IQ Magnets in the Muslim World

Over the last few years, a number of different cities have emerged as creative or technological hubs of sorts. Bangalore, in India, springs to mind as one such example: a city that has transformed itself into a world-class centre for technological talent that is now attracting diaspora Indians back to India. New Zealand is another country that has benefited from one of its cities — Wellington — evolving into what might, for want of a better term, be called an IQ hotspot.

I recently came across an interesting essay by Richard Florida that was published on the excellent Cato Unbound site. Florida writes about the Wellington experience, using Bill Gate’s term IQ magnet to describe these sorts of cities: cities where smart and creative people gather, from across the world, to work, do business and learn.

In March of 2003, I met Peter Jackson, Academy award-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in his hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. Jackson did something unlikely in Wellington, a city of roughly 400,000: He built one of the most advanced filmmaking complexes in the world—a “global talent magnet,” he called it.

There, he could attract the best cinematographers, sound technicians, computer graphics artists, model builders, and editors from around the globe. As we walked past a wall map with pins showing the studio workers’ native countries, the head of digital animation joked that the organization looked more like the U.N. than a film studio. Jackson told me his key lure was to offer exciting, challenging work with a secure future in a city with abundant natural beauty, affordable housing, and an outstanding quality of life for people of nearly every income bracket.

Jackson’s accomplishment in tiny Wellington hasn’t factored into any of the recent debates over business competitiveness, jobs or economic growth—but it should.

It should also be factored into discussions about the future of the Muslim world. Like the Indian diaspora, there is a vast, multinational diaspora of Muslims that have left their respective lands in search of the freedom, intellectual achievement, and material prosperity found only in the West. It takes only a cursory glance across the names in most university engineering faculties to see that there are significant numbers of Muslims who have reached a high level of achievement in the technical fields (as well as many others, of course, such as medicine and the social sciences). Likewise, there seems to be many Muslims who aspire to migrate to a Muslim country but cannot because few of these countries offer the opportunity for citizenship, equal rights under the law, or a genuine opportunity to be more than a highly paid indentured worker.

Whilst many people do seek out employment in the Muslim world, particularly the Gulf, there has been very little migration and very little diffusion of knowledge. For example, given the sheer volume of contractors and ‘international experts’ that have worked in Saudi Arabia for decades, the country should be the intellectual and technical hub for the Middle East by now. However, for various reasons, this is not the case and it is only in the last few years that Saudi authorities have realised that, after spending millions on ‘international consultants’ with no desire to do anything except make money, the country has been left infrastructurally rich but intellectually poor. Thankfully, this is changing — as evidenced by the large numbers of Saudi students studying postgraduate research degrees overseas.

Yet, India and China have both leveraged their respective diaspora to excellent effect. Whilst other countries, such as New Zealand, have been successful in attractive some of the brightest minds in the world to their shores.
As the world divides between sources of skilled and unskilled labour, could the Muslim world achieve something similar? Could one or more Muslim countries develop a similar IQ magnet that would draw the best and brightest of the Muslims back? And, in doing so, could the Muslim economies break their dependency on natural resources and imported knowledge workers?

The Gulf countries certainly have the wealth, relatively good infrastructure, and a geographic proximity to both Asia and Europe that is advantageous for this sort of enterprise. Whilst Dubai has established projects such as its Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City however, it seems that the principle objective is to attract foreign companies (employing mostly foreign workers) to establish themselves in the emirate. Of course, the attraction of foreign investment will benefit the emirates greatly, but ultimately it seems ephemeral compared to the benefits that might be gained from developing one’s own human resources and establishing locally owned “talent magnets”.

So, here are a few ideas as to how it might work: offer a skilled and business migration program similar to that offered in the West where, after a period of time and meeting some requirements such as having obeyed the law, these people could apply for full citizenship; invest broadly and extensively in the creative sector, such as expanding universities and research facilities; rather than pursuing blanket ‘reforms’ that, without discrimination, replace all foreign lecturers with locals, aggressively recruit the best scholars from abroad to work in local universities; increase the number of PhD programs in creative disciplines and offer scholarships to local and foreign students (with the best of them being allowed the opportunity to apply for permanent residency); and continue to attract foreign investment, particularly foreign companies engaged in the creative sector, by offering incentives such as zero tax (as is the case in Dubai’s free trade zones).

