Middle Eastern think tanks in the post-COVID-19 era: challenges to opportunities

17 August 2020

As coronavirus-lockdown is phased out, think tank scholars around the world are looking at the crisis’ impact on the research sector, asking how can the sector avoid the negative impacts of the crisis? Or even, how it could be an opportunity?

Academic and scientific institutions are vulnerable to bankruptcy, marginalisation, and even dismantling at the best of times. Post COVID-19, with many people in challenging economic situations, the demand for academic services may shrink. The post-COVID-19 era, therefore, obligates governments around the world to look for new and sustainable solutions to support the sector.

Middle Eastern think tanks and COVID-19

Economists at the Rand Corporation have predicted that the pandemic will impact economies across the globe, but the Middle East may be particularly affected given the fall in oil prices.

The scholars also warned about large economic effects for most Middle East countries, a potentially destabilised Iraq and Lebanon, and collapse of small and medium-sized enterprises. These impacts will weaken the financial and operational structures of academic institutions, including think tanks.

Think tanks in the Middle East face severe challenges due to the vulnerabilities and poor conditions of countries in the region. The current crisis will make matters worse: cutting budgets, halting academic research, closing down research campuses, and employment will hit this sector too.

At the same time, developing countries need the research and scientific evidence of these institutions more than ever to support development and post-crisis rebuilding.

 How can Middle Eastern think tanks survive?

A senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, James Dorsey, pointed out that ‘governments and elites have the foresight and political will to build a new world order that is not only equitable but also creates the political, economic, and social conditions for the management of future pandemics at a potentially lower social and economic cost for all.’

In building this new world order, Middle Eastern governments and elites can merge institutions and entities, to decrease expenditure and redirect budget to where it is needed (such as service provision).

Moreover, the pandemic has made substantial changes in society. For example, new practices have emerged or become mainstreamed, such as social distancing, distance learning, remote working and teleconferencing. Initially there may have been global resistance to these new practices, but gradually we have become accustomed to them.

This change can be a golden opportunity for Middle Eastern countries to have a new knowledge renaissance, at a low cost. Institutions can run online, employees can work remotely, teleconferences can be widely activated, learning can be deployed at distance, and magnificent research capabilities can be discovered through remote academic scholarships, intercultural exchange and online open discussion.

Finally, the Middle East has long-been ignored, misunderstood and isolated at the international level. New communications technology hopefully can lead to more openness with the outside world. Researchers and academics can engage in international meetings, which help to make visible the Middle East and the capabilities, situations, and realities within it.


COVID-19 has been truly transformative and will likely impact global, national and local policy decisions for some time to come. To take just one example, we’re seeing a new definition of national security emerge, one that pays far more attention to health defence. As Christopher Preble, vice president for defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, wrote: ‘as the US struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak, it has revived the perennial guns versus butter debate. Or, in this case, guns versus medical equipment. Might some of the money spent on the US military have been better spent on more useful things closer to home?

The structure and behaviour of academic institutions, including think tanks, are changing too. Think tanks should ride with this wave that hopefully takes us to a new world order. Think tanks in the Middle East can lead this change and lead the way to a new stage of the renaissance through knowledge, modernity, and alignment with the new needs of the upcoming era.

Money can build nations; minds can create both.