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Saudi Arabia’s Brain Drain – The Kingdom’s loss, humanity’s gain

February 5, 2016

Ghada Falling-Walls

A story in today’s edition of the English-language daily Saudi Gazette has implications beyond what would appear to be its main purpose. It’s about Ghada Al-Mutairi, a Saudi scientist working in the United States who has invented a revolutionary technique for pinpointing inflammations in the human body and enabling their treatment by laser surgery.

The article states that Dr Ghada:

“who holds a doctorate in materials chemistry, currently lives in the US. She is a faculty member at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and director of the Center of Excellence in Nanomedicine.”

Nobody who has spent time working with medical professionals in Saudi Arabia – as I have – would doubt that the country is producing talented and dedicated doctors, scientists and engineers. Many, but by no means all, study at universities in Western countries. They are encouraged to do so by a generous national scholarship programme. Currently over 200,000 Saudis are studying abroad.

I have met a number of these graduates once they have returned to their country. Almost all say that the experience has transformed them. Like Dr Ghada, they are dedicated and highly patriotic, but there is also a distinct confidence about them. They walk easily between two worlds.

Some, like Dr Ghada, end up either staying in their host countries, or returning after a spell working at home. And that’s where the first implication surfaces. She is one of five children, of which only one, a dentist, is working in Saudi Arabia:

“One of her brothers, Khalid Al-Mutairi, is a well-known plastic surgeon in the United States. Another of her brothers is a professor at Houston University, Texas, and the third is a dentist practicing in Jeddah, while her sister is a radiologist in Boston.

“My mother studied chemistry, and we are what we are because of her. She was a smart woman who dedicated her life to bring up her five children,” Al-Mutairi said.”

I find that rather sad. The Kingdom has a few pockets of medical excellence, yet not many citizens would disagree that there is much scope for improvement. In the case of the Al-Mutairi family, Saudi Arabia’s loss is clearly America’s gain.

The article’s purpose is ostensibly to showcase an outstanding Saudi talent, and to send a message that there are no barriers to success whether you are a man or a woman. And it’s true that there is no shortage of opportunity for women in the medical profession. What’s more, the traditional segregation between the genders is impossible to sustain in hospitals, where clinical practice demands that men freely work alongside women.

But another story puts Dr Ghada’s achievements into perspective. Late last year, women were allowed to stand for election as municipal councillors. The measure had been brought in by the late King Abdullah. It was hailed as a social breakthough. In Jeddah, the Kingdom’s second city two female councillors were duly elected.

This week, when the women showed up for the first meeting of the municipal council, a male councillor objected to their presence in the chamber on the grounds that the mixing of unrelated men and women was forbidden in Islam.

Despite the fact that female members of the Majlis Al-Shura, the consultative council that advises the Council of Ministers on matters of national policy, sit in the same chamber as their male counterparts, the responsible ministry ruled that women councillors should sit in a separate room and participate in proceedings via a closed-circuit TV link.

This is a well-established practice in academia and at conferences, but the ruling raised eyebrows because, according to Catherine Philp, reporting in today’s London Times, councils in other cities had already admitted their newly-elected female members into the council chambers, presumably following the example of the Shura. Thanks to the ministry’s ruling, they must now all be separated.

Now I have no idea what motivated Dr Ghada and her three siblings to make lives for themselves in the United States. In her case, the ability and funding to conduct exciting research must have been a factor. Also the fact that she was born in the US to Saudi parents (which the article doesn’t mention by the way) will have made a difference. But one can only speculate on how the councillor in Jeddah who objected to the presence of his female colleagues might react to a photo in the Saudi Gazette of the smiling scientist, participating in a discussion with two men, wearing no hijab over her hair, and no abaya, the black gown traditionally worn in Saudi Arabia.

The second equally powerful takeaway from the story is that Dr Ghada, as a Muslim, is an example of the sort of person to whom Donald Trump, if elected President of the US, would seek deny admittance to his country. Which goes to show what a fundamentally stupid man Mr Trump is, but also what a distorted and one-dimensional the view of Muslims prevails among large swathes of the American electorate whose prejudices he seeks to harness.

Dr Ghada’s next project is to find ways to remove fat from the human body. If she succeeds in developing a safe technique that is more effective than those currently available, I would be delighted to be the beneficiary of her expertise, just as one day her invention of a nano-capsule to treat inflammation might come to my rescue.

Should the unthinkable happen, and Donald Trump finds himself with the power to carry out his short-sighted plans, I can only say that we in Britain should (and I’m being careful not to say “would”) welcome her and her brothers and sister to our country with open arms.

And yes, she does send out a message to young Saudis about what they can achieve. Hopefully her example will accelerate the pace of social reform in her country, so that Saudi Arabia can most effectively use the many talented people of both genders who have chosen not to emigrate to other countries.

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