Of course, the next question is: why should a Muslim country attempt to do such a thing? Well, as Florida observes, the world is increasingly divided on the basis of expertise and intellectual firepower: between the skilled and unskilled. For the most part Muslim countries, including those of the Gulf, fall largely into the unskilled basket. This places them at a distinct disadvantage economically (in the long term) and culturally (in the short term) in their dealings with the rest of the world. Whilst it may be unlikely, at least in the forseeable future, that the world will ever lose its thirst for oil, it makes sense, in the long term, for Muslim countries to build a future that is predicated on something more concrete than a natural resource. Yet, the massive amount of money flooding into these countries today due to increased oil prices, offers an incredible opportunity to reclaim something of that glorious past of Muslim creativity that we always talk about.

As Florida describes it, “the places that can produce and mobilize their own creative workers, and attract creative talent from outside, win.”


#1 Tariq Nelson on 06.19.06 at 3:36 pm

This makes too much sense to be applied

#2 Tariq Nelson » Blog Archive » An idea to make ‘hijrah’ more practical on 06.19.06 at 4:06 pm

[...] The brothers at Austrolabe have an essay that would draw more Muslim brains to the Muslim lands. Of couse that would require such things as fairness and equal opportunity… Likewise, there seems to be many Muslims who aspire to migrate to a Muslim country but cannot because few of these countries offer the opportunity for citizenship, equal rights under the law, or a genuine opportunity to be more than a highly paid indentured worker. […] [...]

#3 Amir on 06.19.06 at 10:00 pm

Well, there are more than a few cultural and social reasons why some of the more affluent khaleeji countries would not go for this. It probably wouldn’t work for Saudi Arabia, for example, and it would be something of a radical departure from their program of Saudisation.

However, it is possible that it could work in specific sectors — such as tertiary education — because the benefits to the ‘natives’ are far more visible and it doesn’t affect the local labour market as much as, say, allowing foreign software developers or engineers to work in the country does. A further benefit of trying to attract foreign (or diaspora) researchers and university lecturers is that a vibrant research atmosphere (particularly in the hard sciences, engineering, and so on) benefits the private sector (because the product of the research will sometimes be commercialised or used in other products/services) and also, by creating the image of the country as a centre of research in a particular discipline, it gives the country additional ’soft power’ in its dealings with the rest of the world.

Israel is a very good example. There are some specific areas, such as cryptography and security software, where Israel really leads most of the world. Although it is a relatively small country, their research output and quality is generally comparable with larger, older and less troubled countries elsewhere in the world. As a result of the vibrant local research community, a lot of major companies have set up labs and major centres in the country. IBM and Intel spring to mind.

#4 Umar on 06.20.06 at 4:25 pm

It sounds like a good idea but it would face a lot of problems. The concept of brotherhood with Western Muslims is minimal at best in many parts of the Muslims World. You are doing good to get a tourist visa in many of these countries so it will take a large progression in order for them allow you to displace whatever homegrown talent they have. Promotion on merit is another issue. In most Muslim countries, and nearly all Arab nations, promotion based on merit is just not part of the though process. You are promoted because of your tribe, status, someone is doing you a favor or who your father is. Western Muslims who go to these countries to work hard and put their skills to use will quickly get fed up with the fact that their ideas are not being implemented and they are not being promoted because the guys across the hallways grandfather help defeat the Turks a century ago or some nonsense like that. If Western Muslims are granted citizenship to these countries that will also mean that they will lose what little protection they have from the powerful and corrupt state forces and anyone trading in a British passport for a Sudanese one is an idealist at best and borderline insane at worst. Also, as soon as an company ran by Western Muslims becomes a success they will be apparoached by the “Muslim” government and extorted into making some local a partner in the company who will more than likely just get an office in the building and sit around and drink tea and surf the web all day putting his American graduate degree and Gulf nationality to work.

