OP-ED: Why Saudi Arabia Should Invest in Think Tanks

By: Corey Driscoll

Over the past decade, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has played an increasingly important role in both regional and global politics, and although rapid political ascents are often accompanied by the robust expansion of a country’s policy advice institutions, this has not been the case with Saudi Arabia. The overall development of these institutions, particularly think tanks, has for the most part been completely stagnant in the kingdom. If Saudi rulers want to fully seize their county’s potential as a regional powerhouse, then they must develop the capacity of such think tanks and knowledge-based institutions. This entails both government initiatives to found new think tanks and expand current ones, as well as changing the Saudi legal code to promote the development of free thought.

There are a variety of ways that investing in knowledge production could benefit the Saudis. For instance, think tanks often provide excellent and diverse sources of knowledge from which government policy makers draw upon. For this reason and many others, most world powers are already keen on utilizing them. However, Saudi Arabia lacks in both the number and quality of its think tanks, especially when compared to other states in the region. The Kingdom has eight think tanks, compared to Iran’s 67, Israel’s 67, Turkey’s 46, and Egypt’s 39. These nations are all comparable in their geopolitical and economic centrality to the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. As mentioned, the Saudis also fall behind in the quality of their think tanks. In the 2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, the kingdom had only one think tank among the “Top Globally Ranked MENA Think Tanks”, compared to Turkey’s 10 and Israel’s seven. To realize their ambitions of transcending above Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel to become an undisputed regional hegemon, the Saudis should turn their investment to think tanks.

On top of this, think tanks excel in economic research, which also happens to be a critical policy area for Saudi Arabia, whose economic future is quite unpredictable. As a rentier state, the vast majority of the kingdom’s revenue comes from oil profits, yet as oil prices have declined over the past few years there has been a push to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil. At the center of that effort is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who has spearheaded a policy called “Saudi Vision 2030” seeking to diversify the country’s sources of revenue. Alas, diversifying an economy is a hard and complicated task, and the kingdom’s rulers need institutions like think tanks to provide them with proper policy advice in handling this transition.

Another reason Saudi Arabia should invest in knowledge-producing institutions is that after the passing of the JCPOA, the divide between the kingdom and Iran is slowly shifting from a conflict based on hard power to one determined by soft power. Iran has seemingly given up on its short-term nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic viability. It will increasingly challenge Saudi Arabia through soft power tactics such as trade and diplomacy. Countering such an offensive will require much more comprehensive and flexible planning than conventional warfare contingencies provide. This is the type of planning that is best done by think tanks, whose sole purpose is often designing comprehensive solutions to intricate and vaguely defined problems.

There are those who say the political stability of Saudi Arabia is due to its practice of stifling the internal development of thought. While complete autocracy and a total repression of free thought may seem stable to some, it also entails a lack of innovation in most sectors of society. A society that does not innovate is one destined to stagnate, a lesson that China had in mind when it introduced hybrid-capitalism to its special economic zones (SEZ’s). MBS has already recognized this through his 2030 plan, with which he intends to introduce an entertainment industry to one of the most conservative societies on Earth. On top of decrepit innovation in policy and knowledge, autocracy also comes with a general restriction of citizens’ civil and political rights. The long-term restriction of these rights to a large swath of society may destabilize the state as eventually these citizens will demand greater freedoms.

Saudi Arabia should allocate at the very least a small portion of its budget to the development of knowledge-based institutions. It could complement this by providing subsidies to think tanks under development and introducing legislation to restrict the government’s censoring capabilities. This will lead to less self-censorship within the Saudi academic community, as well as the pursuit of previously unexplored avenues of knowledge. Should it implement these policies, Saudi rulers will eventually find their country far more competitive in economics, politics, and academia, all goals of MBS’s “Vision 2030”.

Corey Driscoll is an intern at TTCSP.  Please contact Dr. McGann to get in touch with him.