Fintech and Tech Talent in the Middle East and Africa: Young and Educated by Richie Santosdiaz for The FinTech Times
Exclusive Content Fintech Middle East & Africa Weekend Read

Fintech and Tech Talent in the Middle East and Africa: Young and Educated

The Middle East and Africa (MEA) is a diverse territory – home of some of the world’s richest nations with respect to the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and also some of the world’s poorest. Talent in highly skilled and knowledge-based industries such as fintech, wider tech and digital remains a challenge globally including MEA.

Although relatively newer compared to much of the rest of the global fintech space, MEA as a whole has been developing its fintech sector. At the top of the chain is North America, the world’s biggest fintech market, boasting around 9,000 fintechs (8,775) – more than Europe, Africa and the Middle East put together (7,385) and almost twice as many as the Asia Pacific region (4,765) – according to The Fintech Times Guide to North American Fintech Hotspots. With regards to MEA, in parts of the region such as the Gulf, Israel, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt – to name a few – the fintech sector has been developing and flourishing. This requires the talent – both entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of innovation – as well as employees to fill these highly-skilled roles.

Parts of the Middle East and Africa, in particular the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region such as Dubai, have attracted talent from across the world
Parts of the Middle East and Africa (MEA), in particular the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region such as Dubai (pictured), have attracted talent from across the world IMAGE SOURCE GETTY

With respect to the Middle East, the population overall is highly educated, where 70% have achieved secondary level (primary level nearly universal). For example, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia they spend 8.8 per cent of its GDP on education, which is double the global average of 4.6 per cent. The population is also young, where around 30% of the population is aged between 15 and 29 – representing around 110 million people –the largest number of young people to transition to adulthood in the region’s history. In terms of young people ages 15 to 24 they are 20% of the populations in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia.

Africa is also a young region. In Africa, according to the US Census Bureau there were approximately 241 million people aged 15 to 29 living in Africa in 2010, which represented approximately 28% of the overall population of the continent; 63% of Africa’s overall population was below the age of 25. Africa is home to 19 of the 20 youngest countries in the world in terms of age of people.

As mentioned as MEA as a whole is diverse – being home to some of the world’s richest countries in the world based on GDP per capita according to the World Bank – notably in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region with Qatar (+$64,000) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (+$43,000), as well as Israel (+$43,000). It is no secret, particularly in the GCC, that its story has attracted people from across the world – both blue collar and highly professionally skilled. The attraction from people across the world has allowed the strong economic development growth of the GCC, which historically has been its oil and gas sector.

For instance, in the UAE – home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi – the country’s population comprises of 90 per cent being expatriates – in other words the remaining 10 per cent being only local Emiratis. The UAE is home to nationalities from across the world. For example, there are estimates of 75,000 American citizens who reside there. Overall, the growth of the region has allowed the GCC countries of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait to propel themselves as developed economies and enjoy an overall high standard of living.

However, with the various economic development diversification strategies being implemented, the talent pool diversifies in its search. In addition, importantly, as part of the wider strategies a prioritisation of local-born talent is pivotal. This cascades down to the likes of the fintech and wider tech sector – which has seen its growth in a digital transformation world and in particular now in a COVID-19 world. The push to attract talent in the region can be seen such as last year when Dubai launched its own Digital Nomad visa and the UAE as a whole launching its Golden Residency programme permitting for a 10-year residency for individuals who meet the criteria, including holders of doctorate degrees and medical doctors, as well as computer, electronics, programming, electrical and biotechnology engineers, in addition to specialised degrees in artificial intelligence (AI), big data and epidemiology

The pandemic has hit all aspects of the global economy. Despite its challenges so far, there are some bright spots. For example, in the context of MEA, the UAE (which as mentioned earlier with global hubs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi attracting people from across the world), according to the 2021 Salary Guide from Robert Half, a global recruitment consultancy, sees sectors mainly in technology, pharmaceuticals, finance, government and human resources being resilient and offering the biggest wage increases, bonuses and benefits for employees to help retain top talent.

It is worth noting that fintech, even before COVID-19, as part of society’s wider digital transformation, has propelled its importance to help daily life be as virtual, contactless and seamless as possible. Leading digital transformation players in MEA such as the UAE, wider GCC, parts of Africa and Israel have shown its importance even before the pandemic. As a result, the demand for solutions (and consequently the talent to help drive that) is as important now than it ever was. In terms of Israel, the Startup Nation has driven a lot of the world’s wider tech solutions and has been a leader such as in cyber security and wider government adoption to digital – consequently producing both its own local talent and attracting others from across the world.

The Middle East and Africa (MEA) region as a whole is also a source for immigrants who often leave their home countries to find better economic opportunities within MEA and beyond
The Middle East and Africa (MEA) region as a whole is a source for immigrants who often leave their home countries to find better economic opportunities within MEA and beyond IMAGE SOURCE GETTY

Despite the positivity, in parts of the Middle East and in much of Africa, the lack of opportunities remains to be a challenge. In terms of youth employment, Uganda and East Africa, despite having talent in the area, has a youth unemployment rate of around 80 per cent. In terms of poverty, Africa in 2015 had a poverty rate of 41 percent. This has resulted in much of MEA being the source to some of the world’s largest sources of workers – both blue collar and in highly skilled sectors such as fintech. Many immigrate to other more advanced economies in the region such as in the GCC, Israel, Turkey and in parts of Africa such as in South Africa or beyond to Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia – to name a few.

For instance, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana and Somalia were the top countries in Africa where their citizens migrated to the USA. This presents not just a problem with emerging economies like the African continent as a whole but even within developed economies like the United States, where in tech for instance the best and brightest would go to tech clusters such as Silicon Valley and San Francisco in California or New York City.

In parts of the Middle East the story of the wider brain drain remains to be a challenge. For instance, in Lebanon, which has had its fair share of challenges even before the COVID-19, has seen some of its best and brightest leave. Back in September, almost 400,000 are said to be considering departing their home country in the context of the ongoing economic and political meltdown. Historically, one of Lebanon’s most noticeable exports has been its people. There are more Lebanese and their descendants living outside the country than within (particularly in Latin America which Brazil alone has 7 million Lebanese descendants).

Next week’s MEA weekend read will be a part two and cover more of the brain drain and remittances sector in the region – stay tuned.



  • Executive Economic Development Advisor (Emerging Markets) | Contributor

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