September 21, 2017

This year's MENA Think Tank Summit was held on September 19- 21, 2017 in Amman, Jordan under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince Hassan Bin Talal. It was organized by the Center for Strategic Studies of the University of Jordan, in joint cooperation with the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania and Rome MED 2017.

The 2017 MENA Think Tank Summit in Jordan offered a forum for more than fifty representatives from numerous think tanks based in the MENA region to discuss the institutional challenges they face and how the political environment of the region affects their organizations.

Participants discussed the institutional challenges facing MENA-based think tanks in regard to funding, staffing, and communication in a transitional region prone to turbulent political changes.

The 2017 MENA Think Tank Summit focused on MENA region and the opportunities that might arise from the protracted conflicts and its subsequent challenges. The major theme of the conference this year was to highlight the role of Think Tanks in better understanding the dynamics in the region and in shaping its future.

Some of the issues that were discussed are extremism and radicalization, security, refugees, economic development and cooperation, and post conflict state building. The Summit focused on the human resources, communication and funding challenges facing the think tanks in the region.

In addition to the substantive part of the conference, it also discussed the trade-off between influence and independence in continuous efforts to make the greatest policy impact and produce a healthy dialogue in governance. This Summit focused on best practices and innovative strategies that address the dilemmas that the think tank community faces in the MENA region, promoting transnational cooperation and boosting security, communication and efficiency. 

The summit was opened by HRH Prince Hassn bin Talal who stressed in his speech, delivered by Dr. Adnan Badran former Prime Minister of Jordan, that (WANA) West Asia and North Africa region is the least integrated region in the world and that there is no functioning forum to discuss questions of regional commons.  He added that we must move from politics to policies.  Probably, we differ in politics, but certainly we can find a lot of policies in common serving human dignity.

HRH also argued that we must find a system for sharing common resources at a regional level. Due to the conflicts that we are all well aware of, the environmental interdependence, the cultural and religious linkages, the trade relationships, it is impossible to separate the local from the regional. Few local issues occur in isolation from the region, and few can be resolved without a regional approach.

HRH also highlighted the Levant’s regional commons such as environmental, economic, social and knowledge. Furthermore, the HRH stressed that we are compelled to construct a paradigm of regional knowledge. We need new institutions in this region to support sustainable economic development, peace, and regional stability. 

Some of the remarks of HRH’s conclusion are as follows: “it is people, not pipelines and power that should be the starting point of all change within the region”. Moreover, it was  that the stabilization of the region as a whole, for the benefit of all peoples, inclusive of the vulnerable, marginalized, and the disaffected must be at the core of the New Architecture for the Levant. He said; “Peace comes from within, do not seek it from without”.

Nevertheless, Prince Hassan also highlighted that at the government level, all of this seems currently impossible. However, we can build on small projects, work directly with civil society and the private sector.  And we must always speak to the youth in addition to engage and enable people is as important as relief and assistance.

In turn, the President of the University of Jordan Prof. Azmi Mahafzeh said during the opening ceremony that the role of think tank centers is paramount. In the end, their scientists and thinkers do not only provide crucial information to decision makers, but also deliver appropriate advice and solutions, stressing the importance of promoting dialogue to understand the future. He added that “this achievement is the coronation of the persistent efforts of intellectuals, academics, and expats.”

Mahafzeh underscored the fact that the University of Jordan seeks to put itself with regional and global realities, aiming to highlight social and political realities, but also the religious and ideological divides. He pointed out that we are on a mission to bridge the gap between governments, universities, academia, and the private sector, taking into account the complexities of the region.

Prof. James McGann declared that part of the instigation of this meeting really came from a group of think tanks that already attended some summits, and said “when are we going to do this in the MENA region”.

Hence, there was a successful meeting in Turkey (2013), but because of the regional instability it was hard to find a place and get the group together. Now I think the moment is open and I am happy the Center for Strategic Studies agreed to partner with us, in hosting this summit, and I think that from this we will continue to be supportive. But in every region we have partners and in every region we now have planning committees that from my standpoint will carry this into the future and the ownership and leadership on the direction of MENA summit will come from institutions within the region. So we are here in a supportive role, and we will continue to be, but the objective is to really have it self-sustaining in the region itself.

McGann added that the response to the MENA summit is an indication of how the think tank community in the MENA region values developing capacities and working together on the critical challenges to region faces. Prof. McGann focused in his speech largely on the youth and stressed the fact that they will become the future researchers of today’s think tanks.

The opening session of the summit provided an overview of the security, political and economic issues and challenges facing the region from the perspective of thought leaders from the private sector media and policymakers.

