Brain drain means Syria can’t recover for a generation
A sadly critical fissure has developed in Syrian society. Not along the lines of pro- versus anti-Assad, urban versus rural or sectarian lines but between those with the skills to sustain the country after the war and those unable to do so.
The manoeuvring for major infrastructure contracts to rebuild Syria has been quietly under way since last year when it became clear Syrian President Bashar Assad would take back control of most of the country.
The United Nations estimates that putting Syria back together may cost more than $300 billion and the likes of China, Russia, Iran would come up with the money in return for influence with Damascus but once Syria’s towns, schools and hospitals have been rebuilt — no matter by whom — who will run them?
Overlooked in discussions of Syria’s post-conflict redevelopment is the country’s lack of skilled human capital. Its middle class fled overseas so Syria will probably remain a basket-case economy for at least a generation.
The start of the uprising in 2011 saw Syria’s wealthiest families quickly move their assets, businesses and children to Saudi Arabia, Dubai or Jordan. By 2014, a year before the great exodus of Syrians to Europe, UN figures showed that Syria’s per person GDP had regressed to $1,820. Companies closed and the value of the Syrian lira fell sharply.
This meant that only the wealthiest and best-educated Syrians could afford to start on the dangerous route from Lebanon to Turkey, then on to the Balkans and from there to central and northern Europe. (Remember the surprise expressed by many Europeans that refugees owned iPhones and were well-dressed?)
The cost of plane tickets, smugglers’ fees and transportation ran into thousands of dollars per person. Families travelling together were forced to part with multiples of that sum, often selling property in Syria to pay for it all and cutting any links with the homeland.
Of the countless contacts and friends I’ve made during five years of living and reporting across Syria, an overwhelming number had the means to get to Sweden, Canada, Austria or Germany.
Those without access to money that would allow them to leave were forced to remain in Syria. They are the poorest and the least-educated Syrians I’ve encountered. Many are well away from conflict zones and front lines but they are also without passports, jobs or incomes. Among them are young people with unfinished degrees, who are unable to enter the professional workforce and develop key skills.
It’s worth remembering that not everyone who left Syria was fleeing the war or was staunchly anti-regime. Many were well-to-do urbanites or belonged to religious minority groups that opposed the attempts to overthrow Assad. The regime may have fanned sectarian fears to fuel the war but its consequences have been indiscriminate. All sides suffered.
Some of the Syrians who left will undoubtedly return home. A large percentage of the worst-off refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and those living along the Turkish border regions will have little choice but to do so once the war ends but the millions of others in major Turkish cities, Europe and further afield will not come back, leaving Syria without key human capital, namely its professional class. The result is that Syria will remain a country without experienced professionals for at least another generation.
While a country can manage without poetry and art, as Syria arguably did pre-2011, it cannot do without professionals who know how to save lives, run financial institutions and build factories.
Critical to Syria’s functioning as a state before the war were its well-trained doctors, lawyers and other professionals. They have left and with them any chance of a prosperous, post-war future.
Recovery cannot happen until a new middle class is established and gains the experience needed to run the country. Much can change for the better but chances are that Syria 20 years on will resemble present-day Yemen more than Lebanon.
Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.