In an insightful article Dr. Theodore Karasik, an analyst on the Gulf, discussed the issue of brain drain with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He outlined some very critical issues with regards to the lagging education system, and it’s negative impact on the quality of human talent being presented to the workforce.

I agree with the potential impact of a poor education system on brain drain with the Kingdom. However, I think it is just as critical to raise the important element of “reverse culture shock” that many Saudi, and Gulf, students face upon their return, and is keeping them from returning.

“Reverse Culture Shock” dates well back to when my father was studying in the United Kingdom during the funky 1970’s. He would tell me stories of his classmates who had found peace and happiness abroad and never wanted to return home. Eventually their parents would have to show up to plead and convince them to make their way back to settle down, find a job, get married, have kids.. You get the picture.

Both during my undergrad times in the early 2000’s, up to my graduate studies late last year, the theme has continued, and to a larger extent grown. Whether it’s the Kuwaiti consultant in New York, the Saudi Engineer at Google, or the Emirati working in Brazil’s private Equity market, I continue to meet scores of smart, young, Gulf nationals who are hesitant to return home, well at least for now.

So what are they waiting for? Well there are two important factors. First is work related culture shock. The well-used statement from elders to students who travel for higher education is to learn, grow, and bring their newfound knowledge and skills to their country.

The counter argument to that statement is “Will my new found skills be utilized in the best way possible?” Unfortunately for many who have returned the answer is no. The reality for a lot of students who study return from studying abroad are met with old school, bureaucratic, industrial era style management systems, where they feel that they are not challenged intellectually or creatively.

Many have told me that one year working at say Google in Mountain View or Goldman Sachs in London is equivalent to working several number of years in a regional organization. It is hard to challenge their argument when you look at the high premium we Arabs place on the expatriate talent from those organizations.

Second is social culture shock. As I spoke to a group of students during a recent trip to the US they explained how they felt at peace, free from judgment, free to live a life they choose without having to worry about who to impress, and who they might insult.

It is important to note that these students were young men, so you can only imagine how the young ladies from our region feel. This makes coming back so much harder, imagine a young lady who lives alone, drives, travels, experiences the world, only to come back and have 90% of that taken away, it’s heartbreaking.

Reverse culture shock is very real, I know people that have been back in their country for two years and are still suffering. You see young students who travel abroad change in so many ways, and at such a rapid pace, that coming back home is equivalent to a car going 100 miles an hour hitting a brick wall.

These young spirits have so much they want to do, so much they would want to accomplish, but are given neither the platform, nor the support to do any of it. Therefore they simply settle, and all their raw energy and talent has gone to waste. In a lot of cases they look for opportunities to head back to the US or Europe to continue higher education, with a higher likelihood that they never return given the short reminder they just went through.

The reality is I can’t begin to suggest how we tackle this issue. I think it’s simply a matter of being patient, and allowing certain aspects of society and how we operate to catch up. I certainly hope that a strong flow of young, smart, Gulf nationals return to help speed up that process, as there is power in numbers. Then again will enough young talent return, or stick around, to create that positive change and watch it come to fruition? We will have to wait and see.