial Centre – Markaz