Building proper think tanks in the Middle East requires reforms and lots of patience

Omar Al-Ubaydli
Omar Al-Ubaydli
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Arabs regularly complain about research on the Middle East conducted by western think tanks, describing it as inaccurate, misguided, and agenda-driven. These neocolonial research centers thrive despite these criticisms because of the inadequacy of their Arab counterparts. Reversing the situation requires deep reforms.

The traditional goal of a western think tank is to influence government policy by producing quasi-rigorous research, and by organizing fora that grant their researchers and policymakers’ mutual access. Their agenda might be purely ideological; or it could reflect some constellation of interests pushed by a group of benefactors.

What distinguishes think tanks from a lobbying firm or a marketing company is the means: they primarily focus on research as the vehicle for changing policymakers’ minds. This means that these organizations’ lynchpins – the researchers – are usually competent scholars holding impressive credentials.

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Despite the quality of western think tanks’ in-house researchers, their output can sometimes be found lacking for several reasons.

First, the agenda they are pushing might taint the scholarly quality of the research. For example, the funder might be a warmongering defense contractor that tacitly benefits from arguments in favor of western military intervention in the Middle East.

Second, the researchers’ minds are sometimes forged in intellectual environments that promote neocolonial mindsets, such as the Middle Eastern studies departments of western universities. This makes them dismissive of the valuable insights garnered by engaging with the people of the Middle East.

Finally, even the well-intentioned research is conducted by scholars with minimal contact with the Middle East – a problem exacerbated by the current pandemic. This denies them the nuanced intuition that only locals have.

The skyline of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is seen at night in this aerial photograph from a helicopter. (AFP)
The skyline of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is seen at night in this aerial photograph from a helicopter. (AFP)

These structural flaws leave the door wide open for Middle Eastern think tanks to compete and supersede their western counterparts. After all, if we want to understand German or Australian politics, we will be far more interested in German or Australian research rather than findings from Great Britain.

Unfortunately, Middle Eastern think tanks usually fail to fill this intellectual lacuna. This is reflected in the fact that their publications’ citation rates are almost zero. Even local researchers opt against reading (let alone citing) the output of homegrown Middle Eastern findings. Two factors contribute to this state of affairs.

First, unlike western think tanks, those from the Middle East frequently have no interest in influencing policy through rigorous research. Instead, they see their role as assisting their own government’s policy agenda by producing supportive papers. In this sense, much of their research is akin to a well-padded press release, bolstered with academic references. The almost exclusive dependence upon government funding contributes to this distorted mission.

Second, they are too poorly funded to compete with western think tanks. It is not uncommon for a Middle Eastern scholar to be unable to read a relevant academic paper because their organization does not have a subscription to the scholarly journal.

Moreover, the salaries are often uncompetitive, which is why many of the best Middle Eastern researchers prefer to migrate to the west and work in western knowledge institutions.

Part of the underlying cause of the limited funding is the anti-intellectual tendencies of the current generation of Arab philanthropists. Whereas the wealthy merchants of the Abbasid Caliphate would regularly support scholarship during the period 750-1250, their 21st century counterparts are fixated on poverty relief and building mosques, and they see little value in patronizing the next Ibn Rushd or Ibn Sina.

Therefore, Arabs inadvertently empower neocolonial western think tanks. Were a researcher from the region to write a nonsensical paper about British politics, it would be ignored because British think tanks produce rigorous and informative research on British politics.

While there are some hidden nuggets and rough diamonds in the Middle East, for the most part, their think tank output is simply not worth reading, enabling the distorted research of the West to dominate.

Lately, several local Middle Eastern think tanks have started to gain more resources, ramping up the volume of their publications, suggesting that they are headed in the right direction.

However, until this research is openly cited by the authors’ peers inside and outside the region, its impact will remain minimal. As with many problems in the Middle East, the remedy requires deep reforms and a lot of patience.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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