Middle Eastern think tanks are struggling and innovating amid yet another crisis (part one)

16 February 2021

Over the last year, many Middle Eastern think tanks have passed through several crises, challenges and changes. In the COVID-19-era, this change has led to a dead-end for some think tanks, and a development opportunity for others. Here I offer a quick look at the situation for think tanks in four Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Jordan.

Saudi Arabia: promising progress

Under Saudi Arabia’s G20 presidency and the country’s promising Vision 2030, think tanks have gained the opportunity to participate in building the country’s future.

An important part of the G20 process has always been the dialogue with civil society and engagement groups, which is to be understood as a two-way process: the presidency can use it to convey messages to society, and society can use it to make recommendations to G20 policymakers’, says Dennis Görlich, Research Director of the Global Solutions Initiative.

Moreover, the official G20 engagement group Think 20 (T20), one of the most active dialogue formats around the world, was coordinated by Saudi research institutes KAPSARC and KFCRIS.

Through such initiatives, Saudi Arabia has, for the first time in the Middle East, opened doors for think tanks and research institutions to engage with policymakers and to influence more effective social policies that will help accelerate processes of prosperity and development in the country, and eventually in the region.

These new initiatives built on an existing trend of new think tanks establishing themselves to serve Saudi society that was recognised in Hind Aqeel Al-Mizer’s 2018 theoretical study of research centres in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia also has many independent non-profit organisations that are seeking more regional and global engagement, such as the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah), King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, the Gulf Research Center and others.

Altogether, it looks like a promising future for Saudi think tanks, and for Saudi Arabia.

Iran: in need of democratisation

COVID-19 has stormed Iran; it has seen the biggest wave of infection among Middle Eastern countries.

It is worth mentioning that the political system in Iran is elitist from the highest level of authority down to the public. Think tanks in Iran are also subject to this system.

The emphasis is on silencing or curbing dissenting voices, not promoting democracy. Academics and researchers have been arrested for giving points of views contrary to the political system.

This situation has hindered evidence-informed policymaking – including in dealing with COVID-19 – taking the government sometimes to a ‘dead-end’ in terms of finding solutions to address the most prominent issues that Iran faces, both inside the country and on foreign policy.

However, the Rawabet Center writes that Iran is relying more on think tank recommendations when it comes to regional and international issues, serving the country’s political project of expanding influence in the region.

Iran’s most prominent think tanks include the Center for Borderless Security Doctrinal Analysis, the Center for Strategic Studies, and the Omid Iranian Foundation.

Iraq: trying to be heard

The situation in Iraq is a little bit different. Observers describe it as a ‘failed state’. The diversified social fabric that was not obvious before the US invasion in 2003; various international interferences; civil and ideological differences; discrimination; and massive corruption, have all made it difficult for civil society institutions and think tanks to emerge again after successive crises and to rebuild the impeded organs of state.

Thinktanker Heba Bakri said, ‘think tanks in Iraq are not perceived as a high-quality research institution, as it still suffers from many obstacles that prevent them from achieving real success’.

There’s a shortage of independent national think tanks in Iraq. Due to the status quo, there are a huge number of capable Iraqi academics and intellectuals abroad, where they lead global think tanks that contribute effectively in developing the countries that they are settled in.

If these brilliant Iraqi academics were able to work within Iraqi think tanks, their expertise could help reform the democratic system in the country, discuss strategies to strengthen Iraq’s democratic culture and redirect both religious and tribal figures to play a more constructive role in instilling a democratic culture in Iraq.

In terms of COVID-19, some Iraqi think tanks have spoken out about how the status quo in the country has hindered it from facing the crisis. The Middle East Research Institute wrote a notable piece titled: ‘How a Fragile Iraq Is Facing the Covid-19 Challenge‘, which talked frankly about the crisis, mentioned the shortcomings in dealing with it, and put forward solutions.

Jordan: trying to connect

Since 2003, Jordan has borne a heavy load from successive crises in the Middle East, including hosting a huge number of refugees, especially after the Syrian crisis in 2011. This, plus the COVID-19 pandemic, has affected Jordanian economic, social and political structures, which in turn impacted on the resources available to civil society organisations and think tanks.

During the early months of the pandemic, think tanks in Jordan were working with the government to enhance social awareness, and the situation was kept under control. But this didn’t last. There was a disconnect between governmental institutions and think tanks, as there isn’t a strong foundation of decision makers and think tanks working together. Erratic decision-making led to an increase in COVID-19 infections and economic decline.

Dr Musa Shteiwi, late director of the Center for Strategic Studies said, ‘think tanks have no authority over decision makers to work together or consider their product … but think tanks must work to convince the decision maker of their work.’

Some Jordanian think tanks – both independent and government institutes – are starting to influence policy on regional and international areas, most notably the Centre for Strategic Studies. But generally speaking, Jordanian think tanks are struggling to have a voice in the international think tank community.


In the face of recent regional crisis, and this year the global COVID-19 pandemic, think tanks are struggling and innovating to establish themselves within decision-making processes. There’s a long way still to go, but also some promising progress to celebrate.