By Maysam Ali
Lebanon is again home to the top-rated think tank in the Middle East, according to the 2012 Global Go To Think Tank Report, published by the University of Pennsylvania International Relations Program. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut took the top spot, ahead of the Gulf Research Center in Saudi Arabia, the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel, and the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. That the region's top think tank finds its home in Beirut is a testament to the country's enduring ability to attract intelligent, forward-thinking, and progressive scholars.
But while Lebanon scored high marks in the quality of think tanks within its borders, it fell noticeably behind concerning the total number of policy research institutions it hosts when compared to other countries in the Middle East. The report identified only 12 think tanks in Lebanon, placing it well below Israel (54), Egypt (34), Iran (33), Iraq (29), Palestine (28), Turkey (27), Yemen (23), Tunisia (18), and Jordan (16). The authors of the report defined think tanks as "organizations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues in an effort to enable policy makers and the public to make informed decisions about policy issues." While Lebanon did not partake in the global proliferation of think tanks, its open environment does allow for more rigorous research and policy, despite the mediocre support its research institutions receive.
Globally, the Middle East performed rather poorly. With 339 total think tanks, the Middle East ranked last as a region, capturing only 5.1% of the total number of think tanks around the world. North America, home to 29.1% of the world's policy research organizations, came in first place, followed by Europe (27.8%), and Asia (18%). Given the decades of political oppression, censorship, and the absence of a public policy process, the stats are unsurprising. But now, with the breathtaking political transitions underway in the Middle East, think tanks in the Arab World may be on the cusp of a promising decade.
Lebanon, therefore, ought to ready itself to make gains in both the quality and quantity of its think tanks. Much like Istanbul, Beirut remains a cosmopolitan capital which is capable of drawing sustained foreign investment due to its position at the nexus of two worlds - the West and the East. Those ingredients prime Lebanon to widen its lead in the political-economic thought leadership critical to guiding the region in transition. First, it has a front seat to the conflict in Syria, giving the city and its scholars unrivaled access to the conflict and its regional impact.
Second, Lebanon is poised to undergo an energy revolution, given the possible discovery of abundant natural gas and oil resources in the Levant Basin. That development calls for sustained and focused research on the challenges and opportunities resting at the intersection of Lebanon's economic, political, and security interests.
Finally, the world has yet to see the final act in the Iran nuclear crisis which, if and when it comes, will surely have a direct impact on Hezbollah, Lebanon, and its neighbors.
These conditions only further underline Lebanon's need to fight censorship, encourage investments in research and thoughtful political discourse. As the country readies for elections, great attention will be paid to the depth and character of Lebanon's civil and political society. Encouraging the establishment of high-quality think tanks in Beirut, through tax-breaks and other incentives, is one of many ways for Lebanon to build on its already impressive position as a hub for progressive political and economic discourse in the Middle East.