Convened over the 15, 16 and 17 December, 2012, the ACRPS Conference of Strategic and Policy Studies Research Centers brought together the heads of more than 70 policy research institutes in the Arab countries, as well as special Turkish-
and Iranian-based guest institutions. The first of a planned series of annual events, the main theme for this year's meeting was the geostrategic shifts resulting from the Arab popular revolutions, with a special opening address delivered by His Highness Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, Heir Apparent of Qatar. Other discussions focused on the legal, political and administrative contexts in which Arab policy research institutes operate.
Pointing out the intricate relationship between the theme of the discussions during the ACRPS meeting and the reality which individual Arab states faced, Sheikh Tamim commented that "the Arab peoples did not come out to the streets to rebel for strategic reasons, but rather for reasons related to their livelihoods: bread, dignity and citizens' rights." The address by His Highness Shiekh Tamim was followed by a roundtable discussion bringing together a distinguished panel of speakers: Ambassador Nasser al Khalifa, Burhan Ghaliyoun of the Syrian National Council, Hassan Nafa, Jumana Ghuniemat of Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper and Salaheddine al Jourshy. The panel was chaired by noted Al Jazeera television reporter Ali al Dafiri.
Earlier on the same day, and before the official opening, ACRPS Researcher Mohammed al Masri and Director Azmi Bishara had expounded on the aims of the Conference to the attendees. Dr Mohammed al Masri (also head of the Arab Opinion Index), emphasized that the objective of the Conference was to bring together Arab Policy Research Centers with the aim of furthering communication and coordination between them and of advancing their work at the crucial juncture of the Arab revolutions. ACRPS Director Azmi Bishara, meanwhile, fleshed out these broad points by stressing that the Conference would work to lay the groundwork for a new network of Arab Policy Research Centers. A second goal of the meeting, Bishara said, would be for its proceedings to be compiled into a written reference which could be used as a primary source for scholars researching the geostrategic changes born of the Arab revolutions.
Bishara commented further on the need for and rationale of the meeting, and how the themes it sought to discuss were tied together, going beyond partisan, day-to-day politics: "Those who examine the transformational period and the wave of the democratization presently rippling through the Arab Homeland through a politically partisan lens will fail to appreciate the reality of what is happening. Today, we are faced with something which transcends [inter-Arab] political boundaries. It is a phenomenon related to the existence of joint Arab interests; understanding this is where policy research centers come in. This is why we decided to dedicate the first section of this meeting to a discussion of internal matters impacting the work of policy research institutes in the Arab Homeland, while the second part of the proceedings were reserved for an examination of the geostrategic impacts of the Arab revolutions."
lArab Policy Research Institutes: the Trials and Tribulations
The first session, dedicated to assessing the relationship between Arab policy research institutes with governments, was chaired by Qatari academic Mohammed al Misfer. Speaking during this session was Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut's Issam Fares Institute. Interestingly, Khouri was able to rely on the Issam Fares Institute's own experience, beginning in 2007, of trying to holistically examine the workings of Arab policy research institutes. Khouri also used his intervention to make the claim that any interactions between Arab policy research institutes and policy-makers were only ever by happenstance, suggesting that it was a case of almost complete estrangement between the two sides. The end result was that Arab policy research institutes had very limited impact on policy formation.
Amer al Saad of Iraq, who spoke during the same session, provided a descriptive example of the situation described by Khouri. When, in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he was too narcissistic to take the advice of advisers based at academic policy institutes and withdraw from the country, paving the way for the massive defeat of the Iraqi military.
The second panel of discussants focused on the legislative and administrative context which dictated the work of Arab policy research institutes. The lack of any coherent framework for how policy research institutes operated impeded their work, and limited their effectiveness both in studying problems afflicting Arab societies and in proposing solutions to those problems.
According to Dr Sami Khazendar, of Jordan's Hashemite University, the nature of Arab regimes and the restrictions which those regimes placed on freedoms were the reasons behind the limited role played by Arab policy research institutes in public policy. Khazendar also pointed to a lack of a strategic vision to the support and funding of academic research, pointing out that Israeli funding of academic research outstripped that of all Arab states combined. The inability of Arab states to react to research needs was further driven home by the speaker to follow Khazendar, Palestinian academic and Birzeit University lecturer Dr Majdi al Malki.
While, as Malki pointed out, Palestinian institutions operated in a much more open and permissive environment than those of other Arab countries, they suffered from a similar lack of a legal setting. The only legislation governing the operation of Palestine-based policy research institutes was a single law from 2000 which governed the work of all civil society organizations. According to Malki, the putative freedom this law offered to policy research institutes was not always respected in practice.
Later during the meeting, speakers convened to discuss the difficulty of maintaining impartiality and independence of policy research institutes in the face of funding challenges. Discussions in this section proved slightly more contentious. While most of the speakers emphatically stressed the need for "independence" in the funding of research bodies, others pointed to a claimed futility of working towards such a goal, and urged instead that research funding be transparent¡ªwith the proviso that all funding of Arab research centers be "100% Arab".
lThe Arab Geostrategic Environment: Palestine, Iran and Turkey
Discussions during the third and final day turned to an examination of how the Arab states interacted with, or were influenced by, their regional neighbors and global powers. With diplomats and representatives of policy research institutes from Iran and Turkey, and a number of Palestinian academics all in attendance, the deliberations were both supremely well-informed and passionately debated.
One speaker in the audience put the complex of relationships tying Iran and Palestine together in historical context: "Even today, when Iran supports Hamas or other Palestinian resistance factions, it is merely returning the favour for the PLO's long support for the Iranian revolutionaries", in reference to how Iranians rebelling against the Shah trained in Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Yet the failure of Iranian or Turkish support for the Palestinian cause to give rise to any material benefits had clearly frustrated many of those in attendance.
"I hear a lot of Iranian and Turkish hypocrisy when it comes to Jerusalem", said Palestinian academic Mahdi Abdulhadi of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, pointing out that neither country had done much to safeguard the city of Jerusalem, from Israeli encroachments. Closing up the day's proceedings along a similar theme was ACRPS Researcher Dr Mahmoud Muharreb.
Muhareb's opening lines, referring to Arab and wider global inability to secure gains for the Palestinians, were not particularly welcomed by those in attendance. "Over the past twenty years, there have only been two issues on which there has been Arab consensus: the need to recognize Israel within the 1967 boundaries and the need to make peace with the country". Muhareb also pointed out that, at the level of trade standing at USD 500 million annually, the Arab world, together with Turkey, represented a bloc which was Israel's second biggest trading partner after the European Union. Yet Muhareb also expressed the sentiment which was on the minds of many when he spoke of Israeli anxieties that a new, post-Arab Spring set of governments in the Arab region would be able to openly confront the Zionist state. "Not so much in terms of a military conflict, but ...to make the Israelis pay for the crimes of occupation", said the speaker.