By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.

Since 2006, the Lauder Institute of the University of Pennsylvania issues annual ranking of think tanks. The ranking attempts to identify the top think tanks worldwide, or in certain regions like North America, Europe, Latin America, and the MENA… It also ranks think tanks specialized in specific areas like defense and national security, economic policy, education policy, energy and resource policy, foreign policy and international affairs, technology, etc.

In late January 2015, the institute published its latest ranking for 2014, covering 6,618 think tanks registered with the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP).

Think tanks are institutions concerned with public policy research and analysis. They document, present, and elucidate information, forecast future scenarios, and provide recommendations and consultations locally and globally, to assist decision makers in official and non-official entities (institutions, companies, political parties…) in making appropriate decisions. (For more details about think tanks and their roles, see the 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report published by the Lauder Institute, pp.6-42).

After examining the 2014 ranking report, we may have the following remarks and observations:

First: Think tanks in North America and Europe account for about 60% of think tanks in the world. There are 1,989 think tanks in North America, of which 1,830 are in the United States alone, and 1,822 in Europe. Furthermore, more than half the think tanks are university affiliated. Around one quarter of US think-tanks (approx. 400) are located in Washington, DC.

This means that think tanks have a prominent position in the West in comparison with the rest of the world. The fact that around 28% of all think tanks in the world are in the United States is a reflection of the crucial role they play, or seek to play, in making policies and decisions in the world’s preeminent superpower.

Second: China comes second to the United States with 429 think tanks, followed by the UK with 287, Germany with 194, and India with 192 think tanks. France, Argentina, Russia, Japan, and Canada are next on the list. This means the world’s largest economies and top powers have the highest numbers of think tanks.

In the Middle East and North Africa, there are 521 think tanks. Egypt, globally ranked 17 in terms of the number of think tanks, has 57 such institutions, followed by Israel with 56. As for Iran, it has 34 think tanks, and Turkey 31 (Interestingly, Palestine has 44 think tanks). However, the number of think tanks is only one indicator among a number of indicators when contemplating the impact and role of think tanks. Indeed, there are other important indicators that should be taken into account when evaluating think tanks, including: their influence on decision makers and public life; the quality of research and consultations they provide;  the freedoms they enjoy; their sources of funding; the national or foreign agendas they adopt; their ability to benefit from experts in various disciplines; and their ability to provide real solutions for the problems faced by their home countries.

Third: According to the Lauder Institute rankings, the United States topped the list in 2014. The Brookings Institution came first globally, being the top think tank in the world, while six out of ten best think tanks in the world were American, and 11 out of the top fifty. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace came in third place, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) came fourth, the Rand Corporation seventh, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) eighth, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars came tenth.

Britain strongly competes with the United States when it comes to think tanks, with two British think tanks being in the top ten globally, Chatham House in second place and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in ninth place. Britain has eight think tanks in the top fifty think tanks. Only Germany (six think tanks in the top fifty), Belgium (four), and China (four) come close to the United States and Britain, while Japan, Canada, Russia, and South Korea each had two think tanks in the top fifty.

In the Arab and Muslim region, there is only one think tank that made it to the top fifty, the Lebanon-based American think tank Carnegie Middle East Center, ranked 37. The Egyptian Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies is in the top 100 ranked 51. In addition, there are two Turkish think tanks in the top 100 (74th and 87th), and Indonesian center (69th), a Malaysian center (90th) and a Bangladeshi center (97). Regardless of the observations regarding the approach and rigorousness of this classification, it does give a general idea regarding the weak influence and performance of think tanks in our Arab and Muslims world.

Fourth: Many international think-tanks enjoy a solid and lucrative financial position. They receive broad funding from governments, charities, companies, pressure groups, influential leaders, and political parties….and “benefactors.” There seems to be official and nonofficial awareness of the role and influence of think tanks, and attempts to benefit from them to serve the programs of the funders.

According to one study regarding the top 20 think-tanks in the United States, the average annual budget of these think tanks was $29 million in 2011. Rand Corporation has an annual budget of $263 million and more than two thousand personnel, followed by the Brookings Institution with an annual budget of $90 million and 530 staff. The study indicates the average value of assets held by think-tanks each is around $67 million. This is while noting that the value of the assets held by the Brookings Institution is $299 million, and Carnegie Endowment $253 million. The study noted that a high proportion of staff at these think-tanks earn more than $100,000 a year.

