Think tank cooperation under Saudi Arabia’s G20 presidency

Commentary by Dennis Görlich, Research Director of the Global Solutions Initiative and Economist at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, that contextualizes the Think20 Policy Areas and how these Task Forces should be considered and assessed in 2020.

On December 1st, 2019, Saudi Arabia assumed the G20 presidency from Japan. For the first time, a country from the Middle East oversees this multilateral process, giving it significant leeway to create an agenda that reflects the region’s specific problems and solutions. While the final G20 Summit in November 2020 marks the end of Saudi Arabia’s presidency, the coming months will be paved by several ministerial and working group meetings that address many aspects of the broad G20 agenda.

An important part of the G20 process has always been the dialogue with civil society and engagement groups, which is to be understood as a two-way process: the presidency can use it to convey messages to society, and society can use it to make recommendations to G20 policymakers. One of the most active dialogue formats is run by think tanks and research institutions from around the world: the Think 20 (T20). The upcoming T20 Inception Workshop in Riyadh kicks off this year’s T20 process, coordinated by the Saudi Arabian research institutes KAPSARC and KFCRIS.

T20 researchers work in ten Task Forces that, on the one hand, address the specific needs of policymakers by focusing the G20 presidency’s priorities and, on the other hand, raise new issues which researchers think the governments must urgently address. The world faces many important cross-border challenges that cannot be dealt with by nation-states alone but require international cooperation. The T20 Task Forces set up for 2020 address these challenges.

Taken together, the T20 Task Forces must address a major challenge for the world economy: the decoupling of economic and social prosperity, which – together with climate change and environmental degradation – must be a central item on the G20 agenda. After all, the rise of nationalism around the globe, and the resulting backlash against globalization and multilateral approaches to problem-solving have their roots in the decoupling of economic and social prosperity. These concerns are central themes in the Task Forces on climate change, social cohesion, the future of multilateralism or the digital economy, but they are also addressed by the other Task Forces.

New Issues for the T20

While the T20 follows up on many themes from the past, Saudi Arabia also introduced new issues, which can be understood in the context of its economy. The Middle Eastern and Northern African (MENA) countries are young societies: a high percentage of youth and high population growth set them apart from most other countries in the world. This demographic trend, however, is combined with high unemployment rates, especially among youths, and with geopolitical instability in the region resulting in migration flows. The newly set up Task Force on “Migration and Young Societies” will pay attention to these issues.

The MENA region also faces specific environmental problems, which are reflected in this year’s G20 agenda. Water is scarce in the region and energy intensity is increasing rapidly relative to the rest of the world. The region’s entire energy supply stems from fossil fuels, reinforcing the region’s dependence on oil and gas, which is already high because oil and gas are the dominant export commodities. However, against the background of worldwide climate change mitigation policies and the rise of the US as an oil producer, natural resources no longer generate reliable income in the Middle East. The newly set up Task Force on “Sustainable Energy, Water and Food Systems” reflects these concerns by trying to support the transition to sustainable systems, which are much needed in the region, but also around the world.

The key to success for the T20 is to find solutions that not only address one particular domain of well-being (e.g. economic prosperity) but to find solutions that always consider the nexus of economic, social, environmental and political sustainability. For example, unless policy recommendations focused on environmental sustainability also take the social and economic implications into account, they are unlikely to gain the necessary political support and do not set proper incentives for economic agents. The T20 brings together top researchers in all important domains. Finding such balanced solutions is the challenge against which their work will be assessed.

Dennis Görlich is Research Director of the Global Solutions Initiative and Economist at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

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