Middle Eastern brain drain hits home

Jordanian school students in Amman.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: When people go overseas to work, they often send money to their families back home. Those remittances, as they're called, are often an important source of income for families, but also for entire national economies.

In some places -- Egypt and Jordan being two good examples -- it isn't farm hands or domestic workers sending cash home. It's skilled professionals, and that presents a problem in itself.

Marketplace's Alisa Roth reports from Amman.


Alisa Roth: There's only one real reason Fahi Mustafa Mahmoud wants to work abroad: He needs money and he's not making enough in Jordan.

Fahi Mustafa Mahmoud: Here, the life expenses are extremely high. What you take as a salary is just to cover the very basic needs. It's unfortunate. So we are trying to get better salaries.

He's sitting in an employment agency in Amman waiting to interview for a job in Saudi Arabia. But Mahmoud is no manual laborer. He's a professor of physiology at a private university here.

There's something like 250,000 Jordanians who work abroad -- most of them in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. More than 80 percent of those are thought to be skilled or highly educated. And it's not just Jordanians. Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and other countries throughout the region send their best and brightest to the Gulf to earn a decent salary.

Bassem Tlielan runs the employment agency.

Bassem Tlielan speaks in Arabic

He's just gotten a bunch of new job listings, and he's asking his colleagues to search the agency's database for OB/GYNs, ophthalmologists and ENTs who are board-certified in Jordan, the U.S. or the U.K.

He says doctors can earn as much as 250 percent more by taking a job abroad. And it's not just doctors: He can't keep up with the demand for accountants, engineers or teachers either.

Jordan's government actively promotes these relationships. Jordan has a real problem with unemployment, especially among young, educated people. The overseas jobs bring in lots of money, via remittances; officially more than $3 billion a year, about 10 percent of Jordan's GDP. But they also add up to a pretty serious brain drain for Jordan.

Sami Mahmoud, no relation to the physiologist, is a physics professor at Jordan University. He says he sees a lot of brain drain, especially among recent graduates. He says that's bad for Jordan's future.

Sami Mahmoud: There is less professionals in the society than really needed for the economic development and for the production. It influences the production rate and the quality of knowledge, the quality of educational system.

Mahmoud, the physiologist, says he'd been offered jobs abroad over the years. But he never wanted to take them.

Mahmoud: But now because of the increasing responsibility.

He and his wife have seven children.

Mahmoud: I mean, all of my children I have paid for all their fees in the university. And now the education has become extremely expensive.

If he takes a job outside Jordan, he'll probably leave his family behind, because most of the contracts are annual and it's too much too uproot them all. He says in his culture, you don't think about yourself -- the parents suffer to make the future better for their children.

In Amman, Jordan, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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