Fifth: According to the 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, the MENA region (Arab countries, Iran, Turkey, Cyprus, and Israel), three branches of US think tanks occupy high positions, led by Carnegie Middle East Center, which had the top MENA rank, followed by Brookings Doha Center in third place, and Rand-Qatar Policy Institute in 15th place. The ranking gives Israel an advanced position with 12 Israeli think tanks in the top 55, including 5th place for the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), and 9th place for Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. The ranking gives Egyptian think tanks ten positions in the top 55, Turkish think tanks 5 positions, Morocco and Lebanon four positions each, and the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Kuwait three positions each. The think tank al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies came second in the region, the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies (Qatar) came sixth, the Gulf Research Center (KSA) 8th, and the Center for Strategic Studies (Jordan) came tenth.

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However, regarding the ranking of the Middle East think tanks, the following remarks can be made:

1. Israel is strongly represented in the ranking. This is due in part to the Israeli official, institutional, and academic recognition of the role of think tanks, which play a role similar to that of think tanks in North America and Europe.

2. The advanced position of US think tanks with branches in the Arab region have in the rankings (Brookings, Carnegie, and Rand).

3. Results reflect the weakness and absence of Arab and Islamic think tanks. The ranking reflects the state of underdevelopment, with many think tanks in this region being merely decorative and sometimes facades for regimes. They cannot even breathe unless they enjoy the oppressive regimes consent. There are think tanks that are little more than public relations outfits for retired senior ministers and officers, for the purposes of appearing in events and the media, or facades for foreign entities. As for those serious and free think tanks, if they succeeded to exist and escape the heavy grips of regimes, they are rarely heard by the regime under which they live.

4. The Lauder institute, undoubtedly, did a great effort to get the most accurate results in ranking. However, there is a problem in the methodology used for ranking, which is limited to the think tanks registered with the list collated by the Lauder Institute and those contacted to take part in the ranking process. For example, one of the most active, influential, and effective Arab think tanks, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, was not represented at all in the rankings. Active think tanks, like al-Zaytouna Centre in Beirut, were not contacted either, which affects the accuracy and credibility of the rankings.

5. We do not know exactly who conducted the ranking of the think tanks of the Middle East. We do not even know whether the referees are well informed with the think tanks activities and their impact; we do not know how familiar they are with Arabic, Turkish, or Persian, the languages spoken in the region; their attitudes towards sensitive issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, political Islam, their application of western values and criteria on the region, and the changes and uprisings in the Arab world… that could all influence their judgment.

6. We are not certain whether this ranking is based on evaluating the role, effectiveness, and influence of think tanks on decision makers and leaders in the Western world, or on decision makers and leaders in the Arab and Muslim countries. In other words, a number of think tanks that were given high rankings barely have any readership or following in MENA region, compared to the size of the audience they have in the West, who read their English-language edition. Hence, this ranking is more credible in relation to their presence in Western journals and media outlets, rather than their presence in Arab academic and media circles. For example, to the best of my knowledge and many of my academic and activist colleagues, al-Ahram Center, Al Jazeera Centre, and the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies are much more present and influential in the region than Carnegie Middle East Center, the top think tank in the region according to the rankings, with all due respect to the center and its outstanding researchers.

7. I am afraid that the negative message, some could understand, from the ranking (regardless of the good intentions of the Lauder Institute) is as follows: “Since the top think tanks in your region (MENA) are American, and the best rankings of regional countries with think tanks goes for Israel, so don’t tire yourselves thinking, we’ll do it for you!”

On the other side, the positive message is that our Arab and Muslim countries are in dire need for serious scholarly think tanks, operating in a free environment. Think tanks with a really sincere, free and strictly academic agenda that does not reinforce the studies and recommendations promoting ready-made foreign recipes and policies, and does not promote recipes and policies supporting regimes of corruption and tyranny and how they should survive and repress their peoples.

The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al on 4/3/2015.