Prof. Musa Shteiwi, Director of Centre for strategic studies at the University of Jordan mentioned that “five years ago think tanks in the region were criticized for not having predicted what happened in the region.”

Furthermore, Shteiwi added that these events have created more need for centers and researchers to deal with the plethora of issues that we are currently facing such, as a weak and corrupt government, a persistent economic crisis, alienation from political process, and the questioning of identity.

Ms. Amani ElTaweel, Director of International Relations Unit and the African Program AlAhram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said that we can’t discuss the MENA area without the wider geopolitical area in Africa and central Asia, but also regarding the European security affairs.

She added that the lack of instability and emerging factors are mostly related by the spreading of the jihadist (salafi spread). For instance the forming of militias, such as the Nigerian Boko Haram, but also the bloody tribal fights that take place in Libya, having as side-effect the inception of terrorist militias.

Moreover, the direct French military interventions should also be taken into account. By establishing military bases in CAR and Mali it thereby extends its influence in the region. Now, one can witness military alliances, and more support given to Salafi movements. Thus, advances against dictatorships change into radical Islamists fighting foreign occupation.

Altaweel also discussed the way elites are related to transnational companies, hence obtaining significant wealth that consequently leads to corruption. This causes more hostility, leading to social/religious movements and ultimately with the possibility of turning into terrorist groups. 

Hillary Wiesner, the Director of Transnational Movements and the Arab Region program Director at Carnegie Corporation of New York, said that changes within the US puts responsibility on MENA's shoulders when it comes to overcoming regional problems. She added that the US has no civil-political strategy, nor a military strategy, thus leading to China, Russia, and even Germany to take the lead at the UN.

She also mentioned the role of the new national security strategy, to be published in spring 2018. Succinctly speaking, the US has to find new words for nation-building, as it is deemed impossible in the current circumstances.

Wiesner also acknowledged the sheer number of think tanks in the US, but suggested to bring experts from the summit to American think tanks, as they direly need them.

Mrs. Wiesner also mentioned many societal changes which are taking place or are about to take place in the US:

- Rupture between elites, middle class is increasingly pressured.

- Sub national identities, diversity in America looks more at zero-sum, where some rise, others fall, whereas all should rise.

- Employer market will continue to shrink.

- Generational shift (aggrieved minority that is severely indebted).

- 5.8 trillion dollars on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not destined for the youth.

- Role of structural racism, history of slavery that has not ended (mass incarceration)

Mrs. Wiesner also commented on the trends in MENA region is experiencing. She stated that these are not only regional, but also global, and the US needs the wisdom and creativity here to resolve problems in American society.

Prof. Paolo Magri, Executive Vice president and Director of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) firstly reflected to the old policies. After the Cold War, the key word in international politics was economic development, with the assumption (Barcelona process) that political process would come by itself if economic advances are to be accomplished. Now stability is considered priority: economic stability and secure borders.

Prof. Magri also added that “economic growth came, but in an unequal fashion, which clearly spread resentment whilst political resentment was also ignited with the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.” Then in 2011 (Arab Spring) change came, not because of economic development, but because of the internal contexts, causing the key word to become again stability. However, key partners of today are the regimes/autocracies either in the old or in a new fashion. Especially the military has earned significant recognition, a side-effect of the preoccupations regarding terrorism.

Moreover, it was stressed that think tanks should be focusing on one objective at the time. Political, economic, social transformations are interlinked pillars, which should be hold together for sustainable long-term goals.

Rana Sabbagh, Executive Director Arab Reporters for investigative Journalism (ARIJ), said that for the sixth consecutive year, the Middle East and North Africa remains the worst region for journalists. Even Tunisia, the patron of the Arab Spring, slipped two points on the index compared to 2016.

Journalists are continuously under attack: from their government leaders, corrupt politicians, political and economic elites, the man in the street, and militias.

Sabbagh added that there is a tremendous opportunity to join hands with scores of professional and independent think tanks in the region. Governments, especially in more stable countries, should seize the opportunity to engage in serious and incremental social, economic, political and educational reforms. Money that was often used to keep citizens happy and quiet is no longer an option, even for the oil-rich countries. Social injustice and equity has become the cross-cutting hindrance to all forms of development, and in fact, is considered to be one of the driving forces of radicalization in the region.

Sabbagh stressed that think tanks should raise their voices and use their leverage with governments and civil society. They should make clear that the region needs to focus on good governance, economic growth, models of entrepreneurship, education, social protection, equity, gender justice, and the de-radicalization for youth and the most vulnerable groups in Arab Society while Arab rulers and their allies try to fix the political chaos they created.

