In the second season of the political drama House of Cards, as Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) takes the oath of office as Vice President of the United States of America he addresses the audience in an aside, smugly referencing the path by which he maneuvered himself into the office without being elected to it: "One heartbeat away from the presidency, and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated."
While we are not here to talk about the intricacies and intrigues of the political scene in the US—especially after the difficult era of the Trump presidency—almost every one of us has a personal story (or is aware of others’ stories) about people who reached positions, gained advantages, possessed assets, or acquired influence and impact because of special relationships not available to others.
It’s easy to attribute this to favoritism or unethical methods (which may be true in some—or many—cases), but these alone cannot explain every instance and are insufficient to develop a vision for dealing with such practices.
We live in a complex, interwoven, and moving world, and its complexity has increased over the past decade. This is especially true in the Arab region, which has witnessed tremendous movement.
We can look at the foundations of this complexity in the Arab region from many angles. The area has been through numerous historical eras (some of the oldest recorded) with various beliefs, ideologies, and nation-states, leaving traces and evidence that are still present today. The region’s current situation was formed in the aftermath of the First World War and its repercussions; there are many indications that the region is currently experiencing a crack in those old equations, and clues pointing toward a new phase whose features are not yet clear.
The region has been the geographic center of many empires, containing important land and water passages and natural resources of global interest. It hosts locations, buildings, and artifacts sacred to many religions. It has always been a target of foreign invasion, settlement, occupation, civil wars, displacement, and migrations. Traces and evidence of all of that history still exist.
These numerous interactions over time and space have produced many outstanding existential issues, whose patterns of explosion and calm have left indelible fingerprints on successive generations and their forms of social movement.
The most recent great movement, which began at the end of 2010, has for large segments of people tested many ideas, theories, ideologies, lifestyles, interaction methods, ways of thinking, and value systems. The society has been subjected to severe tests on many levels, resulting in unprecedented interactions and balances of power that continue to shift.
Today we are faced with a tangle of complex adaptive living systems that require multiple tools in order to study, analyze, and understand.
Researchers interested in the region from all over the world and from various disciplines of the social sciences—media professionals, opinion writers, investigative journalists, and activists in civil society of all kinds—have contributed using the intellectual tools and scientific theories available in each discipline (and sometimes across several disciplines) in attempts to study, analyze and understand the Arab region. But despite the size and intensity of that effort, the sheer scale of the challenges, the rapid changes, the available big data, and the accumulated knowledge scattered all over the world indicate the need for new tools that enable us to collect, organize, and analyze the accumulated transdisciplinary knowledge in order to explore narratives, derive useful and practical insights, and try to predict and develop scenarios and strategies.
Many perspectives, levels, methods, and tools have been developed and explored in order to accomplish this goal, but one of the most important methods has not yet been applied to the Arab region; that of network analysis. This method involves viewing the Arab region as a system of interconnected networks, made up of personal connections, political alliances, and economic associations, which together weave a blanket over the region and affect every aspect of life there. Using network lenses, members of the various social science disciplines can gain a better understanding of the overall picture by uncovering previously hidden patterns, dimensions, interconnections, backgrounds, and narratives.
The word "network" in Arabic refers to every intertwined and integrated thing. The study of networks in general—via different methods of analysis—aims to understand them, predict their movement, and try to influence them.
The study of human and social relations networks aims to do same thing. But we should be more cautious when trying to predict individual and collective human behavior—because some factors cannot be measured mathematically, and therefore cannot be included in mathematical models.
When the word "network" is used in the context of society, a large sector of people think it refers to the digital “social networks” which have emerged recently with the advent of social media platforms on the Internet (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.). But the original concept of social networks refers to societal structures made up of social actors (people and organizations), with one or more types of real (tangible) or logical (intangible) relationships or interactions between them. These relationships can be blood ties, lineage, affinity, friendship, enmity, rivalry, dependency, influence, or any kind of organizational, financial, or other relationship.
Human relationships and interactions form a moving organism, deriving its life and movement from the life and movement of its components and going through different phases. Ignoring this fact often leads to misunderstanding and misguided dealings.
For example, it is customary to depict the organizational structure of state agencies, parties, associations, companies, and educational or health institutions in a picture of a hierarchy ladder—with the organization’s primary leadership at the top and the workers at the bottom, and all the various in-between positions in their appropriate rankings. But in reality, positions of influence, links, and focal points are constantly changing in line with shifts in conditions, processes, capabilities, opportunities, and conflicts.
When we attempt to draw the organizational structure to express at a single moment in time the progress of things regarding an issue, we find ourselves with a network of connected entities rather than a straightforward ladder. If the appropriate information is collected—and is verified to be as accurate as possible with appropriate analysis—we can use that information to more fully understand the status of an organization, and its movement in and around that issue, in a substantial and highly effective way.
In short, the analysis of organization networks aims to reveal the invisible eddies in the overall workflow river within an organization.
