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.”