July 27, 2021

Around the Table with Shaan Shaikh

Three Questions with the Make Room Email Newsletter

Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.

Shaan Shaikh is a program manager and research associate with the Missile Defense Project at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of CSIS.

You've written several reports on missile proliferation, particularly in the ongoing Yemen conflict. What are some of the key challenges and lessons you’ve learned?

This is the primary focus of my research at CSIS. Over the past several years, we’ve seen an increase in the number, sophistication, and use of missiles around the world, and especially in Middle East. Yemen provides a strong case study. As I write in a report I coauthored, The Missile War in Yemen, that war has seen the most extensive use of ballistic missiles in recent history, and the highest use of ballistic missile defenses in any conflict.

One finding from this research was on how these weapons could be used beyond military effect. Yemen’s Houthi rebels have used missile and drone attacks to inflict political and economic costs on Saudi Arabia and its allies, with launches timed to signal policy frustration or aimed at oil facilities. Their missile forces have also been valuable propaganda tools. The Houthis show off their latest missile tech and launches in media and even music videos.

Our research also highlights the difficulty of counterproliferation. The Saudi-led Arab Coalition knew Yemen’s missile arsenal posed a threat. They began their campaign with airstrikes on known missile depots and set up severe air and maritime restrictions to prevent weapons from entering the country. But the Houthis still managed to maintain and even improve upon their missile arsenal, with help from Iran. Given the difficulty of these “left-of-launch” strategies, theater missile defenses are important even after significant counterproliferation efforts. Their deployment has limited damage from Houthi missile attacks.

You studied Arabic in undergrad. Why did you choose to study Arabic? How has speaking another language helped you in your research?

I chose to study Arabic for multiple reasons. My school required some language proficiency, and my French was terrible. Additionally, following the “Arab Spring,” I grew interested in the Middle East and wanted the language chops to study the region. But the most important driver keeping me in class was my religion. As a Muslim, studying Arabic would help me better understand the Qur’an and other Islamic texts. This was something I had wanted to do for years but didn’t know how to start.

To be honest, I don’t often use my limited Arabic proficiency for work. I'll read smaller news articles or social media posts, but it takes too long for me to read lengthy Arabic texts or translate audio when my time can be better served elsewhere. But I do know that my friends who have maintained—or even improved upon—their language skills since college have found it invaluable for their research.

The Washington D.C. national security arena can be difficult to break into. What advice do you have for those aspiring to enter this space?

My primary advice would be to apply everywhere. Look at opportunities in the U.S. government, think tanks, consultancies—wherever. As you mention, the D.C. national security arena is hard to break into. I think getting your foot in the door is really important, but too often I find fresh college grads self-select out of certain roles. So unless you’re sure you don’t want to work in a certain space, perhaps for political or work culture preferences, I recommend applying. And relatedly: don’t lose morale when rejections come in. I was rejected from at least five CSIS positions before even landing an interview.

For those interested in think tank work, remember that entry positions are rarely just research focused. Interns and RAs often serve as part-time event planners, editors, briefers, wargamers, or designers. Having skills in those non-research areas makes you an attractive candidate! This may include a background in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for mapmaking, data visualization software, event-heavy extracurriculars, or other related activities or skills.


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