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Rich North has lost its allure

Global economic crisis and growing corruption has tilted the balance of migration towards the South

Gulf News

Britain is different. Not only in that it has right-hand driven cars, but it contradicts the world trend in the north-south divide.

In most countries, the north is rich and developed while the south is poor and underdeveloped. It’s the opposite in the UK. Socio-economic mobilisation currents are, therefore, different. I want to write about something personal I wouldn’t have dared to share with you unless I felt it might be relatively common.

The late Sudanese writer Tayib Saleh contributed to the ‘globalisation’ of Arab literature with his great novel Season of Migration to the North. The main character in his novel sought a better life by moving to the north, as the south — where I originally came from and still belong — was deteriorating.

Though the main drive behind migration is economic, some would like to cover it with an ‘intellectual’ sheet. For example, the north is democratic, liberal, free, just and law-abiding whereas the south is despotic, corrupt and oppressive.

Economics changed since the global financial crisis, with the north on the verge of collapse. The south, underdeveloped as it was, was less affected. So, relatively speaking, the economic deterioration in the south was less than that in the north.

Forget the geographical north, but the definition here is closer to that used by post-Marxist thinkers like Dr Samir Ameen. Migration destinations had to change as well, especially as the ‘welfare state’ in the north’s capitalist societies dwindled, pushing those who migrated from war-torn southern societies to seek refuge.

For the last few years, investors have moved from Europe and also North America to the emerging economies in the south (Asia, Latin America and Africa) pursuing better profits. In most cases, they will not transfer their gains to their northern economies but would rather reinvest it south or spend it where tax is less (taxes are going up in the crisis-hit north).

Yet, it’s not only businesses and investors, as those are global now anyway and shouldn’t be looked at as ‘migrants’. When it comes to common people, professionals and workers, migration has always been two-way. For example, Australians and Canadians — along with Europeans and Americans — targeted the wealthy Gulf and fast-growing China for better opportunities. Even African and Latin American countries, rich in raw materials, were tapped by northern workers.

Now, it’s more than the economy that’s driving migration in the opposite direction — from north to south. Democracy is losing esteem and corruption is not sparing any society. Politicians are always perceived by the people as liars or at least as only telling half-truths to justify their actions. But until a few years ago, the north was different from the south in the level of arrogance; that difference is now almost disappearing.

A decade or so ago, if a rumour hinted at misbehaviour of a public figure he/she would resign from public office, even if innocence was proved later. Nowadays, public figures embroiled in serious sleaze and nepotism arrogantly defy public decency and get the backing of their seniors.

There’s also a change in the mood of the public; it is now ready to accept such absurdity with complete indifference. Take respect for the law, for example, not to mention common sense, especially on the roads.

Driving on the roads of London is no longer the most disciplined experience — actually drivers on the streets of Muscat or Dubai might be sticking to the highway code more than Londoners. Though the standard of living is still higher in Paris than in Muscat, the decline in the north is faster, giving the south — by default — a relative improvement.

Economy might be the main factor behind migration, and when other factors become almost the same, economy gains more weight in favour of the south now. That’s why the main theme of Saleh’s famous novel is changing. It seems to be the time to move south, looking for better opportunities and improving one’s living conditions. For a ‘southerner’ like me, migrating south is like being ‘back home’. Exposure to the north for sometime — two decades — means that I’d be carrying the positive values I emigrated to the north for. Yet, a better positioned south will help the ailing economy in the north by creating vacancies and taking a burden off the ‘state’ while injecting some income back north. Hopefully, I acquired enough expertise from the north that can invigorate my profession in the south.

Dr Ayman Mustafa is a London-based Arab writer.