An opportune time for new think tanks in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has reinforced its position as the largest economy in the Arab world and a pillar of the global economy

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
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January 2015 saw the ascendance of Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to King, and his announcement a few days later of an entirely new cabinet, including many new players to government and a number of young ministers. This large scale government reorganization was smooth and instantaneous, and has engendered widespread support. Within two days of the announcement, the new government took office and began its work.

Immediately, this government will be faced with the need to accelerate the transition to a knowledge economy, an aim that is vital to its far-reaching goal of economic diversification beyond oil. This transformation is also a critical adaptation to the processes of structural changes in the global economy based on accelerating flows of information, knowledge, capital, and people across state boundaries.

Saudi Arabia has reinforced its position as the largest economy in the Arab world and a pillar of the global economy in the wake of the global financial crisis, the Arab revolutions, and the rebalancing of geo-economic power during the decade of high oil prices that lasted through 2014.

In addition to the government restructuring, the size and scale of public projects underway in the Kingdom offers an unprecedented opportunity to develop a network of Saudi think tanks to support historic social and economic transformations. And yet, Saudi Arabia lags far behind its counterparts in this key indicator of development.

Among the G20 countries, the Kingdom ranks last in the total number of think tanks and the second lowest behind India in the number of citizens per think-tank. Another benchmark, the authoritative Global Go-To Think Tank Report (2014), only records 7 Saudi think tanks compared with 39 in Tunisia, 14 in the UAE and 29 in Turkey. Only one Saudi-based think tank, the Gulf Research Center, featured in the ranking of the top 150 think-tanks worldwide.

Specifically, a knowledge society requires think tanks to play a complementary role to the public sector. The focus of government entities on short-term results nested within day-to-day policy pressures and annual budget cycles leaves little time or capacity for long-term thinking. Think tanks counterbalance this and provide a long-term view and an objective perspective that goes beyond political considerations to encompass a holistic appraisal of a situation.

As neutral entities, think tanks support government agencies by offering independent analysis and continuous scanning of new ideas and best practices from across the world. As they develop into durable enclaves of excellence, think tanks enable officials to tap into a long-term repository of strategic analysis that extends beyond the short-term horizons of contemporary policymaking. In addition, think tanks play a vital advocacy role for placing and maintaining important issues on policy agendas, and advocating for research-based decision making.

What Saudi Arabia does have are globally renowned state-owned enterprises, including Aramco and the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), with dedicated research teams analyzing the Kingdom’s issues and future. While these entities and their research are best in class, much of the underlying information remains untapped by the government or inaccessible to the public. The same can be said of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).

Saudi Arabia has reinforced its position as the largest economy in the Arab world and a pillar of the global economy

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Both of these institutions produce large quantities of high-quality research yet they remain relatively remote from the policymaking process. Furthermore, most of the think tanks that Saudi Arabia does have, as well as the state owned enterprise research centers, are energy related, leaving a void in knowledge development and decision making support for government operations and policy innovation.

With the country blessed by a highly-educated generation of young Saudis entering the workforce primed with the skills and qualifications to transform the economy, the need for a vibrant collection of think tanks has never been stronger or more immediate. As the world’s most significant energy producer and a cornerstone of the global economy, Saudi Arabia is uniquely positioned to lead the regional response to the dynamic demands of a networked society.

Think tanks therefore can play a pivotal role in supporting the Kingdom’s transition to knowledge economy. The new wave of think tanks will contribute to the processes of innovation in three overarching ways: directing the production of knowledge, functioning as a bridge of ideas, and serving as a connector of talent. These three functions are connected to a fourth function of think tanks, namely one being an enabler of government in devising innovative approaches to raising government performance and service delivery.

By conducting long-term strategic thinking, think tanks assist policymakers in devising comprehensive policy solutions and in ensuring the targeted and effective implementation of decisions.

Production of Knowledge

Unburdened by the constraints of public office or market pressures, think tanks have the time and space to develop new ideas and policy recommendations across the spectrum of strategy, performance, and leadership. Operating with strategic long-term objectives in mind, think tanks are freed from short-term requirements to engage in complex horizon-scanning exercises that governments often simply do not have the time to conduct.

Think tanks add value to policy discourse and public debate through the provision of cutting-edge analysis of why events may be expected to develop in a particular manner and the potential impact and implications of various policy choices and scenarios. Regular publication of reports, papers, and policy briefs provide decision-makers with independent analysis and up-to-date commentary on topical issues and longer-term challenges alike. Think tanks combine in-house expertise with the flexibility of a contributor network drawn from the best minds on any one subject to produce influential and insightful analysis as well as effective and practical advisory services.

While many think tanks are issue or sector-specific, powerful cross-cutting themes such as human resource development and local capacity building can create widening circles of excellence in Saudi Arabia. These are essential to overcoming the knowledge void caused by the absence of embedded networks of universities, think tanks, and centers of excellence that have developed over decades elsewhere.

Bridge of Ideas

Think tanks integrate analysis and advocacy to generate preeminent scholarly research with clear public policy intent that bridges the traditional boundaries among the public, private, and non-governmental sectors. By operating at the nexus of ideas and action, think tanks act as a catalyst for the exchange of information between the research and practitioner communities that enable the formulation of fresh perspectives on important public policy challenges.

This role is particularly important in Saudi Arabia owing to the scale of planned investment over the coming decade. Whereas the Kingdom has in the past relied upon foreign teams of external consultants to guide much policy planning, Saudi Arabia today possesses a young group of qualified researchers and strategists capable of filling such roles and assuming leadership positions. A new wave of think tanks will facilitate the development of indigenous ‘best-practice’ approaches to government management and public administration that construct local solutions to global challenges.

Connector of Talent

A third function of think tanks in Saudi Arabia is that they can equip the younger generation of highly qualified Saudi graduates with policy-relevant experience and leadership training. Programs such as the King Abdullah Scholarship Program and others are transforming the nature of the Saudi workforce and creating a large pool of emerging leaders who will spearhead the ongoing transformation of the Kingdom into a knowledge economy.

Think tanks play an essential role in connecting this incoming talent with important public policy issues by training young researchers in a wide range of analytical techniques and practitioner tools. Senior policymakers also benefit from the ability of think tanks to offer a platform for the acquisition and exchange of new skills, providing executive education courses tailored to the particular requirements of external public and private sector stakeholders, and extending an opportunity for senior officials and policymakers to engage with new ideas and fresh thinking outside the pressured environment of the workplace.

Enabler of Government

An overarching function of think tanks is in creating and strengthening robust partnerships within government and with other stakeholders to conceptualize and design innovative responses to pressing issues. Close collaboration with public agencies and the private sector allows think tanks to create networks of experts that bring their insight and judgment to critical themes and key issues facing companies, organizations, and governments.

This has been a defining characteristic of successful think tanks in other countries, such as the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and the Center for Public Policy Studies in Malaysia, while the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore has established for itself a world-leading reputation in public management capacity building.
Working alongside policymakers and experts, think tanks develop practical and implementable recommendations for government officials and for economic and business decision-makers. The resulting synergies among the public, private, and non-governmental sectors enhance the quality of government management by better connecting public policy at the national level with service delivery and responsive governance at the local level throughout Saudi Arabia.

As Saudi Arabia’s new government looks forward, a vital enabling tool is a multiplicity of think tanks working to support innovative thinking and the subsequent mainstreaming and policy implementation of these ideas.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Ph.D. is a Research Fellow at the Center for Innovative Government and Fellow for the Middle East at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy (Rice University, USA).

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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