The historic crises in the Middle East are having immeasurable and far-reaching consequences. Across the Arab world, central authority is under severe strain amid conflict and decaying institutional frameworks. With generous support from the Asfari Foundation, the multiyear Arab World Horizons project, led by the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, aims to shed light on the deeper trends driving these turbulent events.

Across the Arab world, central authority is under severe strain amid conflict and decaying institutional frameworks.

Drawing on a network of scholars in Washington, Beirut, and across the Middle East, the project looks at the socioeconomic upheavals facing the Arab citizen, the institutional pressures on the Arab state, and the changing geopolitical realities of the Arab region. Through an examination of the complex, interconnected changes occurring within and across the human, political, and geopolitical landscapes, the project hopes to offer policymakers—both in the Arab world and the broader international policy community—a more nuanced understanding of the underlying causes of the region’s profound instability.

In February 2016, the Horizons project released Arab Voices on the Challenges of the New Middle East, which captured the views of more than one hundred Arab practitioners and scholars from across the region.1 These experts overwhelmingly prioritized local political challenges (authoritarianism, corruption, and the lack of accountability) over geopolitical ones (regional conflict, sectarian rivalries, and foreign intervention), which many saw as derivative of long-standing fundamental failures in governance.

This insight—that political stagnation, authoritarianism, and corruption are integrally tied to conflict and terrorism in the Arab region—is the starting point of this report. It seeks to grapple with several essential conundrums facing the Middle East: Why did the Arab uprisings, with the notable exception of that in Tunisia, fail to deliver on the promise of better governance, economic opportunity, and political pluralism? Why has internal and regional conflict become so widespread and so brutal in the region? What would more accountable social contracts between citizens and states look like, and how can Arab countries take advantage of their human capital?

Why did the Arab uprisings, with the notable exception of that in Tunisia, fail to deliver on the promise of better governance, economic opportunity, and political pluralism?

The old Arab order, characterized by authoritarian political systems and oil-based economies, appears to be passing away. While there may be no returning to the pre-2011 status quo, without clear alternatives, even more repressive systems threaten to take hold. Further, without more holistic policy approaches that begin to address the root socioeconomic and political causes of the Middle East crises, it is difficult to see an end in sight.

Given the enormity of the challenges, it can be tempting for despondent populations to withdraw from politics and focus on personal security and for policymakers to focus narrowly on security and counterterrorism threats. Certainly, these threats are real and deserve considerable attention, but the social, political, and economic grievances—above all, the demand for human dignity and justice—that gave rise to the Arab uprisings six years ago are not going away.

This report is intended to generate a discussion on the vital need for new directions in the Arab world. We welcome thoughtful critiques of the analysis, so they may be reflected in future Arab World Horizons publications.

Marwan Muasher
Vice President of Studies
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
December 2016


Long-standing pillars of the Arab order—authoritarian bargains and hydrocarbon rents—are collapsing as political institutions struggle with the rising demands of growing populations. Pervasive socioeconomic deficiencies, polarization, and repression have resulted, leading to unprecedented state disintegration, particularly in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. These forces are in turn fueling massive human displacement and geopolitical power plays. If any semblance of order is to return after the conflicts subside, citizens and states must forge new social contracts that establish accountability and energize systemic political and economic reform.

The Roots of a Regional Collapse

  • Societies worldwide are grappling with technological, economic, and cultural transformations. However, the inherent pressures have been particularly combustible in the Arab world, given institutional deficiencies and the proliferation of conflict, sectarianism, and radicalization.
  • There is a crisis of trust between governments and citizens. Authoritarian bargains, whereby regimes trade social services and government jobs for citizen quiescence, have fractured. These social contracts began eroding as inflated budgets and bloated bureaucracies could no longer keep up with population growth.
  • States have lost control of large swaths of territory to nonstate actors, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Former regional powerhouses, such as Egypt and Iraq, are now severely constrained by domestic weaknesses. Powerful states are increasingly interfering in the affairs of weaker ones, heightening internal and regional conflict.
  • Alongside their oil-exporting neighbors, oil-importing Arab countries—long dependent on remittances, external assistance, and investment—will face increased fiscal pressures due to the collapse in oil prices. The dependence on oil revenues has impeded economic and political development in many states, leaving them unprepared for the resulting turbulence.

