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.

OP-ED: Independence and Intellectual Diversity: The Next Step in China’s Think Tank Development

By: Zaki Atia

Xi Jingping has made it clear that the development of “think tanks with Chinese characteristics” is an essential objective for his administration. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been committing substantial intellectual and financial resources to its state affiliated think tanks in order to realize this goal. However, the Chinese think tank landscape still has a long way to go if it wishes to have the same international outreach and prestige as its western counterparts.

Many think tank scholars argue that while the Chinese think tank landscape is rapidly expanding, it is still in an early stage of development. As Wang and Lu put it, China’s state affiliated think tanks are “big but not strong,” university institutions are “too academically high-brow,” and private think tanks are “weak and weary.” Huang Yangzhou is even more critical, and argues the CCP’s major investments in think tanks are just “a think-tank Great Leap Forward” because the current development strategy favors quantity over quality.  

For China’s think tank environment to get past these limitations and thrive, it must embrace intellectual diversity. The best means for the Chinese government to promote diversity in its think tank landscape is to pave the way for distinct operational models that allow for independent and private think tanks.  

The Chinese state should include independent and non-partisan think tanks in its vision. It is unclear what defines a “think tank with Chinese characteristics,” but one could speculate that it is a research institution entirely tied to the CCP. Despite how China’s state affiliated institutions have the most resources, think tank experts often criticize them for reproducing the same low-quality research and justifying the CCP’s status quo policy decisions rather than innovating new policy options.

To the credit of these state affiliated research institutions, historically there have been instances when China’s major foreign policy initiatives came from state-based think tanks. For example, Hu Jintao’s “Peaceful Rise of China” concept can be traced back to the Central Party School think tank. It is over-simplistic to assert that China’s current think tanks are purely mouthpieces for the state that will always fail to produce meaningful research.

Still, there are several reasons why allowing state affiliated and independent research institutions to both play large roles in China’s think tank landscape would be ideal for Chinese foreign policy. First, it would maximize the number of options considered by policy-makers. Independent think tanks diversify China’s public policy research because they are not limited by the parameters set by the CCP. If policy options that are distinct from state discourse are examined, Chinese policy-makers will be more equipped to address the countries many public policy challenges. Second, independence enhances the reputation of a think tanks and bolsters the credibility of Chinese research. The Brookings Institution is consistently ranked as the highest quality research institution in the world by the TTSCP’s Go to Global Think Tank Index, and a crucial factor for that ranking is the Brooking’s independent status that garners respect from think tank scholars. If Chinese tanks wish to have the same prestige and international recognition, independence is essential.

However, China’s current think tank environment does not adhere to a feasible operational model for independent research institutions. China’s private and independent think tanks will likely benefit from examining the operational model of other international top-tier think tanks. For example, the Brookings Institution deliberately enforces several regulations to maintain the independent and non-partisan image it has cultivated for over a century. Donors are not permitted to influence topics of research and any grant is turned down if it violates this principle. This system works in the US because donors to non-profits are provided tax exemptions, but the IRS requires all non-profits to publicly disclose their primary sources of funding. The US legal framework is immensely beneficial for the welfare of independent think tanks, because it incentivizes donations and transparency. The CCP can adopt a similar framework to pave the way for independent think tanks with robust funding and international prestige.

The Brookings Institution was founded by a wealthy businessman and was able to maintain funding through the donations of multiple other foundations and entrepreneurs. China’s plethora of wealthy business elites are in a similar position to establish and fund China’s own “Brookings.” It is up to the CCP to tap into this potential by providing the incentive for new operational models, rather than allow China’s state affiliated research institutions to crowd out the rest of the think tank landscape


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