The summit was conducted in a roundtable format with panels that are intended to frame the key issues and provide constructively provocative questions to stimulate the discussion that follows each Session.

The first session “Meeting the Challenge of Extremism and Radicalization in the MENA Region” addressed the major developments in this area, implications for the region, and efforts to combat it. It looked particularly to what programs and policies think tanks have developed to counter these movements in MENA and beyond.

The Director of the Emirates Policy Center, Dr. Ebtesam Al Ketbi, headed the session which included the following participants: Senior Analyst at Elcano Royal Institute Haizam Amirah Fernández, Mohammad Abu Rumman from the Center for Strategic Studies, Ahmed Driss, Director of Studies Centre of Mediterranean and International Studies (CEMI), and President of Moroccan Institute of International Relations (IMRI), Jawad Kerdoudi.

Prof. Ebtesam Al Ketbi discussed the role of political marginalization, religious identity and strains on radicalization and terrorism.  She added; evident that there is a developmental failure in Middle East and North Africa, referring to the gradual elimination of Da’esh. However, political reality is that sectarian policies of Iranians and independence struggle of Kurds remain in precarious positions.

Al Ketbi gave two questions: “What we have is a list of requirements, political and religious education and reforms. We as research centers, where did we succeed and where did we fail?”

Dr. Abu Rumman said that radicalization and terrorism are scarcely researched themes, adding that historical and social problems underline the issue. Nevertheless, sociological and psychological studies are weak and there is a significant problem regarding information resources.

Abu Rumman stated that Arab researchers suffer a lot of addressing of these issues, emphasizing once again the complexity of the issue. He said that we are still very traditional in methodology, with reliance on social media and traditional media. Furthermore, the theme of radicalization is monopolized by the security realm in the Arab world, thus making it hard to study the issue from other perspectives.

He highlighted some major points, firstly moving from individualist terrorists, to networks of terrorists and its multidimensionality (women, children, families and social networks). He also stressed the fact that the CSS intends to build a database of this phenomena.

Haizam Amirah Fernández declared that there are various explanations for failure including poor planning, a lack of multidimensional approaches, and a lack of understanding. Moreover, short-term political motivations by policy makers prevail: think about the next elections and geopolitical alliances. The debate is also heavily characterized by a focus on security and the use of coercive power. Yes, there is a need for this as a tool, but if you rely too heavily on this you my produce even more radicals. In the end, it becomes evident that there is a lack of sufficient of political will to eliminate root causes of radicalization.

Additionally, Prof. Amirah Fernández mentioned six main areas as to where produce multidimensional approaches. Firstly, there is education, which does not only serve for coexistence, tolerance, and diversity, but also a generator for major opportunities, including for western societies that characterize themselves by putting a religious label to extremist phenomena. Secondly, socio-economic opportunities: to have a satisfactory life cycle, to do something with your effort, creativity, to be respected by their communities. Thirdly, global governance. Abuses of power these days create frustrations and rivalry, challenges the legitimacy of institutions/governance. Fourthly, cyber security/ space/ environment. It is not only about banning websites/heavy repression. This can never be the solution. Da’esh, how ill-founded their narratives may be does have something to sell that sounds appealing to some. Fifthly, Migration policies, and how to demobilize radicals. As demonstrated by three major events: 1- Arab human development report (first warning sign).

Prof. Jawad Kerdoudi stated that the conflicts in the MENA region are largely concentrated on three issues: the Palestinian –Israel conflict, the war on Iraq in 2003, and the Arab Spring starting 2011.

Prof. Kerdoudi also gave some recommendations that may relieve some other problems: the strengthening of internal security forces, focusing on intelligence, fighting illiteracy and the rise of education, counter attack propaganda of political Islam, especially regarding youth, restrict radical imams, jihadi websites, and clearly condemn all terrorist attacks, especially by religious authorities and implementing specific policies for the youth regarding employment opportunities.

For his part, HE Giovanni Brauzzi, the Italian Ambassador to Jordan, stressed the value of this conference in the consideration of human dignity and the importance of not neglecting it under the pretext of security concern.

His Excellency, Abdelelah AlKhatib, former foreign minister of Jordan said that many of the issues and challenges facing the region need an objective scientific study that will help to propose an effective solution to confront them. He added “I hope that your meeting at Jordan will provide an incentive for the deep consideration of these issues and challenges and to present ideas and proposals that will enable the region and countries to find the right direction at this historic moment in their lives.”

He expressed the need to scientifically and with rigorous methodologies assess the problems, using the latest forms of data processing and information flows. The issue for nation-building is preeminent, especially in Libya and Syria where exhaustion of the violence seems to be reached.

