The UAE must cherry pick elite teen mathematicians to get ahead of the curve

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Granting naturalized citizenship to stars in the making, as the UAE is attempting, is prudent – we all want the next Albert Einstein or Elon Musk as a compatriot. However, spotting the next star is incredibly difficult. Quantitative sciences, such as mathematics, statistics, computer science, physics, and so on, are an exception, as one can reliably detect brilliant minds at a young age. The UAE must tailor its immigration system to capture such talent.

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The UAE’s recent decision to offer top global talent a path to Emirati citizenship follows in the footsteps of the points-based immigrations systems that many other countries operate. All successful economies are constantly on the lookout for international superstars.

Guest worker visas and permanent residency are poor substitutes for naturalized citizenship, because talented people will not invest in their host countries, nor will they transfer knowledge to colleagues, if they think that country does not represent their long-term future. Accordingly, the UAE’s wise decision to naturalize top international talent will bear fruits over the coming years.

In the last two centuries, the biggest beneficiary from naturalizing global superstars is the US. Illustrious figures such as, Henry Kissinger, Andrew Carnegie, and Nikola Tesla are part of American history because of an immigration system, and a culture that absorbed these intellectuals into society seamlessly.

However, as Australia and Canada have already learned, the UAE should note that creating an application process that uncovers these gems is essentially impossible. Many of the stars that the US acquired were not stars at the time of acquisition: Sergey Brin (Google), Jerry Yang (Yahoo!), Jan Koum (WhatsApp), and Max Levchin (PayPal) were all the children of ordinary immigrants when they entered the US, and had a Canada-style points system been used on their parents, they might not have qualified.

Quantitative sciences such as mathematics are an interesting area which the UAE should consider, because it is relatively easy to spot a star in the making.

Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to earn the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics, was obtaining gold medals in the International Mathematics Olympiads (IMO) as a teenager, a very reliable indicator that she would become a star.

The problem that many mathematics prodigies, born in low- and middle-income countries face, is that they lack the resources to fulfill their potential.

This is why the UAE should consider camping out at competitions such as the IMO and offer Emirati citizenship to precocious teens and their families. By giving them the chance to advance their careers in the UAE’s research institutions, over time, they will help provide a much-needed boost to the country’s homegrown research output. Unlike a migrant on a guest worker visa, they will be strongly motivated to build the skills of young Emiratis, and to make long-term investments in national research and development programs.

There are no shortcuts to a knowledge-based economy. Trying to buy innovation through guest worker visas is expensive and ineffective. Naturalizing top innovators is essential to success, and while spotting them early is hard, it can be done in quantitative sciences. For the UAE to get the most out of its naturalization program, it needs to naturalize teenage superstars in fields such as mathematics, physics, and computer science.

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