It is easy to make a case for more think tanks in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Compared to neighboring countries, the think tank landscape in the Kingdom is sparsely populated and can be counted on one hand. According to the 2016 Go Think Tank Global Rating, only two MENA countries – Libya and Oman – have fewer think tanks than Saudi Arabia. In stark contrast, neighboring Egypt has 35 think tanks and the United States of America, the country with the world’s most think tanks, tops the list with 1,835.
With academia becoming increasingly complex and specialized, think tanks all over the world fulfill a crucial function as a bridge between the academic and policy circles. Think tanks can in many ways be seen as translators, converting policy issues into research questions and research findings into policy solutions.
Although measuring think tanks’ impact is anything but a simple exercise, at their best think tanks can contribute significantly to a country’s development. Government leaders often either do not have enough internal research capacity in their institutions or sufficient time to go through lengthy and complex pieces of evidence. This is precisely where think tanks come in. They are purpose-built to conduct in-depth research into complex policy problems and provide solid, synthesized information and advice to enable evidence-based decision-making in the public sector.
Think tanks also have an important role to play as thought leaders, who invest time and resources into reflecting on and testing out new and innovative ideas and policy solutions, which might otherwise have stayed beneath the surface and out of reach of decision-makers. A striking historical example of think tank impact is Brookings’ (the most highly ranked think tank in the world) role in the development of the Marshall Plan and a more recent example is the adoption of a nationwide child tax credit as a result of a Brookings proposal.
To date, Saudi Arabia is still missing out on the positive societal, economic and policy impacts that think tanks can deliver and is instead largely dominated by international consultancies, which are not necessarily embedded in the local context or have the mandate or capacity to follow up on the implementation of their recommendations. Having more Saudi think tanks would allow the government to establish long-term partnerships with home-grown institutes, which in turn re-invest in further enhancing local capacity.
Why is there a need for a policy think tank that focuses solely on local governance?
To answer this question it is useful to have a brief look at the meaning of the terms. Literally speaking, governance simply refers to the process of steering society. In practice, governance has become increasingly popular in policy circles as a concept to describe an observed shift from government to governance. Unlike government, the concept of governance includes all actors involved in the process of societal steering and in fact suggests that nowadays governments increasingly govern through networks and coordination rather than hierarchical, top-down processes alone. Viewed in the Saudi context, the government’s recent emphasis on increasingly involving the private sector in the provision of public services is one of the indicators of such a shift.
A governance approach is crucial, because it means focusing not only on the ways in which governments organize themselves internally, but also how they relate and interact with other governmental and non-governmental actors. The ultimate goal of the King Salman Center’s focus on governance is to enhance the ways in which governments manage themselves and others in order to optimize performance and better serve the needs of the citizens.
Citizens’ needs, however, cannot be served by national governments alone. In fact, it is local government which has the closest relationship and interacts directly with citizens. Local government performance affects Saudi citizens and residents on a daily basis – whether it is the availability of green space in their cities, the ease of getting new business or construction permits, or the opportunity to have a voice in local governance through institutions such as municipal councils. Yet, there is no entity in the Kingdom, let alone a think tank, that focuses on this important unit of governance.
This is why Prince Abdulaziz Bin Ayyaf, himself a pioneer in local governance during his term as Mayor of Riyadh, established the King Salman Center for Local Governance – a think tank that focuses all its efforts in the fields of research, advisory, events and training on enhancing the performance of local government in order to build regions and cities that are managed effectively and provide a high quality of life for their inhabitants.