Ms. Shaden Khallaf, senior Policy Advisor UNHCR MENA stressed that to better analyze the role of think tanks in humanitarian and refugee response, it is important to take a look at the context of the refugee crises in the region, to better understand how these crises have influenced the perception that societies have of refugees; how these crises have influenced regional and global politics and policies; and how such perceptions have influenced the way the international community has responded to the crises, both in terms of resources and global attention.

Mrs. Khallaf underlined that in line with this summit, the MENA Policy Unit, in collaboration with a leading regional think tank, the West-Asia North Africa Institute (WANA), organized a roundtable for academia including think tanks, on enhancing dialogue and partnership between academia and humanitarian actors on regional displacement crises in the Middle East and North Africa, in April 2017. The purpose of the academic roundtable was to provide a platform for academia, including Think Tanks to frame its role in influencing policy and programs related to displacement in MENA.

It was also noted that think tanks offer a range of ideas, research and policies that can turn into valuable action formulating an effective response to the refugee crisis and what we discussed throughout this session touches on many elements that can contribute to maximizing the impact of such action.

The summit consisted of various sessions on post conflict inclusive state Building and strategic communications and marketing for think tanks, the role of youth in creating a prosperous, secure and stable future for the MENA region, Strategies for building a sustainable future for MENA think tanks.

On the third and last day the fourth session, called Making Peace and Prosperity Possible: Meeting Traditional and Non-Traditional Security Challenges in the MENA region, was chaired by Jamal Madaien.

Several important points were underlined during this session, particularly the interlinkage between regional and international security. Security for fear prevails, be it regarding the Palestinian issue (not put as a priority anymore), or the wars in Yemen and Syria. Regarding the latter cases it is pivotal to take the role of proxies into consideration: USA and Russia, but also Saudi Arabia and Iran. We have to understand their bargaining powers.

Especially the situation in Yemen is precarious as the parties stil encounter themselves in a zero-sum game. The stage where the involved parties have to negotiate an outcome still seems a dilapidated dream. Nevertheless, the humanitarian situation is critical, and the fear of extremism and radicalization is omnipresent.

Furthermore, there is the need of identity recognition, in which the local context plays an increasingly decisive role, see the Kurds independence referendum, but also the situation in Catalunya. In these situations, it is important to deal with it in a pliable fashion in order to avoid clashes.

Another far-reaching issue is demographics: both considered to be an opportunity as an impediment, particularly when taking the role and position of youth into account (education, jobs, training). It can turn into a permanent handicap if inclusive and sustainable development is not to be obtained.

Regarding the evolvement of national to international security, it is necessary to consider the role of the Arab League, which has been characterized by mismanagement. Profound reforms and a change in mindset of a pragmatic nature is needed so we can obtain something that serves the interests of the Middle Eastern countries overall. The example of the ASEAN has been used multiple times throughout the summit. Two key elements prevail: to dispatch a system of settlement of disputes, and a supranational dimension for political and societal affairs (e.g. human rights).

In line with these ideas is the conceptualization of an enhancement of multilateralism and the clear need to reform the composition and division of powers within the UNSCS.

Other imperative points brought forward by Mr. Ezeddine Abdelmoula, President of the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, is the missing links between think tanks in the MENA region: dialogue, communication, and exchanges of thoughts. Think Tanks can serve the role of not only bridging the gaps between institutions, but also between academia, institutions, and the audience.

However, to let this succeed it is compulsory to also close our own internal gaps, for which we need stronger cooperation. This also implies that we need to specify our challenges, as we are often confused about setting our priorities.

Regarding the war on terror, its concept stretches much further than only hard security policies. We should also face the threat of water and food scarcity, authoritarianism, suppression, banning and preventing freedom of speech, and failing educational systems.

Moreover, there is the risk of the dissemination of extremist groups in the post-Da’esh scenario. Regrettably, we do talk about the period before these ideologies were raised, but it is vital to very well consider this, as otherwise we might make the same error, failing to prevent to reproduce itself.

Mr. Ezzat Saad, Executive Director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, underlined the role and the consequences of the Iraqi invasion of 2003. Bearing in mind the sources of security threats, be it in the traditional sense of way or otherwise, is crucial, but unfortunately solutions are hard to find, even for the short-term.

All security-related issues are multifaceted, and continue for a longer period of time. However, security in our region is deemed as state security, state-centered. We need to look beyond the state-centered perspective, hence the reason we need a regional, more effective system of tackling all our security-related themes.