Caught Between Retrenchment and Change

  • With few exceptions, Arab regimes are increasingly using means of coercion to reassert control. However, citizens will not abandon their demands for greater accountability, transparency, and political agency as social welfare declines, making increased tensions between citizens and states likely.
  • Political and economic control is integrally linked across the Arab world, resulting in pervasive cronyism and corruption. Building the foundation for sustainable, private-sector-led economic growth requires breaking this linkage.
  • Continued chaos in the Middle East might seem inevitable, but other regions have experienced similar collapses and managed to step back from the precipice. Yet, until Arab societies develop new social contracts based on more sustainable political and socioeconomic models, efforts to do so in the Middle East are likely to fail.

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Mina, a twenty-four-year-old teacher from Syria, is caught between her past, an unfamiliar European present, and an uncertain future. She enjoyed her life in Homs, where she worked at an institute for autistic children, while continuing her studies. She was not politically active, but, as the peaceful antigovernment protests that began in 2011 gave way to civil war, she struggled to remain neutral. In October 2015, she fled her home and country.

Today, Mina lives in a refugee camp in Berlin. Although she has found work at a local preschool, she says, “I’m also so incredibly tired by the idea that I have to start my life over.” She worries about the psychological trauma that those still in Syria have endured: “They merely exist. They eat, drink, and sleep.” Nonetheless, she hopes to further her pedagogical skills while in Germany, so she can help to rebuild Syria when she finally fulfills her dream of returning home.

Like Mina, many people across the Arab world have entered a period of profound dislocation. The old regional order has come undone, and it is unclear what will replace it. Arab regimes are facing a perfect storm of fraying citizen-state relations, internal and regional conflicts, a collapse in oil revenues, rising temperatures and the prospect of severe water shortages, and a breakdown in the shared sense of purpose among the region’s authoritarian leadership. It is a storm that the regimes, with a few notable exceptions, have been unprepared to face. The result is the most destructive period in the Middle East since the establishment of modern Arab states after World War I.

For decades, Arab regimes offered social services, subsidies, and government employment in return for little or no citizen participation in decisionmaking—essentially social contracts based on authoritarian bargains. While there were significant differences between how Arab states managed their internal affairs, in terms of both their methods of control and use of repression, virtually all were governed by autocratic regimes. They built powerful security and intelligence apparatuses and expended enormous energy to carefully stage-manage their political legitimacy—a difficult challenge in Arab republics given their antipathy toward democratic institutions. As economic and political power became increasingly linked in many Arab states, powerful patronage networks developed. The Arab-Israeli conflict and Cold War were further impediments to, and excuses for a lack of, institutional development.

The old regional order has come undone, and it is unclear what will replace it.

The regimes’ emphasis on tools of co-optation and coercion led to the creation of cultures of dependency and severely hampered the development of institutions that might have promoted inclusive governance. More perniciously, the inherently corrupt and repressive predatory systems that emerged in many countries actively resisted efforts to reform, depriving them of tools to face new political and economic challenges.

A powerful mix of local and global forces was also slowly brewing: a youth bulge across the Arab world; a massive spike in terrorism and religious extremism in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ongoing Syrian civil war; accelerating international economic competition; and transformative information technology. There is no political or cultural roadmap for socioeconomic disruptions of this magnitude. If relatively resilient political institutions, such as in North America and Europe, struggled to adapt to these seismic changes, it was perhaps not surprising that stagnant Arab regimes were caught unprepared when the uprisings began in 2011.

At its core, then, the collapse of the regional order is a crisis of trust between governments and citizens. In 2011, it became clear that the so-called social contracts were one-sided, as citizens across the region openly rejected the underpinnings of the authoritarian bargains.

At its core, then, the collapse of the regional order is a crisis of trust between governments and citizens.

