The financial windfall from oil and gas exports may boost regional officials’ ambitious economic diversification plans but doesn’t make them foolproof.
Dissatisfied with existing political dynamics, a group of young activists established a think tank as a new approach to effectively contribute to Kuwaiti politics. The Rai Institute for Strategic Studies and Research is the first private think tank in Kuwait. It aims to provide fact-based research and analysis to better inform the issues influencing, and influenced by, Kuwaiti politics. Khaled Alfadala, co-founder of the Rai Institute, shared the vision behind the initiative, and described the type of research and projects it has been working on, in a discussion summarized by AGSIW.
AGSIW: Where did the idea of the Rai Institute come from?
Khaled: The whole idea of Rai started back in 2013. The Parliament and the government were going through many phases of corruption and instability including multiple dissolutions to the Parliament. This context naturally created debate and protests, however much of the rhetoric lacked a critical theory basis. People based their opinion and discussion on rhetoric or false information; nobody talked about concrete facts. Therefore, a group of us thought that we need dialogue that is based on concrete research and evidence, and we started the Rai Institute, an independent and not for profit think tank.
AGSIW: You are well known for your political activism from your time as a student to your work with the political society, the National Democratic Alliance. Why did you decide to shift from being an activist to work in a think tank?
Khaled: Personally, I still consider myself an activist in the political scene. I just decided to adopt a different and new approach. Providing studies to analyze and forecast political issues was not an available option in Kuwait, which I consider an important aspect of political activism.
AGSIW: What are the goals of the Rai Institute?
Khaled: Our goal is to create and support constructive discourse on the key issues that face Kuwait by providing objective insights on past, current, and forecasted future challenges. It is very important for us to get the message across to people in an understandable form. It is very easy to publish financial records about how the government is doing, but the general public will not get them. We try to simplify information and draw connections for people, for them to able to better understand and participate in the political scene. We try to show them that because of this and this, this happened; and if we do not fix these issues, this will happen.
Everybody knows there is corruption, for example, but this assertion lacked scientific proof and data. There were some numbers but this data was raw. We know, for example, that according to the numbers there was an increase in inappropriate spending by the government, but we wanted to explain to the public what this means exactly – what the implications and consequences are. We wanted to make sense out of it, and to further analyze it.
Our other goal is to try to inform policymakers on optimal solutions; to assist them with making decisions that are based on or supported by research. For instance, we encourage decision makers to conduct cost-benefit analyses and public surveys to measure public interest before coming up with legislation or a bill.
So our target audience is the public and decision makers. If decision makers cannot communicate their decisions to the public, it is a huge problem; and if the public cannot communicate their concerns to the decision makers, it is another huge problem.
AGSIW: How do you achieve your goals?
Khaled: We have a strong belief that fixing the political environment will by default feed into fixing the social and economic environments. Fixing the economic problems alone while having a corrupted political environment will not work. However, we have divided our work into three sectors: political, social, and economic. We try to tackle all of these aspects at the same time while mainly focusing on political issues.
AGSIW: Is your work Kuwait focused?
Khaled: Yes, but sometimes we shed light on international issues because they affect Kuwait in one way or another. For example, ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] is not a Kuwait issue, but we are affected by this issue so we addressed it in our programs and publications. Also, we discuss different international issues to draw connections and to show experiences and examples of similar political contexts, such as how other countries have handled the oil curse, elections, and other social and economic issues.
AGSIW: What types of topics and programs do you work on at the Rai Institute?
Khaled: We hold panels and focus group discussions and conferences. We have addressed various politics-related topics, as well as social topics, as we believe that having a healthy and educated society is a cornerstone to having a better political environment. If the society is divided, weak, and facing day-to-day challenges, it will never focus on the bigger picture.
We held a conference on security, namely ISIS, but we tackled the issue from a different perspective. We discussed the educational, economic, and social causes to the issue. We discussed the role of injustice, unemployment, and lack of freedom of expression in creating a conducive atmosphere for terrorism. We have also tackled issues like the ban on books in Kuwait and the issue of sustainable economy and policy in our publications and programs.
A major project that we will launch by January is a bimonthly index that will provide governmental and parliamentary job approval ratings. This exists in the United States, for example, but it is something new to Kuwait. People don’t know until the elections take place if the government is doing good or bad. The index is basically a public opinion survey, conducted by phone on a sample size of the total population of registered voters. In Kuwait, we have around 440,000 registered voters. The national survey will include a sample size of roughly 1,100 people, measuring 3 percent of Kuwait’s voting population, which is considered representative according to Georgetown research methodology.
This index will make people interested in monitoring and assessing the government and the Parliament. Such a performance evaluation will also benefit the government and the Parliament, so they know the extent to which people are satisfied. Monitoring public opinion is very important in the policymaking process. The index would create the dialogue we are aiming for, because as people view the index results, they will discuss them, and the government will comment.
AGSIW: You publish in both Arabic and English while your target audience is the Kuwaiti people. How would you explain this?
Khaled: We made the decision to publish in both languages at an early stage for two reasons. There is quite a good number of people who prefer to read in English, usually people who lived or studied abroad. We wanted to give them the option of reading in both languages. Furthermore, publishing in English is a way to build communication with think tanks and institutions outside Kuwait. Also sometimes we contact embassies, and it is easier if we can present our thoughts in both languages.
AGSIW: Do you have criteria for choosing the people who write for you?
Khaled: We often have young Kuwaitis writing for the Rai Institute. We do not mind having people from other countries participate, but we target Kuwaitis, putting into consideration our particular goals. We try to recruit people who have graduated from university in the last 10 years because they are generally less corrupted by the system, and they come with fresher and more innovative minds on how to tackle issues; they think out of the box. All of these characteristics are very important to deal with the political situation in Kuwait, which hasn’t been making any steps forward. We also target recent PhD graduates to help them get their voices out to the public.
AGSIW: What would you highlight as the Rai Institute’s biggest achievement?
Khaled: It is surviving three years since the establishment. Introducing our initiative in a culture that does not believe much in research and studies has been challenging. The ideas of holding focus groups, surveying public opinion, and doing cost-benefit analysis to effectively engage in the political sphere are new ideas, yet very important. I think that introducing these ideas and working to establish them in Kuwaiti society is by itself an accomplishment.
When talking about introducing new ideas, I am talking about introducing them to the public as well as to the government. We started to have discussions with ministers, who we believe to be well-educated and have an understanding of the significance of research and studies in policymaking. We are definitely taking baby steps with this regard, but we are for sure on the right track. We wish that things would run smoother, but we are dealing with our reality. We also try to sustain ourselves and keep expenses low, which is another challenging factor.
For more information, visit the Rai Institute’s website.
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