It is estimated that foreign governments and their respective agencies have spent close to $100 million on US think tanks in the three years between 2011 and 2014. A growing portion of this is coming from GCC countries.
There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings in the GCC on what think tanks are and what they do. The overriding misconception is that think tanks are simply research institutes focusing on topics as prescribed by their generous benefactors. Another misconception is that they are independent organizations that provide unbiased research. Though there is some truth to both of these statements, they do not fully explain the motives and objectives of think tanks.
To get a better understanding of think tanks we must answer an important question; why do governments, corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals spend billions of dollars annually on think tanks? Are they truly believers in advancing research, science, and/or political and economic thought? I doubt it. The overriding reason billions go into think tanks every year is because of the influence they have over public policies (i.e. government rules and regulations) and their ability to change public opinion (media and PR influence). They also act as advocacy groups for the causes they research and causes their supporters care about.
GCC countries are no strangers to buying influence in major power centers such as Washington DC. They have been paying lobbyists for decades to gain influence within the US government.
The United Arab Emirates spent more than $12 million on lobbying and public relations here in 2014.
That cash secured representation from several of Washington’s best-known power player firms. Through them, the UAE expanded its network of trusted contacts and sympathizers throughout the machinery of the U.S. government. And in the process, it shattered its previous record of spending in D.C., according to an extensive analysis by the Middle East-focused news outlet Al-Monitor. “The UAE spending spree has soared to new heights over the past few years as the Gulf power has gotten bolder,” the outlet reported on Aug. 3.
Such spending has become de rigeur for the UAE and fellow regimes in the Middle East. Al-Monitor’s examination of their spending shows that between them, these governments are almost uniformly increasing their stakes in the game of influencing U.S. policy.
Read the full story from The Huffington Post.
Lobbying, however, is a little different than supporting a think tank. Here is more on the difference and the recent switch by GCC countries to spending money on think tanks versus lobbyists:
The story of really big Gulf spending on Massachusetts Avenue begins quite recently, in 2013. And it begins not with Saudi Arabia, or with its Gulf allies Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, though all would eventually become heavy spenders in Washington. Rather, it begins with Qatar.
Around the time of the Arab Spring, 2011, the tiny, oil-rich monarchy of Qatar began seeking a bigger role for itself, first in the Middle East, by funding political parties and armed opposition groups (it had also long funded the TV station Al Jazeera).
Qatar’s ambitions quickly became global, and in 2013, Qatar became a quiet player in Washington, spending lavishly on lobbying, real estate, even an American version of its TV channel. And, famously, it made a staggering $14.8 million donation to the Brookings Institution, perhaps Washington’s most respected think tank, to open a new center in Qatar’s capital.
Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states saw how much Qatar was spending in Washington and concluded that if they wanted to counter Qatar’s influence back home, they would have to counter it in Washington as well. The oil-rich kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain — collectively known as the Gulf states, along with their rival Qatar — hired their own lobbyists. And they made large donations to Washington think tanks and academic institutions.
“The UAE and the Saudis have really invested heavily now as part of their cold war against the Qataris,” according to a member of the Washington foreign policy community whom I spoke to for this article. Their attitude was, “We have to get our ideas out there.”
But they discovered something: Spending on think tanks was effective, especially compared with other methods of buying influence.
Lobbying firms are for-profit businesses designed to extract the highest possible payment from their clients. Think tanks and academic institutions have lots of influence but less of a profit-maximizing mindset. They didn’t see themselves or their influence as for sale, but the foreign donors clearly believed they were getting something in the bargain.
“Frankly, think tanks are a very good investment for these guys,” the DC-based expert told me. “For $20,000, that’s a huge amount of money for think tanks or academic institutions.” But it’s not much to an oil-rich kingdom accustomed to spending millions on lobbying. “It’s a low-cost, high-value proposition.”
This came as the financial crisis, which had begun a few years earlier, was being felt at think tanks as well as universities, where budgets had tightened dramatically. Grants from the US government or from domestic donors were drying up as well. The institutions were in desperate need of money just as the Gulf checkbooks arrived.
Read the full story from VOX.
… and this is why think tanks are an indispensable tool used by governments, corporations and wealthy individuals. They view their support of think tanks as a way to advance their agendas, gain influences with key decision-makers or change public opinion in their favor.
The New York Times published a report on the growing influence foreign governments have on US think tanks. Here are a few excerpts from the published report:
More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities, an investigation by The New York Times has found.
The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom: Some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.
The think tanks do not disclose the terms of the agreements they have reached with foreign governments. And they have not registered with the United States government as representatives of the donor countries, an omission that appears, in some cases, to be a violation of federal law, according to several legal specialists who examined the agreements at the request of The Times.