The Observatory for Political and Economic Networks
The experiences of the Arab region over the past decade have been painful and disappointing for many. One of the main reasons for the outcome was poor decision-making on the part of the various actors involved, based on a weak, limited, and one-sided understanding of the complex and interlocking political systems that ran and still run countries and societies.
Any future response to the complex challenges of the region by activists and others seeking to bring about profound positive change at the social, political, and economic levels requires decision support systems that employ the bulk of the accumulated knowledge in order to understand the complexities of the systems, the surrounding environments, and the movement and trends of change.
Our first decision support system is The Observatory for Political and Economic Networks, a platform for reviewing the accumulated and always-unfolding published data about events, people, and entities that contribute to shaping the political and economic landscapes, and the interrelationships between them. The Observatory also issues reports, analyses, and studies serving different target partners.
The Observatory aims to serve six main types of partners:
The Observatory for Political and Economic Networks - The Syrian Program
The Syrian revolution, which began in mid-March 2011, offers a prime example of what happens when those who deal with complex problems do so without a foundational awareness of systems and resort to linear, single-vision approaches and solutions instead of systemic visions.
And because this experience represents the largest bleeding wound in the Arab region’s great movement, it deserved to be the first focus of The Observatory for Political and Economic Networks.
The Syrian Program aims to provide a tool for understanding the relationships that contributed to the creation of political, economic, and social power balances in Syria. This tool complements the theory and curriculum currently offered in the various social sciences and adds analytical capacity, dimensions, and depth that were not available before.
By providing this tool to Syrian activists and actors, the program seeks to increase the level of rationality in conflicts, increase flexibility in dealing with complex issues, and identify the best points of intervention for healthy impact in surrounding systems.
The Syrian program consists of dozens of projects, each of which answers a major topic with a number of sub-themes, but the general framework governing it is an attempt to provide knowledge tools that help build a more just and healthy society and country.
The main projects in the Syrian Program in the Observatory for Political and Economic Networks include the following topics:
Upon reaching a good stage of maturity, each project will produce special research and technical products.
How can the Syrian people and their allies benefit from the Syrian Program at the Observatory?
The Syrian Program at the Observatory for Political and Economic Networks seeks to provide our six types of partners with unprecedented knowledge-organization and decision-making tools that enable them to carry out their work efficiently. The program will seek to develop tools specific to each segment based on its needs.
When political science researchers prepare papers for analysis or to make policy, prepare case studies or situational assessments for an event, and analyze the roots of ancient and complex conflicts; when economic researchers seek to analyze political economies at the state level, and prepare studies about one or more of the economic sectors in a city; when social science researchers study various phenomena of social transformations, or scenarios for building a new social contract between the various components of the Syrian people; when history researchers seek to build coherent narratives, the Syrian Program at the Observatory for Political and Economic Networks can provide them all with network lenses through which they can deal with complex systems in a way that has never been available before now, saving them time, effort, and money spent on individually managing and organizing accumulated data and knowledge.
Whether investigative journalists are digging behind the scenes for a visual or written journalistic investigation, documentary producers are preparing to understand the facts and craft their narratives, or newsroom journalists on broadcast channels or news sites are preparing their daily reports, the Syrian Program at the Observatory for Political and Economic Networks can provide them all with network lenses through which they can connect the dots and trace the ancient roots of current events in a new and innovative way, saving them time, effort, and money spent individually managing and organizing accumulated data and knowledge.
Whether lawyers for victims’ families are seeking leads to evidence that will convict criminals, criminal investigators are looking into the various circumstances and perpetrators of crimes, or human rights activists are tracking corrupt systems that allow crimes to take place, the Syrian Program at the Observatory for Political and Economic Networks can provide them all with network lenses through which they can preserve rights and dismantle corrupt systems in a new and innovative way, saving them time, effort, and money spent individually managing and organizing accumulated data and knowledge.
When politicians and party activists are working to develop political programs and strategies or are preparing to enter into negotiations or electoral campaigns; when union activists are forming support and advocacy campaigns; when social and development activists are working on relief and development plans for the affected or refugees, the Syrian Program at the Observatory for Political and Economic Networks can provide them all with network lenses through which they can understand the systems in which they move or strategize for in a new and innovative way, saving them time, effort, and money spent individually managing and organizing accumulated data and knowledge.
When diplomats are preparing the atmosphere for political talks or rounds of negotiations; when information center employees are preparing their strategic or periodic reports; when economists in ministries of planning are drawing up future development plans, the Syrian Program at the Observatory for Political and Economic Networks can provide them all with network lenses through which they can understand the relevant parties in a new and innovative way, saving them time, effort, and money spent individually managing and organizing accumulated data and knowledge.
When investors, asset managers, or even politicians are looking for investment opportunities inherent to the reconstruction period and want to know about their clients and estimate potential risks, the Syrian Program at the Observatory for Political and Economic Networks can provide them all with network lenses through which they can understand the economic environment in a new and innovative way, saving them time, effort, and money spent individually managing and organizing accumulated data and knowledge.