After Tunisian President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali’s sudden and unexpected exile, regimes resorted to a familiar playbook to contain the repercussions of what had happened in Tunisia. They responded by using a combination of social welfare and repressive policies, with varying degrees of brutality and sophistication. As a result, some of the region’s most repressive states—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—began fragmenting along ethnic, ideological, sectarian, and tribal lines, while another half dozen or more began experiencing significant domestic political unrest. The most extreme manifestation is Syria, whose citizens are now trapped between a regime willing to reduce its cities to rubble and the genocidal violence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

External pressures have exacerbated state crises. Although oil prices stabilized after losing 70 percent of their value, they are expected to remain low for the foreseeable future, creating monumental fiscal challenges for the Arab world. For all but the region’s wealthiest countries, the rentier economic system, in which rents derived from the sale of oil financed vast national systems of patronage and sustenance, will become increasingly unsustainable over time. Even the region’s resource-poor countries will be affected, since most Arab countries became in some way dependent upon the region’s oil revenues.

Arab countries have little hope of developing prosperous societies without new political and economic models. As citizens are asked to sacrifice long-standing social welfare benefits in the name of fiscal austerity, their acceptance of the old systems of top-down rule will wither. They will demand accountability, justice, and a greater say in national affairs in return. For leaders long accustomed to absolute power, this is a dangerous trap—largely of their own making. They would be right in believing that the path of political and economic reform would likely lead to a loss in power. Thus, with few exceptions, regimes continue to cling to an untenable status quo, even at the risk of catastrophe.

Arab countries have little hope of developing prosperous societies without new political and economic models.

With the old order in disarray, there is no clarity about where the region is heading. Writing from a prison cell in fascist Italy during the 1930s, the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci observed, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” This is the reality faced by today’s Middle East, a region that remains critical to global peace and security.

This report attempts to explore the underlying causes of the region’s turbulence. It examines the fundamental national and transnational trends playing out in the region’s human, political, and geopolitical landscapes, both horizontally and vertically—that is, the interrelationships between these trends both within countries and across them. Specifically, the analysis looks at

  • The Human Landscape—the changing experiences of Arab citizens amid demographic pressures, human migration, political polarization, and social activism.
  • The Political Landscape—the crisis of governance across the region, the stresses upon the rentier systems, and the influence of the security sector and media on Arab politics.
  • The Geopolitical Landscape—the collapsing regional order in the context of myriad internal and interstate conflicts, the implications of lower oil prices, and the longer-term impacts of climate change and water scarcity.

The findings constitute a framework for understanding how the breakdowns within each landscape interact with each other and how various countries might begin to address them. To help illustrate how these breakdowns and trends are playing out in different settings, eight case studies are presented: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia. Although other countries could have been chosen, these bellwethers highlight the main trends in the Arab world, as well as the disparate manner in which governments are facing them. Understanding their experiences is vital to understanding what lies on the Arab horizon.

The Human Landscape

The collapse of the regional order and the fraying of social contracts in many Arab countries have important implications for how Arab citizens relate to their governments and to each other. Although societies worldwide are struggling to adapt to technological and cultural transformations, these social pressures provide a particularly combustible mix in the Middle East, given the region’s political and economic challenges and the proliferation of conflict, sectarianism, and radicalization. Complex, social transformations are occurring at the individual level within and across four domains: demography and human development, migration, polarization, and social activism.

Demography and Human Development

Human Landscape  |  Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

The future stability and prosperity of the Arab countries depends on accelerated human development, as reliance on hydrocarbon resources has become untenable due to growing populations and changing world energy markets. While Arab countries have made strides in literacy and higher education for women, other areas of human development have lagged, inhibiting the needed shift from public-sector-led growth to private-sector-led growth. One major obstacle relates to perception and attitudes. As youth unemployment and restiveness have risen, some governments have tended to treat their younger citizens more as security threats than economic assets, inhibiting their activities in the public realm. These attitudes are ultimately denying the region the potential demographic dividend—accelerated economic growth as a result of an expansion of the working-age population—that has given East Asia and other regions economic boosts in the past.2

In 2002, the release of the first of a series of Arab Human Development Reports (AHDRs) sent shockwaves throughout the region. Produced by a prominent group of independent Arab scholars and researchers, these reports were painfully honest examinations of the state of human development in Arab countries. The 2002 report concluded that the Arab world suffered from profound deficits in political freedoms, education, and women’s empowerment.3 Yet nearly fifteen years later, all three challenges remain and new challenges have emerged.

The 2002 [AHDR] report concluded that the Arab world suffered from profound deficits in political freedoms, education, and women’s empowerment.

