Just 13 Saudi think tanks were accounted for in the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tank and Civil Societies Program global go to think tank index report 2020, whereas Saudi’s regional competitor, Iran, had 87 organisations listed.
Yet in my own work as the Head of DEVE Institute, I have analysed more than a hundred Saudi think tanks and research institutes. Many of which have been doing important work contributing to the Saudi Vision 2030 – an ambitious vision for development and prosperity announced by the young Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in 2016.
My analysis also reveals the need for support and institutional development among Saudi think tanks – particularly in terms of communications, digitalisation and strategic partnerships.
So, why this gap? What can Saudi Arabia do to raise the profile, empower, support and better utilise its think tank sector?
I propose a Saudi ‘think tank league.’
Such a league would:
- Create an official directory of think tanks, with their characteristics, such as their size and areas of expertise, included.
- Help build connections and alliances between independent think tanks and governmental or university-affiliated research institutes to open channels of dialogue and co-produce recommendations on specific policy issues.
- Help foster a community and exchange of knowledge and experience among think tanks by hosting periodical meetings or conferences.
- Provide financial and administrative support to think tanks.
- Establish common frameworks for monitoring progress and performance.
While the government would not lead the league, it would play an important supervisory role – providing financial support and advice and linking it to the delivery of the Saudi Vision 2030.
However, in Saudi Arabia, government sponsorship will bolster think tank independence by giving think tanks a degree of financial stability, certainty and space that will facilitate greater transparency. I have observed that Saudi government-sponsored think tanks have more autonomy to act than others, and this is a quality that can be extended through such a league.
I’ve identified five leading Saudi think tanks that could form a working group to collaborate with the Saudi government to build the new Saudi think tank league.
These think tanks have remained stable throughout the pandemic, demonstrating their ability to adapt. Each brings a different quality that would contribute to the development of the league:
- Gulf Research Center: The Center has an extraordinary administrative and institutional experience. This experience could contribute to helping develop the organisational structure of the league.
- Center for Research and Intercommunication Knowledge: This Center is well connected across Asia/the East. This experience would serve the league by helping to establish strategic partnerships and alliances within Saudi Arabia and the wider region.
- Decision Support Center: The Center has a lot of experience monitoring policy implementation. This experience could be used to help develop a monitoring and performance framework for the think tank league.
- King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center: This is a leading centre on environmental policy research, which is an important part of Vision 2030. It is also experienced in robust and unbiased data collection and analysis and can therefore offer guidance and standards-setting for the league.
- King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies: This centre is well recognised as a transparent and solid institute, both within Saudi Arabia and at a global level. Thus, it can help generate healthy competition among participating think tanks, oversee transparency and help build strategic relations between the league and western institutions and actors.
There are many examples of think tank communities, networks and membership organisations that seek to support and connect research organisations around the world, each with its own structure and mission. See, for example, the European Think Tanks Group, bringing together six leading European think tanks working on international development and humanitarian issues, and On Think Tanks, a global platform and community for think tanks.
I believe that if Saudi Arabia builds its own version of a think tank league, it will have more robust and evidence-informed policies that will accelerate its march towards its 2030 vision.