There is a huge difference between remaining subject to wishful impressions and analyses, and limited personal stances in understanding what took place – and what is still taking place – in the Arab world on the one hand, and transitioning into the world of scientific and objective research and analysis on the other, which defines events within conceptual approaches that make it easier to understand where we went wrong in the post-Arab Spring era, and why we found ourselves delving deeper into huge crises instead of emerging out of erstwhile ones, losing out on an unprecedented historical opportunity in this part of the world, where the people smashed through the barriers of fear of tyranny and security, and went out to the streets to demand freedom, democracy and dignity!
How can we understand past and present events without integrated and in-depth efforts, and teams of sociology scholars and researchers to study the matter at hand and present an analytical prognosis of the causes and dynamics hindering advancement in the future? Some of these questions rose to my mind again while taking part in a conference held in Amman by the Arab Political Science Network (APSN), in coordination with the American Political Science Association. Participants addressed several key issues in Arab political science, such as employed methodologies, research priorities and other important issues, along with the review of studies on the region written by Arab students and researchers in Western universities.
On the margins of the conference, the Politics and Society Institute held a talk session with Marc Lynch, Sean Yom and Jillian Schwelder to discuss their book “The Political Science of the Middle East: Theory and Research Since the Arab Uprisings” (published in English, with an Arabic translation to be published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies). The book consists of 12 chapters by several political science researchers and experts, addressing many topics, such as authoritarianism and democracy, political economy of development, military institutions, sectarianism and identity, the regional structure, conflict and violence, Islamist movements… etc.
The book certainly represents a key model by researchers and experts for understanding the transformations in the Middle East following the Arab Spring, but it is truly unfortunate that there is a real and sizable shortfall in the role of universities, academic institutes, research and study centers and think tanks in offering in-depth contributions in this field. Despite the efforts of some research institutions (we can particularly note that the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and the Center for Arab Unity Studies constitute progressive models in the field, albeit the number of such institutions is limited) there is a huge shortfall in the Arab world (in the field of sociology generally) in the area of scientific research for the understanding of issues, phenomena, challenges, transformations and future trends.
Perhaps of the funniest remarks by Sean Yom (during the talk session held by the Politics and Society Institute) is that there is a real crisis when it comes to building cohesive theories for understanding ongoing transformations in the Arab world, citing the Tunisian case as an example, as the majority of interpretations and theories for the success of the Tunisian model were based on several factors, including the cultural factor, noting the Tunisian culture’s dissimilarity to those of other Arab states, particularly when it comes to the religious culture and the historical civic tendency, however, the majority of these theories have been rocked by the current events.
As for Marc Lynch, he focused on the dynamics of external and internal variables in the Arab world, noting that the line separating events taking place across the world and the region and those taking place inside each state is a very thin one, leading to the overlapping of factors and variables, which is a particularly important point, because it calls for studying international and regional policies and their ramifications on domestic politics in Arab states. The point is even more significant should we take into account the “Israeli factor” as a key variable for understanding Middle Eastern policies, rendering geopolitics of higher importance for understanding the region and its politics.
In my paper on think tanks and their role in developing the political science field in the Arab world, I note the extreme fragility of this field for key reasons, including the scale of challenges and limitations in the work of these bodies. Those I divided into six key challenges; independence, funding, association with governments, poor capacities of researchers, absence of collective efforts, and the problem of access to information. Hence, we find that the majority of these think tanks, which fall under the classification of civil society institutions and non-governmental organizations, and due to political and security pressures and Western funding sources, orientate towards training and executive projects designed by funders that do not contribute to in-depth understanding of the region and Arab states, as the majority of these think tanks today are training centers rather than research institutions, because financing and grants for scientific research is very limited compared to other training projects.
The recommendation to which dozens of Arab researchers arrived (at a conference held by the Politics and Society Institute about a year ago on “Political science ten years on”) is particularly interesting in this regard, calling for angling research and study further towards research theories and methodologies and conceptual frameworks, and for transitioning from solo efforts into the formation of teams of researchers and experts in various scientific and academic disciplines, since it is difficult for researchers in one field to analyze compound problems and crises in which the various social sciences intersect and overlap.
If the still waters of scientific research remain so, and if no consensus framework is set for scientific research agenda and priorities, explaining theories and the formation of scientific and research teams to offer approaches in this regard, we will remain stuck in a dependency that is far more dangerous and deeper than our economic dependency, as we will be forced to rely on Westerners for understanding our societies and problems and analyzing our crises.