The AHDRs define freedom as “participatory governance.” Since 2002, only one Arab country, Tunisia, has crossed over into the category of “free,” according to Freedom House ratings. There are only two countries, Lebanon and Morocco, that are deemed “partly free”; the rest are all classified as “not free.”

In recent decades, Arab countries have made strides in school enrollment and literacy, but the quality of education—meaning the provision of skills needed for employment, technology training, and academic and scientific research—remains a major challenge. A disparity has emerged in this regard between the wealthier and poorer Arab countries. In the World Economic Forum’s 2014–2015 Global Competitiveness Index, the United Arab Emirates ranked number twelve among the 144 countries surveyed for quality of higher education, whereas Egypt, Libya, and Yemen remained at 119, 126, and 142, respectively.4

Regarding women’s empowerment, female literacy and school and university enrollment also have progressed since 2002. The adult female literacy rate across the Arab world increased from an estimated 41 percent in 1990 to 69 percent in 2010.5 In most Arab countries, women outnumber men in universities.6 And yet women’s participation in the workforce in the Middle East and North Africa continues to be the lowest of any region, at just 22 percent compared to the global average of 50 percent.7 Political participation, similarly, is lower in Arab countries than in most other regions, according to UN data tracking percentages of women ministers and parliamentarians.

Moreover, human development challenges, particularly unemployment, have intensified with population growth. The population growth rate in the Middle East and North Africa is second only to the rate in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the average fertility rate among Arab countries has dropped from 5.2 children per woman in 1990 to 3.4 in 2014, the fastest decline of any region in the world, it is still well above the replacement rate of 2.1; and several countries—notably Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, and Yemen—average more than four children per female.9 Egypt, the region’s most populous country, has experienced rapid population growth: the country’s population has risen from 68 million in 2000 to 92 million in 2015, while fertility rates (which had declined dramatically in recent decades) have again moved upward from 3.0 children per female in 2007 to 3.3 in 2014.10

As a consequence of historically high fertility rates, Arab countries have experienced a youth bulge—a larger proportion of young adults compared to other age groups. Figure 1, representing age and sex distribution in the twenty-two member states of the Arab League, shows a classic youth bulge, in contrast to Figure 2, which shows the contracting population of European Union member states.11

The Middle East and North Africa’s disproportionate population of adolescents and young adults between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five means the number of people demanding work and requiring higher education or vocational training is unusually large. Youth bulges have been historically associated with civil conflicts,12 thus compounding the need for countries with youth bulges to achieve rapid economic growth to keep pace with the abundance of young workers. When the aspirations of youths are stymied, countries tend to be unstable. In the Arab world, which has long had the highest youth unemployment rate in the world,13 frustration levels are high.14 The generation gap also has social and political consequences: While several Arab countries have median ages under twenty-one, political and economic power is firmly concentrated among the older generation.15 

When the aspirations of youths are stymied, countries tend to be unstable.

Some Arab countries, such as Tunisia, are gradually moving past their youth bulges, with fertility rates beginning to fall.16 The populations of other Arab countries are continuing to grow at rapid rates, and in populous places such as Egypt, another even larger youth bulge is expected within the coming ten to fifteen years.17 

These population pressures add urgency to the need for Arab states to address human development gaps, dismantle cronyism, and match a trained labor force with private-sector employment opportunities. Experience in other contexts has shown that with wise investments and policy choices, especially in education, these youth bulges can become development boons.  If a shift toward greater human development does not take place in the Arab countries, demographic trends are likely to continue to be a source of problems rather than prosperity for years to come.

Human Migration

Human Landscape  |  Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

Demographic and human development challenges have been further compounded by massive population movements triggered by the post-2011 regionwide conflicts. Some countries, particularly Iraq and Syria, have had large numbers of citizens flee the horrors of conflict to seek safe haven in neighboring countries or further afield in Europe. Consequently, they are experiencing severe human development deficits, as well as a dramatic reduction in the number and range of professionals remaining, such as medical and engineering staff. Other countries, like Lebanon and Jordan, that have received an influx of migrants, are experiencing a severe strain on their education, welfare, and security systems. Further, with the social makeup of countries rapidly changing, political systems based on identity politics are becoming increasingly complex.

