Redefining The Role of Think Tanks In A Changing Middle East

Amid the Arab world’s torrid developments, change is becoming a reality in some countries, whereas others are still transitioning toward democracies, or enduring a bloodbath in the fight for regime survival. Several actors and factors will shape the outcome of the revolutions, among which are the region-based think tanks and research centers, upon which a big responsibility lies in increasing political and economic awareness, as well as social civility.

Think tanks are an American creation and have been adopted in other parts of the world, including the Middle East. Arab think tanks are not as powerful and influential as their U.S. and European counterparts, given that they have relatively limited resources, a smaller number of scholars, and restricted means of influence. Most Arab states remain non-democratic and are not accustomed to the culture of lobbying, consultancy, advocacy, and freedom of expression, which consequently makes it hard for think tanks in developing countries to transmit their ideas and thought. For that matter, it is pivotal for think tanks to work towards transcending the existing obstacles and overcoming hurdles that are already being shattered by the ongoing revolutions. Meeting change halfway can help consolidating it, and may well restructure the outcome of current events. Think tanks’ ultimate goal is impact, and moving forward towards achieving that goal will consolidate plurality at the decision-making level, something that has been missing in states where only regimes are in charge of policy formulation and implementation.

The ongoing turmoil and events across the Arab world present a well-situated window of opportunity for think tanks in the region to play an essential role in a post-revolution landscape. The Arab publics undertook the crucial step of initiating the revolutions – and relatively succeeded in some cases (Egypt and Tunisia) – but they have yet to institutionalize and consolidate these revolutions by successfully building their political, economic and social institutions in a way to both institute and uphold good governance, respect of human rights and citizens’ dignity, to set in motion socio-economic reform, and enact laws that guarantee political openness, participation, and pluralism.

Think tanks can put to use their scholars in charting a path forward for Arab countries that are currently undergoing transition.

In order to do so, think tanks must launch new programs and projects that are relevant to the new political, economic, and social context, reshape their research agenda to further accommodate the needs and challenges of Arab countries in transition. Further, Arab think tanks could seek to influence those that did not experience revolution but which could use policy advice on how to institute change and reform, and start dialogue with the public in order to transition to a more pluralistic and open political system.

Think tanks can do more than just inform the government and ruling elite; a part of their task is to deal with the public opinion, the media, and civil society organizations (CSOs). In order to do that, they need to rethink their communication and outreach strategies, create and implement new ones by partnering with NGOs, associations, media institutions, among others. Engaging cyber space and using social media tools is a must —after all, these were among the key tools used to instigate the revolutions.

Arab public opinion was deprived from democracy for the past decades. Introducing democratic practices through think tanks might not necessarily be an easy task. Think tanks are requested to reach out to the public and to governments by means of publications, events and workshops. They should update their database, identify the key public and academic figures, associations, organizations, media institutions, policymakers, etc., all of which will constitute the backbone of their outreach plan. They must also organize relevant events that deal with the ongoing issues and try to explore solutions and offer recommendations.

Additionally, Arab think tanks need to transcend financial and political constraints by gathering donations from international, regional and local actors that have interest in making this model succeed. Counting on government funding is a constraint that both limits the role of the think tank and renders it a sheer tool of government and regime propaganda.

Intellectuals are a key pillar of research centers. Moving from mere theoretical to empirical on-the-ground studies is a necessity. And today’s Middle East needs a better platform for intellectuals and an improved organizational and institutional framework, in which they can elaborate and develop their ideas. Think tanks in the Arab world ought to be freed from political and financial constraints, and rely on various sources of funding, in order to produce analytical and high-quality products without getting slowed down by restrictions imposed by donors. Moreover, intellectuals must recognize the importance of youth’s role in strengthening and enhancing democratic change, which is proving to be true and authentic.

Arab scholars should encourage youth through seminars, conferences, forums, workshops, and debate clubs to express their ideas and thoughts on several issues of interest.

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