As a result, policy makers who rely on think tanks are often unaware of the role of foreign governments in funding the research.
Joseph Sandler, a lawyer and expert on the statute that governs Americans lobbying for foreign governments, said the arrangements between the countries and think tanks “opened a whole new window into an aspect of the influence-buying in Washington that has not previously been exposed.”
“It is particularly egregious because with a law firm or lobbying firm, you expect them to be an advocate,” Mr. Sandler added. “Think tanks have this patina of academic neutrality and objectivity, and that is being compromised.”
The arrangements involve Washington’s most influential think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Atlantic Council. Each is a major recipient of overseas funds, producing policy papers, hosting forums and organizing private briefings for senior United States government officials that typically align with the foreign governments’ agendas.
Most of the money comes from countries in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, particularly the oil-producing nations of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Norway, and takes many forms. The United Arab Emirates, a major supporter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, quietly provided a donation of more than $1 million to help build the center’s gleaming new glass and steel headquarters not far from the White House. Qatar, the small but wealthy Middle East nation, agreed last year to make a $14.8 million, four-year donation to Brookings, which has helped fund a Brookings affiliate in Qatar and a project on United States relations with the Islamic world.
Some scholars say the donations have led to implicit agreements that the research groups would refrain from criticizing the donor governments.
“If a member of Congress is using the Brookings reports, they should be aware — they are not getting the full story,” said Saleem Ali, who served as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar and who said he had been told during his job interview that he could not take positions critical of the Qatari government in papers. “They may not be getting a false story, but they are not getting the full story.”
In interviews, top executives at the think tanks strongly defended the arrangements, saying the money never compromised the integrity of their organizations’ research. Where their scholars’ views overlapped with those of donors, they said, was coincidence.
“In Washington, it is difficult for a small country to gain access to powerful politicians, bureaucrats and experts,” states an internal report commissioned by the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry assessing its grant making. “Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding.”
The think tanks’ reliance on funds from overseas is driven, in part, by intensifying competition within the field: The number of policy groups has multiplied in recent years, while research grants from the United States government have dwindled.
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — two nations that host large United States military bases and view a continued American military presence as central to their own national security — have been especially aggressive in their giving to think tanks. The two Persian Gulf monarchies are also engaged in a battle with each other to shape Western opinion, with Qatar arguing that Muslim Brotherhood-style political Islam is the Arab world’s best hope for democracy, and the United Arab Emirates seeking to persuade United States policy makers that the Brotherhood is a dangerous threat to the region’s stability.
The United Arab Emirates, which has become a major supporter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies over the past decade, turned to the think tank in 2007 after an uproar in Congress about the nation’s plan to purchase control of terminals in several United States ports. After lawmakers questioned whether the purchase would be a national security threat to the United States, and the deal was scuttled, the oil-rich nation sought to remake its image in Washington, Mr. Hamre said.
The nation paid the research organization to sponsor a lecture series “to examine the strategic importance” of the gulf region and “identify opportunities for constructive U.S. engagement.” It also paid the center to organize annual trips to the gulf region during which dozens of national security experts from the United States would get private briefings from government officials there.
These and other events gave the United Arab Emirates’ senior diplomats an important platform to press their case.
Scholars at Washington think tanks, who were granted anonymity to detail confidential internal discussions, described similar experiences that had a chilling effect on their research and ability to make public statements that might offend current or future foreign sponsors. At Brookings, for example, a donor with apparent ties to the Turkish government suspended its support after a scholar there made critical statements about the country, sending a message, one scholar there said.
Read the full story from the New York Times.
Money has been flowing for several years now to the largest and most prominent think tanks in the US. The infograph below highlights this.
Most of the GCC money flowing into foreign think tanks has been targeted towards public policies and public opinion. Few, if any, money has gone into think tank that focus on finance and economic, such as Quorum Centre. This, however, is set to change. There are already signs of a change in strategy among GCC governments. In addition to their continued support of the leading think tanks in Washington and London, they are showing interest in helping setup and fund GCC backed think tanks such as the Arab Gulf States Institute (AGSI) in Washington. This think tank is funded exclusively by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Though AGSI is also politically focused, we welcome the change in trend happening in the GCC and see enormous opportunity for them to look beyond politics and into finance and economics, which directly affects the wealth of GCC governments, corporations and citizens.
In uncertain economic times, it is vital to look for ways to protect and preserve wealth, whether it is on an individual level or national level. This is the main reason Quorum Centre was established; to help GCC governments and citizen protect and preserve their wealth by offering unbiased alternative advice away from their traditional sources of advice, which have proven to be biased and not in their best interest.