Arab and American Think Tanks: New Possibilities for Cooperation? New Engines for Reform?


In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the relationship between the United States and the Arab world has reached a low point. Since then, the official America—the U.S. administration—has sought a credible partner in the Middle East to fight terrorism, promote reform, and enhance the image of the United States in the region. However, given the tense relations on the governmental level, these goals might be better pursued by the unofficial America—U.S. think tanks, media, and other civil society groups—working with their counterparts in Arab society to promote a common reform agenda that can strengthen relations on a societal level.

Recently, the United States has taken a strong interest in Arab political and economic reform. While the United States and other Western powers have developed reform initiatives on their own, such as the Greater Middle East Initiative and the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the Arab world has, internally, also begun to place a high priority on reform, evident in such documents as the Sanaa Declaration and the Alexandria Declaration.

With reform on the minds of both Western and Arab scholars, policymakers, and government officials alike, now is the time to examine the role of Arab civil society organizations, and think tanks in particular, as a catalyst for reform. Civil society refers to the zone of voluntary associative life beyond family and clan affiliations but separate from the state and the market.1 Think tanks, which are research and outreach organizations dedicated to public policy, are an important part of the civil society world. Think tanks, as a global phenomenon, have gathered momentum since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent rise of democratic regimes worldwide. Such organizations flourish in a healthy democratic political system. In turn, democracy flourishes along side a strong, independent civil society, with think tanks playing an important role of connecting ideas and research with the government, the public, and the media.

Among civil society organizations, think tanks are particularly well-situated to develop new ideas pertaining to political, social, and economic reform in the Arab world. The role of think tanks in society is to seek access to, and ideally improve, the policymaking process by injecting new ideas into the debate. In order for any reform initiative to be successful in the Middle East (particularly outside initiatives offered by the United States or Europe) it must be subject to domestic debate. Thus, with the current surge of Western reform initiatives, an opportunity has blossomed that can empower the Arab world’s research institutions, which have long suffered from 1 Amy Hawthorne,”Middle East Democracy: Is Civil Society the Answer?” Carnegie Papers 44, (March 2004). direct governmental intervention and a lack of sufficient funds.

This paper will explore the growing potential of Arab think tanks as a catalyst for reform and examine the current advancements in some of the region’s notable institutions, to discover to what extent such fledging organizations might contribute to reform projects in the Arab world. This paper will also examine the Middle East programs in U.S. think tanks, post-September 11, to explore the possibilities of expanding U.S.-Arab think tank cooperation in the future.