Every year, thousands of young Gulf nationals head to western countries for higher education, while creating Gulf bubbles away from home: they purposely live in the same apartment blocks, studying, eating, relaxing and shopping together.
While this may offer mental comfort, they are inadvertently undermining their countries’ foreign and economic policies, and are unconsciously contributing to the animus that many Arabs and Muslims experience. Gulf nationals studying abroad have a civic responsibility to integrate with their surroundings.
Having the opportunity to study in top western universities, and live there for four or more years is a privilege. A small percentage of Gulf students can earn international and university-based scholarships to fund their education, while the rest is fortunate enough to qualify for a scholarship from a government that is rich enough to offer one, or parents wealthy enough to pay the exorbitant tuition fees and living costs.
Most Gulf students should feel a moral responsibility to make sure that their compatriots share in the fruits of their good fortune.
Whether they realize it or not, creating miniature Gulf colonies in cities such as London, Melbourne, and Washington DC is a terrible way of squandering the opportunities presented to them.
In terms of their home country’s foreign policy, being part of a cohort of thousands of students studying abroad means that they can effectively contribute to a soft power strategy. Powerful international relations go much deeper than official, government-level ties between two states: they are mirrored (and sometimes exceeded) by profound non-governmental ties, including business interests, civil society, cultural exchange, and so on.
One of the reasons why countries such as Iran, Israel, and Turkey influence the foreign policy of western states is the breadth, and depth of these non-governmental ties, as they translate to soft power.
Gulf students – especially those in the leading western universities that produce policy elites – should seize the opportunity to make lasting friendships, and to lay the foundation for business and civic ties, leveraging them after they return home. That includes volunteering in civil society organizations, contributing to art and culture, working small jobs on and off campus, when legally able to do so, and so on.
Emerging from Gulf bubbles also yields economic benefits back home, for two reasons. First, professional and non-profit networks help people from both sides to overcome cultural and legal impediments to business, by introducing people to each other, and by sharing critical information. I worked as a researcher in the US for five years before returning home to Bahrain, and I continue to leverage my American research relationships to produce higher quality research at home than would be possible if I relied exclusively on regional contacts.
Second, an essential part of economic growth is knowledge transfer, and embedding oneself deeply in foreign knowledge networks, such as top universities and businesses, yields a higher rate of knowledge transfer. By remaining in Gulf cliques for the duration of their foreign studies, many Gulf nationals forgo a wonderful opportunity to learn from the best, and within a few years of their return home, there is scarcely any evidence of their foreign hiatus.
Yet, perhaps the most important reason for making an effort to mingle with others when studying abroad is that it helps overcome bigoted attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims. A new paper by University of Chicago economist Professor Leonardo Bursztyn and colleagues, shows that when Arab Muslims live in the US and interact with locals over an extended period, there is a resulting decrease in explicit and implicit prejudice towards them. The people in their neighborhoods who are not Arab Muslims cut their support for political candidates hostile toward Arab Muslims, increase their charitable donations to Arab countries, experience higher levels of personal contact with Arab Muslim people, and increase their knowledge of Arab Muslims and Islam, in general. This research starkly demonstrates the folly of these Gulf bubbles, at a time when anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment is at dangerously high levels.
George Washington once stated: “Where are our [people] of abilities? Why do they not come forth to save their Country?” Gulf nationals studying abroad may not realize it, but they are people with the ability to change perceptions of the Gulf countries, to play a constructive role in creating jobs for their compatriots, and to combat senseless hatred. Living abroad in a bubble is a horrendous waste of a golden opportunity to create soft power. It must stop.