It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the catastrophe. In 2015, it was estimated that more than 143 million Arabs are living in countries experiencing war or occupation,18 and around 17 million have been forcibly displaced from their homes.19 Further, while Arabs constitute only 5 percent of the world’s population,20 they account for more than 50 percent of its refugees.21 

With more than 4.8 million people forced to flee the country and nearly 6.6 million displaced internally,22 one in five refugees globally is Syrian.23 Iraq, which has suffered through waves of displacement dating back to the 1980s, has also witnessed considerable internal displacement due to ongoing conflict, with more than 3.3 million people fleeing territories held by the Islamic State.24 People in Libya, Sudan, and Yemen are all facing forced displacement as well. Additionally, the Arab world has hosted significant numbers of Palestinian refugees—the oldest and largest refugee population in the world, numbering more than 5 million people—from the time of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.25

The region’s conflicts and the resulting widescale population movements have resulted in major social changes, and refugee populations risk becoming trapped in intergenerational cycles of poverty. Populations that have fled violence, joined in the fighting, or become refugees include many of those best-positioned to contribute to postwar reconstruction—mainly the youth and the middle class. A recent study, for example, found that 86 percent of Syrians who fled to Greece between April and September 2015 have secondary-level or university education.26 Further, more than 2.8 million Syrian children are not in school,27 which could have long-term consequences.

Populations that have fled violence, joined in the fighting, or become refugees include many of those best-positioned to contribute to postwar reconstruction—mainly the youth and the middle class.

The overall poverty rate in Syria was estimated to be 83 percent in 2014, with 35 percent living in abject poverty, unable to meet basic food needs for their households.28 Elsewhere, almost 11 million people in Yemen are severely food insecure.29 In Iraq and Libya, the United Nations estimates the number of individuals in need of some form of food assistance to be 2.4 million and 210,000, respectively.30

Jordan and Lebanon host the largest number of refugees in the Arab world, with roughly 655,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan31 and 1.01 million in Lebanon,32 in addition to the long-standing Palestinian refugee communities of roughly 2.1 million33 and 450,000 registered refugees,34 respectively. This large population influx is having a significant impact on both countries’ societies and security structures and threatens to undermine existing social contracts. The settlement of large numbers of refugees in Jordan’s and Lebanon’s most impoverished areas has induced large-scale urbanization in places lacking the requisite infrastructure—for instance, as of November 2016, the Mafraq and Zaatari camps in Jordan host 158,683 Syrian refugees, or roughly 24 percent of all those registered in the country.35 

Welfare systems that have exhibited remarkable resilience and generosity in hosting refugees have also come under immense pressure. Both Jordan and Lebanon have seen a decline in crucial social services such as education and health, a depression in wages, an expansion in the informal sector and youth unemployment, and a rise in child labor.36 In Lebanon, for example, 10 percent of Syrian refugee children are working, including 18 percent of refugee children in the Bekaa Valley. Furthermore, 26 percent of Syrian refugee children are estimated to have been withdrawn from school.37

The refugee crises have been exacerbated by identity politics, changing the demographic makeup of many areas and greatly complicating postwar reconciliation efforts. For example, Mosul in Iraq has been emptied of its Christians for the first time in centuries, but Christians fared better than the Yazidis, Shabaks, Mandaeans, Shia, and Turkomans, many of whom were hunted down by the Islamic State and killed. Moreover, population transfers are no longer just the by-products of political power struggles and war; they have also become principal elements of local peace agreements in certain places. For example, in Syria, the accords to end the sieges of Zabadani in 2015 and Darayya in 2016 included population transfers.38 

This Arab demographic unraveling has not only weakened states and societies, but also undermined, perhaps irreparably, cultural values of coexistence and pluralism.

This Arab demographic unraveling has not only weakened states and societies, but also undermined, perhaps irreparably, cultural values of coexistence and pluralism. The creation of ethnic or sectarian entities could well further sow the seeds of conflict for decades to come, creating new claims for rights of return.

