The Need for Arab Think Tanks

In a region suffering from “knowledge crisis” like ours, focusing attention on think tanks is an urgent necessity. The following article highlights the importance of such institutions, especially with regard to the production of new "political knowledge" based on evidence-supported facts, as well as their contribution to providing solutions to decisionmakers.

by Hasan Ismaik
  • Publisher – ِAnnahar
  • Release Date – Mar 22, 2021

The House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah library) in Baghdad, was destroyed at the hand of the Mongols and manuscripts were thrown into the Tigris River which ran black from their ink. Alexandria Library was burned down along with a large part of the archives of pharaonic and Greek civilizations. The Library of Cordoba witnessed the same fate, losing much of the legacy of Arab-Islamic civilization in Andalusia. To this day, we have the right to lament the loss of these knowledge resources. What is more bizarre, however, is that we exert no effort to reproduce this knowledge, and waste every opportunity to build a new civilization today! Instead, we stand still before the civilization of the “other”, especially the Western, until we almost disappear without leaving behind any contribution to the modern civilization.

When we praise Arab civilization and all the cultures that have settled in our land, should we not ask ourselves about future generations and will our grandchildren commend our achievements? What achievements? A quick look at the situation in the Arab world clearly shows the unfortunate reality of cognitive conditions. This reality stems not from a lack of leading human resources or capacities, but from the absence of intellectual, cultural and research institutions capable of embracing such potential, investing in its capabilities and providing appropriate platforms, to be influential and capable of playing a role in rebuilding our civilization. 

If we take a peek at the global intellectual situation, we find a great focus, especially in developed countries, on the so-called think tanks (centers of studies and research), which have always been playing an important role in the progress of these countries at all scientific and intellectual levels. However, what about the reality of Arab think tanks, specifically those specialized in politics and humanities in general?

Last year, the number of think tanks around the world reached 11,175, of which about 390 were in the Arab world (mostly submerged, formal, ideologized or of low-impact), while the United States alone had about 2,200, according to the 2021 Think Tank and Civil Societies Report from the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

The term "think tanks" remains ambiguous to many people, which is understandable as a result of the complex roles of these institutions, and their objectives that are never short of complexity, they provide decision-makers with information and facts, educate individuals and society, and influence public opinion to achieve their goals or those of decision makers. They are therefore a tool for making politics to apply in one way or another. Although these centers are widespread in many political systems around the world, their presence in the print and electronic media, and their contributions to the work of governments, parliaments and public deliberations, defining them or specifying the features that illustrate their role and importance in the political process remains extremely difficult to date.

Think tanks perform their mission through "knowledge production", combining academic disciplines and allowing multifaceted analyses, different visions, including concepts, ideas, actors – whether individuals or institutions - influence mechanisms, interests, relationships, interactions and power balances, eventually reaching a new "political knowledge" based on valid and evidence-supported facts. Think tanks also claim to "address power with facts" by producing easy-to-understand outputs aimed at a decision-makers who believe that a "successful policy" must have a knowledge basis reinforced by evidence.

American political professor John Kingdon calls think tanks researchers "political entrepreneurs," playing important roles at various stages of “policy-making", and may have an impact during moments of framing the problem, when looking for solutions, when providing these solutions to decision makers, or even when advocating for certain policies by the wider public.

In a world suffering from a "knowledge crisis" as a result of the huge amount of information, and the high speed of transmission, particularly that misleading, think tanks become an essential necessity to separate the wheat from the chaff. They are increasingly needed in a region such as the Arab countries because these institutions represent a bridge between academies and decision-making groups on the one hand, and governments, civil societies and public opinion in general on the other. Not to mention that Arab policymakers increasingly need the views of experts, intellectuals, academics and specialists to help them identify the information, data and experiences that should be used in decision-making processes.

The focus on think tanks in the Arab world has become an urgent necessity in our time, for all previous reasons, and because they also have the flexibility of what no official political institutions have, and are therefore able to perform a variety of tasks through official and informal channels and by taking advantage of their good relations at home and abroad.  Think tanks in developed liberal states have often created cross-border political networks, including political parties, interest groups, corporations, international organizations and civil society organizations, as well as universities and official institutions.

Today we live in a time of knowledge, when those who are capable of making knowledge can shape the future, and those who own knowledge has the power both in science and in politics. The absence of think tanks means that there will some other who would think for us and shape our knowledge and therefore our future, but according to their measurements and in their own interests. The responsibility here lies not only with Arab governments, but also on us businessmen, because we are principal partners of interest, and are better able to support a third line of thought that may or may not be affected by governments but are never associated with them.

I have always believed in this fact, and I have never appeal to theorization and speech. On the contrary, I was determined to establishing a think tank in my country, Jordan. Today, after it has become clearer and more crystallized, I am doing the same, but this time in the United Arab Emirates. In my opinion, leadership is not limited to the business domain, but there is also leadership in thought, therefore I will spare no effort in making these think tanks attract the expertise of Arab specialists, the talents and abilities of Arab youth, interested in intellectual work. For the lack of Research and Arab Studies centers, and their weak roles, is a wasted opportunity that we must be aware of as soon as possible. our dilemmas will only be solved through our insatiable minds looking tirelessly for solutions. 

While the stores of our ideas have previously been targeted for their importance, let us today take back the ink that once colored the Tigris River and begin to produce new knowledge that will make us more capable of sound governance that is guided academically and scientifically, and our peoples regain confidence in their leadership, thus building together and creating knowledge that will shape an Arab future that meets aspirations and secures the interests of Arab States, away from wars, conflicts and external interventions.




*From An-Nahar Newspaper




Hasan Ismaik