ABU DHABI: Under the patronage of His Highness General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and President of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), the Abu Dhabi-based centre on Wednesday convened a conference on “The Role of Research Centres in Supporting Public Policy” in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of its establishment.
The opening session began with brief welcoming remarks from Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, Director-General of the ECSSR. Keynote addresses were delivered by Yehya bin Jonaid, Secretary-General of the King Faisal Centre for Islamic Studies in Saudi Arabia, and Steven Bennett, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the US-based Brookings Institution.
In his address, Yehya called the ECSSR a model for the support of scientific research in the region. He proposed a gathering of GCC research centres be convened to increase their communication and cooperation, and suggested that GCC and Arab universities must establish centres for regional studies, including language studies, to enable Arab institutions to better inform policymakers.
Bennett quoted a maxim attributed to the founder of his institution, Robert S. Brookings: “Government needs external research”. He noted that the aim of think-tanks is to provide governments with independent research and train the government workforce. In this regard, Bennett said, “the ECSSR is a standout in a region with over 500 think-tanks.” He added that Prospects for the American Age, the most recent book written by the centre’s director-general, is required reading for r scholars.
The first panel focused on the distinction between think-tanks and more academic research institutions, and on the appropriate level of political engagement for think-tanks.
Farhan Nizami, the Director of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, suggested that the think-tanks must be sheltered from political considerations in order to ensure that their analysis remains unbiased, and credited the Crown Prince for providing the ECSSR with the space to conduct independent research.
Elsadig El Fagih, Secretary-General of the Arab Thought Forum in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, by contrast, said that the distinction between think-tanks and universities is the emphasis placed by the former on generating favorable policy outcomes. As such, he said, think-tanks should be less concerned with abstract notions of academic freedom and more in tune with the decision-making process.
The panelists in the second session focused on the ways in which research centres in their regions interact with decision makers and influence public policy. Ambassador David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and the former US ambassador to the UAE, said that because of the nature of the American political process, US think-tanks often act as reservoirs of policy expertise from which incoming governments can draw to staff their agencies. He added that because of the enormous variety of ideologies, ethnicities and interest groups represented by research centres in the United States, the work of these institutions must be evaluated in light of their policy agendas.
Charles Saint-Prot, Director of France’s Observatoire d’Etudes Geopolitiques, offered several examples of ways in which his institution has intervened to shape public perceptions in important political debates. For instance, they successfully pushed for the rejection of the term “Islamic State” to describe the groups fighting in Syria, and after the crises of 2011 in the Arab World, they argued against the term “Arab Spring”, as they believed it obscured the specificity of the different crises and the necessity for different political responses to each. The panel concluded with a presentation given by Diaa Rashwaan, Director-General of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, who offered an instructive account of the way his institution has evolved to deal with various governments and various political crises since its founding.
The third panel began with Neveen Masaad, Director of the Institute of Arab Research and Studies at the League of Arab States.
Neveen discussed the barriers to research work in the Arab world, with a particular emphasis on the challenges facing research centres in Egypt. She was followed by Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who emphasised the need for regional research centres to provide accurate information to policymakers, particularly with regard to military and security assessments. The final presenter in the panel, Abdelhak Azzouzi, identified a weakness in scientific and strategic thinking skills among the Arab public as a challenge that Arab research centres must overcome.
In the final panel, Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Khaled Abdullah Al Bu Ainain, President of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), and Yasser Rizk, Editor-in-Chief of Egypt’s newspaper Al Akhbar, discussed the responses of Arab research centres to the ongoing transformations in the region and worldwide.
The conference closed with a parting statement from ECSSR Director-General Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, in which he briefly highlighted some of the achievements of the center over the past twenty years and offered his thanks for the unwavering support and generosity of the leadership of the country