It's an impossible variable to quantify, but it could be argued that Canada's most important export to the Middle East is hope. It manifests itself in the substantial number of Canadians of Arab heritage who have chosen to return to the region their families left for work or a better future. Their return stirs a mixture of emotions: Here are educated young Arab men and women whose Western upbringings have armed them with modern and secular education. Whether their beliefs were liberal or conservative, they respect others. They look like us and speak like us but are charged with ambition and hope for the future: They are Arabs 2.0.
Canada generally enjoys tremendous goodwill in the region as it maintains a policy of non-interference in regional affairs and, unlike many European states, does not carry the weight of an imperial past or a part in regional political tensions. As a result, some Arabs increasingly hope that Canada will take a more active role in the Middle East peace process. But it is Canada's education system that is the most attractive.
Although the promise of Canada has traditionally attracted migrants from the Arab Mediterranean countries of North Africa (such as Egypt and Algeria) and the Levant (Palestine and Lebanon), it could be said that the United Arab Emirates has benefited the most from their return. Today, the Emirates hosts 12,000 returnees.
Wandering around Media City, Internet City or the Dubai International Financial Centre, dedicated free zones for creativity, one can come across scores of young Arab Canadians who have relocated to the Gulf to pursue careers. It's not uncommon to hear the names of Concordia, McGill, York and Toronto universities as the young graduates trade stories about their home country over a cup of coffee. Nor is it only Canadians of Middle Eastern heritage whose expertise is called upon – in addition to Frank Gehry's upcoming Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, former Vancouver planning director Larry Beasley currently serves as a special adviser to the Emirati capital in its effort to replicate “the Vancouver Model.”
All Middle Eastern states would do well to implement a “Canadian Model” – not just the streets and infrastructure but Canada's modern education system, which has produced tens of thousands of ambitious and enlightened Arabs. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians of Arab origin, almost half a million strong, are twice as likely as other ethnic groups to have university degrees. More than 87 per cent of these young Arab Canadians have at least a Grade 9 education. Compare this to the Arab world, where about 30 per cent of 300 million people are illiterate.
I volunteer for Young Arab Leaders, a pan-Arab NGO that encourages entrepreneurship and education in the UAE. A substantial number of our members, who strive to effect positive change in the region, are Arab Canadians. These individuals include the CEO of Philips Middle East and Africa and many others involved in education, consultancy, arts, entertainment, banking and finance.
Canada's secular and modern education system, coupled with tolerance and respect for people of diverse cultures, continues to produce moderate Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, who despite their relatively small numbers are leaving a lasting positive impression on the Arab world. Maybe this “Canada Effect,” witnessed firsthand here in the UAE, can be used to spread hope and ambition in the entire region. The message Canadian Arabs bring to Middle Eastern governments is clear: Reform your education systems and allow the Arab world to take a giant leap into the present.
*This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail on Monday 31st August 2009