#5 Baybers on 06.21.06 at 8:53 pm

This is a great piece, that I have being mulling over for sometime. The problems that both Umar and Tariq are perhaps the biggest barrier to expatriate western muslims making a genuine contribution in Muslim lands.

The problems go back to issues of governance that were raised in the Islam and democracy piece. If there was a culture of transparency in awarding government posts, and selection based on merit, it would encourage better minds to migrate to Muslim lands.

Dubai is an interesting example, I don’t think that it will act as a IQ magnet. These places are generally created by accident, but also by attracting the right people, rather than spending up big. The bay area around san Francisco is a classic example, where a combination of great weather, a superb university led to people like steve jobs living there and staring up apple in the palo alto garage.

If dubai does not want to go down the route of the costa del sol. then they should alter their strategy.

#6 Amir on 06.21.06 at 9:07 pm

Dubai is interesting. They have created free trade zones where companies can setup and pay no taxes, and, as I recall, also offered companies the opportunity to establish themselves outside these zones (where rent and infrastructure costs are obviously a lot less). However, they require these foreign companies to take a local (Arab) partner. There is no requirement that the partner have an active role in the running of the business so what often happens is the only contact that you have with your partner is when you are paying him his share of the profits or whatever is agreed. Anyone can buy 99 year leases in Dubai (they can’t own property in the real sense) and this entitles them to a visa that allows them to enter and leave as they wish.

I’m not necessarily sure that the Dubai model is a bad thing. It is similar to the owner of a shopping centre leasing shops and taking a percentage of their profits as ‘rent’. Given Dubai’s geographic position and the success of its national carrier, Emirates Airlines, it also more or less assures that for the forseeable future it can continue to be a major trading hub and gateway. If a society is unable to make itself an IQ magnet, then maybe the next best thing is to make itself a magnet for traders and foreign capital? It has certainly benefited the Emirates and has, at least, broken whatever dependency may have formed on oil. As I recall, Dubai no longer counts oil as its primary source of income but rather it makes the majority of its GDP from trade.

#7 Baybers on 06.21.06 at 9:24 pm

one would think that with the enormous population of the muslim world, freeing up the authoritarian instruments of government on the population as well as business, then these IQ magnets would pop up everywhere (just through random chance).

#8 George Carty on 06.22.06 at 3:06 am

Amir: I’m not necessarily sure that the Dubai model is a bad thing. It is similar to the owner of a shopping centre leasing shops and taking a percentage of their profits as ‘rent’.

So Dubai is going to change from an oil-based rentier state to a real estate-based rentier state? Big whoop. Rentier states are one of the Arab world’s biggest hindrances to modernization!

#9 Amir on 06.22.06 at 3:48 am


I agree that rentier states are ineffective because they are parasitic and serve to divorce income from effort (i.e. you receive an income regardless of whether you are productive or not). However, I am not sure that Dubai is a rentier state to the same extent, say, as Saudi Arabia or pre-Revolution Iran. The reason is that in the classical rentier state, the government charges ‘rent’ to external parties as a substitute for taxation on natives. They then distribute part of the rents to their constituents in the form of social welfare programs and so forth.

In the case of Dubai, it is not the government that is charging the rent but rather it is individual natives who form partnerships with foreigners. The foreigners are engaged in trade within the emirate and the partner earns an income that is typically based on the profitability of the enterprise being undertaken or a flat fee. The risk to capital is incurred, usually, by the foreigner; whilst the local takes on the risk that comes from the fidiciury relationship he has entered into with the foreigner. If the foreigner operates dishonestly or fails whilst owing money, then the local partner will be required to accept responsibility for those debts.

I don’t believe that this sort of model falls prey to the usual shortcomings of the traditional rentier state because the ‘rent’ is not concentrated in the hands of a few (the state) but each and every local can form as many partnerships as he or she wishes with foreigners and thus earn as much ‘rent’ as they want. Secondly, the local partner shares in the risk of the enterprise rather than just charging the foreigner simple rent.

Obviously, this isn’t ideal and it has led to some pretty major social issues in the case of Dubai, but it seems to me to be better than the models adopted by the other oil-producing states which are, as you rightly point out, essentially rentier states.


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