Omar al-Obaidly – Al-Hayat – 5th September 2017
The concept of think tanks arose in Western nations during the twentieth century, after the the founding of the first such institute in the United Kingdom, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) at the beginning of the 19th century. Today in the United States there are more than a thousand think tanks, distinguished by gross budgets of billions of dollars, including public funds. What, then, is the best way to invest this money?
This question has become important in the countries of the Gulf, since they have begun to follow the Western example with regard to think tanks. A number of new think tanks have been established in countries like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, engaging with strategic and economic issues. These institutes are charged with building local skills, because the near-absolute reliance on foreign consultants for support in decision-making has become a thorny topic, especially in the light of the recent and continuing escalation of regional tensions.
In order to lay down general principles on the best means for effective investment in think tanks, the role which these institutes play must firstly be noted. Specifically, think tanks support decision-making primarily by installing experts who devote their efforts to studying daily strategic issues, and provide analysis and recommendations to decision-makers. These experts are not involved in the daily work of government, which precludes employees of government agencies from spending the necessary time and effort to study strategic developments deeply.
In the charter of the majority of these new think tanks, there is an article stating the importance of consolidating cooperative relationships with global think tanks, because researchers in the Gulf think tanks cannot propose effective policies to decision-makers unless they have a strong global network. Their international contacts feed them pivotal knowledge about what other governments are thinking, while global institutes grant the Gulf think tanks access to cooperation with decision-makers in other nations, in addition to foreign peoples through media events. By way of example, one of the reason’s for Iran’s speed in seizing the economic opportunities which were presented to it after the nuclear deal was the strength of the relationship between Iranian and Western think tanks, which laid the foundations deals between global and Iranian companies.
In the past, when interacting with Western organisations, Gulf think tanks have focused on joint events, like conferences, and seminars. They would also entrust Western experts with conducting rigorous studies on issues which are important to the Gulf countries. Such policies represented a logical first step, given the relative weakness of Gulf research staff, which can only be described as having limited expertise in conducting rigorous study in support of decision-making.
However, we must now proceed to the second stage, which is cooperation with Western think tanks by way of research exchange and joint studies. Countries like Saudi Arabia have invested a great deal in the development of their citizens, for example through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, and there are now many Saudi researchers capable of undertaking rigorous studies into strategic issues. What are the additional benefits, then, which are achieved when relationships progress from joint events to joint studies?
Firstly, senior researchers are greatly concerned with their scholarly reputations. When they cooperate with Gulf researchers, the relationship between the two parties deepens, while creating a joint and sustainable advantage, because research in the age of the Internet does not vanish, unlike conferences and seminars, which may be quickly forgotten after they are held. Secondly, joint studies are considered one of the best methods of developing the abilities of researchers, because after a doctorate, progress in the field of scientific research can only be achieved through practice. Working with a foreign researcher offers an opportunity for rapid development since their expertise in scientific research is greater and deeper than Gulf experts. Thirdly, the previous focus on joint events at the expense of research cooperation has generated an image among foreigners that Gulf citizens are merely rich and uncultured people whom they can exploit. Thus, some inaccurate Western conceptions about the Gulf persist, for example, that they are terrorists, or regressive, which contributes to legislation which is harmful to Gulf interests, such as JASTA. Thus, cooperative research projects should be launched, partially to combat this perception, and to convince Western authorities and citizens that people of the Gulf are peaceful and cultured, and able to contribute to the development of solutions to global security and economic problems.
To be specific, Gulf think tanks must urge their researchers to conduct joint studies with their Western counterparts. All traditional means should be utilised, such as financial incentives, and the implementation of joint research as a criterion for promotion, as well as the use of non-typical means, such as the establishment of an award for best joint study between Western and Gulf researchers, and giving those researchers a chance to discuss their work on well-known television programmes. It would also be very beneficial to adopt parallel programmes in the field of academic research, an area complementary to research emerging from think tanks, in addition to using the Gulf branches of Western universities, for example, the University of New York in Abu Dhabi, as a starting point.
It is now time for effective investment in think tanks, for the Gulf researcher to develop their service for the people, by building strong intellectual bridges with their Western counterparts, progressing beyond joint events.
Translated by Conor Fagan
Original article found here.