x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Expatriate skills are needed to realise region's national goals

Despite ambitious strategies to balance the national and expatriate workforces, there is still confusion about how to foster a knowledge society and economy in the Gulf.

Many GCC countries are consumed by worries about the growing imbalance between citizens and foreigners. They are anxious about the perceived negative effects of large foreign populations for cultural, social and political considerations, and especially for the social values and national identities of Gulf societies.

Let us consider the contradictions and tensions these arguments run into. The main problem is that parochial attitudes come head to head with the reality of national aspirations for fast economic growth. If Gulf states want to grow (too) fast and support their ambitious economic strategies, jump in global rankings and become heavyweight competitors in a short period of time, is it possible to do so without relying on affordable expatriate knowledge and skills?

At least for now, when we do not produce enough qualified people, it seems unlikely. Add to this the declining fertility rate and inadequate educational and research capacity. This makes our expectations to grow quickly unrealistic unless we adapt. What this means is that our aspirations and ambitions run ahead of our capacity to achieve them alone.

This reveals another Gulf paradox: how to strike a balance between our social and political goals (social cohesion and national identity) on the one hand and our economic ambitions and interests (economic growth and globalisation) on the other. Can we achieve both? How?

We have not managed to effectively integrate and transfer the knowledge and technologies expatriates bring with them to our local workforce and organisations. Have we learnt much from the engineers and doctors who build our world-class facilities, factories, towers, hotels, hospitals and airports? How much have we learnt in terms of replicating, reinventing or even operating these facilities?

In major infrastructure contracts, do the terms include a requirement to hire locals (even as apprentices) to learn from the process, from planning to implementation and operations? Have we overcome the "turnkey culture"?

We need to start with building a sustainable knowledge society including both native and naturalised citizens. The Gulf is very fortunate after four decades of prosperity that have attracted expatriate talent and knowledge. But we are among the least effective in terms of transferring and localising it in our people and institutions.

Companies come, design what we need, and go - without the right conditions and incentives to transfer know-how. Skilled workers come, build and operate our basic facilities, and go - without our tapping their potential. We must either learn from them or allow some to stay with secure rights and incentives to be part of the economic fabric of our societies.

There is still confusion about how to foster a knowledge society and economy in the Gulf. Given the large and diverse expatriate workforce, Gulf states may require other tools to capture and transfer employees' knowledge. This will be difficult unless we address the reasons that impede knowledge transfer.

These include fear of job loss, distrust, lack of awareness and understanding, comfort with the status quo and resistance to change in our organisations' history and culture. Most importantly, top management must commit the time and support to make knowledge management, not only knowledge formation, a priority within the modernisation programme of government.

Another question is how to give certain knowledge-holders long-term residency and ownership rights, as is done in many countries around the world. Why cannot some of these privileges be extended to critical employees, including scientists, engineers, academics, information technologists and physicians?

This might be a solution to our predicament of wanting to grow fast with too little local talent, while preserving national identity and social stability. In the long term, we might creatively redefine national identity to include our diversity.

Our DNA is wired for survival, and in today's world, with our resources, this means adapting to embrace global markets for knowledge.


Khalid Al Yahya is an analyst in strategic development policy and governance at Harvard University and Dubai School of Government