Moreover, Mr. Saad stressed the fact that we need to consider the role of major powers as part of the solution, rather than being the problem. Nevertheless, any clear forward-looking strategy is lacking and even though the focus on Da’esh is necessary, we should also look to what comes afterwards: what are the features of the state strategy in the post-Da’esh era?

Some comments that were given to the panelist include for instance the issue of the holistic, complementary dimension of the region, and the subsequent role of it during the Arab Spring when the region failed to enforce an economic ground which would lead countries to solutions that address security.

Furthermore, the “sea of insecurity” was underlined by Prof. McGann, which made the rise of Trump and others possible. We do not only talk about economic insecurity, but also about identity insecurity (personal and national insecurity. What is being European? What is being American? Who am I and what is my national identity?), international insecurity (from a bipolar to a multipolar world: nobody and everybody is in charge nowadays), and information insecurity (whom do we trust? What kind of information do we trust?).

It is clear that there is no communicative framework and that policy makers look for simple answers and quick fixes, even if they can’t deliver. Moreover, think tanks should bear in mind that overspecialization is not always the best response to come with an integrated answer to the plethora of problems we face today.

The role of internal threats has also been voiced, particularly regarding economic and social security. Looking at the example of Syria, it is evident that it constitutes a playground or international conflict, but the internal security is paramount. Only then we can counter external threats.

Another valid point is the need to clearly define terrorism. It appears to be that there is a lack of neutrality regarding this discussion, subject to subjectivity, which might even feed terrorism. A clearer framework is required, which is very interesting for think tank centers to provide this crucial information to the international community.

Lastly, the issue of Arab (dis-)integration was mentioned. Constituting the largest number of IDPs and refugees, but having only 5% of the total world population, it is indisputable that migration plays a major role in the crises that confronts the Arab region. This is closely related to other problems as well, such as the food and water scarcity.

In other words it is evident that there is an urgent need for further regional discussion, also because the post-war, post-nation state is very ambiguous. Even if the regime manages to impose its control again over the country, the following question is whether they are going to be able to control it as they did before 2011.

Consequently, it is important to admit the territorial peculiarities, and it was suggested to implement a decentralized democracy.

The fifth session concerned the role of MENA’s Think Tanks to help to build a better tomorrow.

Numerous valuable and interesting points were raised, one of them being the role of the sociology of research. Look at the social composition of people working in think tanks and the power positions they carry. It is mostly homogenous, with some difference between countries, but with similar traits of people. This might cause the failure of predicting upcoming events, and limits the reachability to the public. Research centers should actively promote the position and role of communities.

Another delicate point is the matter of independence. It becomes increasingly hard to obtain funds, and has become a mere struggle for survival.

Empowerment of the youth is another vital point, and has been repetitively stated throughout the summit. Apply it from within has often been voiced. This can be done through the development of internships, collaboration with students, but also in the methodology in which we train the youth regarding their writing skills etc. Suggestions were to look, for instance, to MOLs/MUNs, summer programs, shared platforms, either on the cyber space (Facebook) or in physical meetings. 

However, if we look at the MENA think tank ecosystem in general, it is prevalent that a clear value chain is still missing. A long-term, clearly defined agenda is absent. It is all about the “product life cycle”. For this, it is important to change our way dialogue with diverse stakeholders, such as the media and marketing partners.

Lastly, Prof. McGann reiterated the importance of separating the good, the bad and the dangerous concerning the immense increase of information flows. Four areas where identified where we struggle most with the questions and challenges posed.

How can we identify strategies and technologies to enhance research and public engagement?

How to attract the next generation of researchers (Both from a policy and institutional context). Demonstrates the need to build in and mobilize resources.

How to deal of the age-old problem of academics, think tanks and policy makers. But also between our works (perceived as elites) and the public.  Here it is where technology and the integration of youth becomes vital.

The issue of independence versus basic survival and being able to publish quality reports. Questions we should pose ourselves are what are the new ways of funding and how do we deal with the shifting of private/public donors?

The importance and its connection to the MENA of the TTCSP has also been restated. It serves as a space for thinking outside the ivory tower that can reach a broad range of actors. This is of fundamental value for where the region is going, and what the future can be. It also develops needed research that links from doing research to policy recommendations, and that understands what the complications are of our collective work and challenges. Lastly, it has the ability to expand beyond the region, to look at how problems in this region are similar or different from global events. This is the advantage of forums: it brings people from all over together.

The last point was also voiced during the closing comments: meeting each other is still very much part of the human experience, and which makes these meetings so relevant. Summits like these constitute a new opportunity to re-establish our networks, and to presume our collaboration. Nevertheless, how to develop such mechanism to sustain this movement is of paramount importance.