September 8, 2017

Effective Investment in Gulf Think Tanks

View of Dubai
View of Dubai

The concept of think tanks flourished in the west during the twentieth century after the establishment of the world’s first think tank in the United Kingdom during the early nineteenth century (RUSI). Today, the USA houses more than 1,000 think tanks, commanding collective budgets in the billions of dollars, much of it public money. What are the best ways to invest these funds?

This has become an important question today in the Gulf countries, as they have begun to follow the western template for think tanks. Numerous research centers have been established in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, focusing on strategic and economic issues. They have also been charged with the development of local talent, because the near absolute dependence upon foreign consultants in policymaking has become problematic, especially in the wake of the recent—and continuing—escalation of regional and global security threats.

To specify general principles about think tank best practices, we must first clarify the role that such organizations play. In particular, think tanks support policymaking primarily by gathering experts who dedicate their efforts to the study of strategic issues on a daily basis, and to delivering analyses and recommendations to senior policymakers. Critically, these experts do not get bogged down in the day-to-day business of running the government, which is what prevents employees in government organizations from freeing up the necessary time to study strategic developments in depth.

In the mission statement of most think tanks, you will find an article stressing the importance of establishing cooperative relationships with their global counterparts. The reason is that it is impossible for Gulf think tank researchers to make effective proposals to policymakers unless they have a strong global network. Their international contacts provide them with critical information about what other governments are thinking. Further, global think tanks provide their Gulf counterparts with a stage for interacting with foreign policymakers and peoples, via events and media engagements.

For example, one of the reasons why Iran has been able to so rapidly seize the economic opportunities that became available after the nuclear deal is the robustness of the relationships between Iranian and western researchers. They provided the groundwork for deals between global and Iranian companies.

In the past, when interacting with western think tanks, Gulf think tanks focused on joint events, such as conferences and seminars, as well as commissioning western experts to undertake substantive studies of issues of importance to the Gulf countries. This policy was a logical first step, especially in light of the relative weakness of Gulf research corps, due to their limited experience in undertaking professional studies that support policymaking.

The time has come to move on to the next step, which is interacting with western think tanks via research exchange, and cooperative research. Countries such as Saudi Arabia have invested large amounts on education, such as the King Abdulla scholarship program, and now there are many Saudi researchers capable of undertaking substantive research on strategic issues.

What is the value added from evolving the relationship from joint events to joint research?

First, leading experts care obsessively about their reputations as researchers, and so when they collaborate with a Gulf researcher, the relationship between the two sides deepens, and a joint interest is created. In the internet age, research cannot be deleted, unlike conferences and seminars, which can be quickly forgotten after their conclusion.

Second, collaborative research is one of the best ways to develop research capabilities, as in the post-doctoral phase, the only way to advance one’s research skills is to actually do research. Cooperating with foreign experts offers an opportunity to rapidly advance, because their research experience is broader and deeper than that of their Gulf counterparts.

Third, the previous emphasis on joint events at the expense of collaborative research has encouraged foreigners to view Gulf citizens as no more than rich simpletons that can be easily exploited. This has contributed to the persistence of several inaccurate stereotypes among western people about the people of the Gulf, such as them being terrorists or philistines, which has in turn played a part in the passing of laws damaging to Gulf interests, such as JASTA. Accordingly, there is a need to launch a program of joint research to combat these perceptions, and to convince western rulers and peoples that Gulf citizens are peaceful and cultured, and that they are capable of contributing to the development of effective solutions to the world’s economic and security problems.

In terms of specific policies, Gulf think tanks should encourage their researchers to undertake collaborative research with their western counterparts. This can be done via a suite of traditional techniques, such as financial incentives, or making joint research a promotion criterion. Alternatively, unconventional measures can be deployed, such as establishing a prize for the best joint research between a Gulf citizen and westerner, or giving those researchers the opportunity to describe their joint research on famous television shows.

A collaborative academic (university) research program should also be launched in parallel, as it is complementary to the output of think tanks. The Gulf campuses of foreign universities, such as New York University at Abu Dhabi, would be a good starting point for such a program.

Therefore, to invest effectively in think tanks, the time has come for Gulf researchers to evolve the service that they bring to their societies, by building intellectual bridges with their western counterparts, that extend beyond the superficiality of joint events.

This article was originally published by Al Hayat.

Omar Al-Ubaydli is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.