Arabs don’t do enough research on Middle East security

Omar Al-Ubaydli
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Forging a sustainable security architecture for the Middle East is a complex problem, and solving it requires high quality research. Most of the existing scholarship is done by people from outside the region who know little about – or care little for – its inhabitants’ interests. In contrast, the minimal research performed by the region’s homegrown academics is low quality. Middle East security will remain elusive until this deficiency is addressed.

When the Cold War commenced, a large volume of resources was allocated to researching the conflict.

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Ultimately, this high-quality scholarship equipped Western policymakers with the intellectual tools necessary to emerge victorious. Understanding the nuances of the multi-theater struggle between the West and the USSR would not have been possible were it not for the insightful analysis that leading experts were providing in real time.

When the US liberated Kuwait in 1991, the complex problem of Middle East security was seemingly resolved by a simple system: the US is the unitary policeman. Today, a war-weary America whose economic hegemony is challenged by China is no longer up to the task. Consequently, scholars need to work hard to support policymakers by proposing workable alternatives.

Ideally, the relevant research would be performed by people in the region for two reasons. First, living in the Middle East gives you access to information and perspectives that are critical to making sound proposals. Second, in addition to being ignorant of many of these nuances, externally based scholars can potentially suffer from conflicts of interest. This was vividly illustrated by the warmongering tone of researchers funded by the US industrial military complex in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

I am working on a study that quantifies the research produced by locals vis-à-vis external researchers on the topic of Middle East security. To my dismay – but not my surprise – I found that despite the advantage that homegrown scholars in producing high quality research, they still account for a minority of the scholarship on the region’s security architecture. This contrasted with other regions, such as South Asia or Eastern Europe, where local researchers were the main contributors.

Even more concerning is the quality comparison: homegrown research on Middle East security tends to be of a significantly lower grade than that produced by international scholars, whether we measure this subjectively (the eyeball test) or objectively (citation rates). The longer this state persists, the longer we will have to wait for a lasting peace in the region. Addressing the issue requires understanding the contributing factors.

The first is the low volume of resources that the region commits to research in general, be it for security-related research or other fields. International comparisons of research output confirm that the region is deeply deficient in the intellectual domain, even when compared to poorer regions. The problems stemming from insufficient funding are compounded by weak and worsening education systems, combined with a brain drain that limits the talent available to local research institutions.

The second cause is that policymakers in the Middle East frequently don’t believe in the value of research to statecraft. For some elites, it can be because they think that the mark of good leadership is projecting confidence by taking swift decisions based on gut instinct. In the case of senior officials who owe their positions to nepotism, they fear involving experts in their decision making because their own ignorance and lack of qualifications might be exposed, and so they prefer to exclude them altogether. This undermines the motivation that local scholars must produce good quality research on Middle East security.

Third, the region lacks academic freedom. In a country like the UK, scholars can openly disagree with the government’s policies, and this contributes to the genesis of higher quality final decisions due to the ensuing debate and exchange of ideas.

However, in the Middle East, some homegrown scholars risk death by openly questioning if the government is taking the best course of action, especially in a topic that is as sensitive as security. The result is low-grade scholarship that reads more like a sophisticated government press release. Instead of preemptively analyzing the choices available to the region’s governments and making scientifically grounded recommendations, they wait for elites to indicate their favored course of action, and then produce “research” that retrospectively validates the decisions taken.

Many of the violent conflicts in the Middle East region are the result of capricious elites who scorn the positive impact that research can make on statecraft. Moreover, the research environments are so weak that when progressive policymakers seek good quality scholarship, they struggle to find it. Superficial reforms will not resolve this deficiency – a sea change is necessary. Or, as Albert Einstein once quipped: “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

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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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