Research institutes, studies centers and think tanks are increasingly playing strategic roles in modern societies, contributing to setting their national policies and rationalizing their decision-making processes. Through their specialized production of ideas, analysis, and visions on international relations and various political, economic, social, security and scientific issues, in addition to forecasting for the future, they strengthen the security and well-being of states maximizing their sources of soft power, preventing threats, and expanding their ability to optimize their resources. Furthermore, they perform as nodes in a global network of accumulated and structured human knowledge.
Since the founding of The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in 1831 as the first think tank independent of governmental bureaucracies and specializing in the service of decision-makers, the importance of these centres to modern states has compounded in a predominantly dynamic environment of increased complexity, accelerated and continuous change, and globalized cross-border threats. This is happening at a time when the fragmentation of information enabled by modern technology has reached a point where precise technical capabilities are needed if we are to make sense of the world around us.
While these (thinking) institutions are tasked usually with supporting the decision-making authorities, their impact in communities is visible, both as centers of excellence in academic research and as part of the state's ideological apparatus, informing public opinion of the society on the background of pressing issues and best ways to address risks attached to them.
At present, the quantitative and qualitative contribution of such institutions in the formulation of policies, strategic directions and ideological structures of the major world powers is well documented, whether in the United States, which hosts the largest number of them by far, to China, Russia, Britain, and the European Union. Their presence is noted also in other medium-sized powerhouses, such as Japan, Korea (South), Turkey, Iran, Australia, and Canada.
In the Arab world, interest in research and studies centers has grown in recent decades, in both domains: official and private. Its activity has expanded in quantity, quality, and specialization, some of which have become a towering part of the scientific, academic and knowledge landscape in their countries, and actively contributing to the policy formation and the standing of these countries on the regional and international stages.
In Saudi Arabia, which has some of the most advanced centers of studies and research in the region, the King Faisal Center for Islamic Research and Studies (KFCRIS — www.kfcris.com/en) since its foundation in 1983, has been devoted to serving as a leading academic, intellectual, and cultural hub in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as the Arab and Muslim world. KFCRIS produces original research in humanities and social sciences and provides a platform for local, regional, and global researchers and research organizations to engage in intellectual exchanges and cultural dialogues in line with the vision of the late King Faisal Bin Abdulaziz, who, as per a statement given back in 1975, saw the Kingdom, “becoming a wellspring of radiance for humanity” in the next 50 years.
Through its publication arm, Al-Faisal Cultural House, KFCRIS also publishes books and periodicals that deal with themes and topics important to the Kingdom, Arab and Muslim societies and the world. Moreover, KFCRIS stores historical and modern knowledge through its state-of-the-art library and preserves the memories of the late King Faisal and his family through its Faisal Family Archives and its museum promotes and maintains the value of Islamic manuscripts and art collections.
By all accounts, 2020 was a uniquely challenging year that affected humankind due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Kingdom saw its share of casualties, which left serious after-effects on the economy and all aspects of life. KFCRIS proved resilient and succeeded during a difficult time in migrating most of its social, cultural, educational, commercial, and financial activities online.
One of the most important “migrations” for Saudi Arabia was the G20 Summit, where global leaders gathered through virtual means to discuss socio-economic plans. The Riyadh Summit was the first such event hosted in the Middle East and dealt with both the consequences of the pandemic and appropriate solutions to restart stagnant economies.
KFCRIS played a significant role in the preparations for the G20 Summit, along with the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC), as the two institutions were entrusted by a royal decree with the convening of the Think20 (T20) Engagement Group — the think tank forum that prepares policy recommendations to Summiteers.
The T20 (Think20) is one of the Engagement Groups of the G20 and is a network of research institutes and think tanks from across the G20 countries that serve as an “ideas bank” for the G20. It assembles policy briefs from global experts and provides evidence-based policy recommendations to the G20 leadership. KFCRIS’s involvement in the Saudi edition of T20 covered five main themes: Climate and Environment (creating circular carbon economies to support climate action), Women and Youth (empowering women and preparing youth for a more inclusive society), Multilateralism, Economic Development, and Finance (providing prosperity through international cooperation, economic development, and financial sustainability), Sustainable Resources (securing, sustaining, and enhancing the global supply and availability of energy, food and water), and Technology and Digitalization (leveraging technology and digitalization to address global issues).
The Saudi T20 initially established 10 Task Forces. In response to the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, an additional 11th Task Force was formed to develop policy recommendations for effectively facilitating a transition to a post-pandemic reconstruction. Among these 11 Task Forces, the KFCRIS oversaw the work of five Task Forces, which produced 49 policy briefs in total, out of 146 made available for the summit.
Despite serious logistical challenges, KFCRIS team members upheld their scholarly reputation and strengthened the center’s status as one of the region’s most respected research institutions. Equally importantly, the center cemented collaborative work relationships with dozens of research bodies around the world. Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al Saud, chairman of the Board of Directors, in his introduction to the recently published KFCRIS yearly report 2020 stated that “in addition to these high-profile events, KFCRIS delivered also on its commitment and primary focus of producing original academic research and generated scores of publications on a variety of topics, including language, culture and social and political concerns in both Arabic and English.”
KFCRIS also hosted a full program of seminars, public lectures, and panel discussions with the participation of leading thinkers from around the world.
Two new research units, the Cultural Studies Unit, and the Socioeconomics Unit were created. The African Studies Unit launched a new edited monthly report, Africa Follow-ups. The Asian Studies Unit edited a special issue of the Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies on Saudi Arabia–China relations. Throughout the year, KFCRIS hosted and co-hosted 37 research events, and published several research papers, including eight Dirasat editions (KFCRIS Papers), one Qira’at (KFCRIS Humanities Papers), 14 special reports, 20 commentaries, two policy briefs, and eight special weekly reports on the regional and international impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The publishing arm, the Al-Faisal Cultural House, published seven books in total in 2020 and continued issuing the Journal of Linguistic Studies and Al-Faisal, a widely read cultural Magazine. Moreover, it began to publish the bilingual International Journal of Humanitarian Studies for the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, whose first two issues appeared during the year. The Faisal Family Archives continued to collect resources concerning King Faisal and his family and provided materials to external entities, including King Faisal’s interview on his 50-year vision, which was aired by Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) on the Saudi National Day.
In 2020, KFCRIS also substantially improved its infrastructure and raised its quality. In particular, its library completed a transfer of its database to the open-source Koha integrated library system; its museum also set up a new laboratory for conserving the center’s manuscripts and Art collections. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, its administration functions worked tirelessly to shift the center’s activities to online platforms, enabling the center to function seamlessly despite the lockdown times.
KFCRIS stands today as a beacon of understanding and learning in a part of the world that is changing fast and for the better and if it fulfills its mission, it is largely, as per both, Prince Turki Al-Faisal Bin Abdulaziz, and Dr. Saad Al-Sarhan, secretary-general, because of the dedication of the center’s researchers, collaborators and employees and their eagerness to add value to their local and global communities.