Finally, the emergence of new actors and economies in conflict zones, which also feed off forced migration, will affect prospects for peace. The smuggling of refugees, for instance, has become a large-scale industry for organized criminals in Europe, with estimated annual revenues of $5 to $6 billion.39 A large conflict-related economy in Syria has emerged, involving the sale of weapons, the smuggling of food and essential products, and other criminal activities. An estimated 17 percent of Syria’s active population is involved in the conflict-related economy, creating a new stratum that has grown wealthy from the war.40 Many of these actors, along with the large number of militias that have been formed during the conflict, could act as spoilers of any prospective peace settlement. Similar trends are also apparent to a lesser extent in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen and are having an impact on neighboring countries. Tunisia’s border towns, for example, have become closely implicated in Libya’s war-related economy.

With conflicts not abating, the flow of displaced populations both within and outside Arab countries is likely to continue. This expansion will bring about more dramatic transformations in the region’s social fabric and economic outlook. The prospect for the return of this massive number of refugees will, to a large extent, be contingent upon the shape of the peace settlements that end the current conflicts and their ability to offer safety and security to those who managed to escape their horrors. The availability of a viable economic- and service-oriented infrastructure, the status of reconstruction, and the prospects for participation in the governance of their own affairs will also play a vital role in facilitating the safe return of refugees to their homes.


Human Landscape  |  Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

The changing social makeup of populations is contributing to the rise in, and complexity of, social polarization. While polarization seems to be a global phenomenon, arguably no region has been as divided as the Middle East since 2011. Though the specifics vary from country to country, spaces for moderate voices have generally receded. Authoritarian practices of ruling regimes, their systems of patronage and co-optation, the general weakness of opposition currents and civil society organizations, and the ideologically divided nature of public spaces have all enabled Arab rulers to close the public space and sideline voices of dissent. As a result, political actors and citizens alike are left with little scope for compromise and forced to choose between supporting or opposing a government, or, more dangerously, adopting or rejecting a particular confessional, ethnic, or tribal identity.

Though the specifics vary from country to country, spaces for moderate voices have generally receded [since 2011].

Polarization in Arab societies can be divided into two broad categories. The first is ideological, unfolding between secular and religious forces and exemplified by the differing post-2011 experiences of Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, the military autocracy has attempted to persuade the public to accept the loss of pluralist politics and personal freedoms, in exchange for stability and security. But repressive measures—such as wide-scale human rights abuses, the passing of undemocratically spirited laws, and the unchecked prerogatives of military and security institutions—have exacerbated long-standing social divisions and induced more violence.

In contrast, though Tunisia’s popular uprising has yet to fully translate into public trust in political institutions, the country has had significant success in creating the framework for a new constitutional order that both integrates secular and religious forces and provides citizens access to a vibrant public space, where economic grievances, social tensions, identity issues, and policy objectives can be deliberated freely. It remains to be seen whether the rare spirit of compromise that Tunisia’s political elite demonstrated during its post-2011 transition can be further institutionalized, or whether the growing terrorist threat, political violence, and ideological demagoguery have injected long-term destructive factors into Tunisian politics.

A second, more virulent, category is political polarization, which has accompanied political turbulence in ethnically and religiously divided societies. A powerful political tool, polarization can provide scapegoats on whom to pin socioeconomic failings and against whom to mobilize core constituencies. In places such as Iraq and Syria, partisan rhetoric has sometimes been radicalized to the point of legitimizing political or sectarian violence, creating fertile ground for extremism and terrorism. The results have varied from an upsurge in communal tensions in Bahrain and Lebanon to civil wars and state collapse in Iraq and Syria. 

In Iraq, sectarian politics has resulted in civil strife and dysfunction in a social context conducive to violence and terrorism. The ongoing conflicts over economic resources and political representation between Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni communities have created safe havens for the Islamic State and led other social groups seeking to capitalize on sectarian division, such as the Popular Mobilization Forces, to adopt similar violent strategies.

In Syria, the sectarian-based patronage system and the repressive nature of the Bashar al-Assad regime led to the almost complete loss of popular trust in state institutions and their neutrality. The notion of a Syrian national identity has collapsed along with modern conceptions of citizenship based on equal rights and entitlements for all Syrians. The destruction of the social fabric of the country and the apparent dismemberment of what was a unified Syrian state have created de facto sectarian fiefdoms in their wake.

With few venues for consensual political expression, polarized systems allow rejectionist voices to dominate, and extreme political discourse becomes a potential gateway to radicalization or religious extremism.

Bahrain is quieter today than it was in 2011, when tens of thousands of protesters (a significant number in a country of 1.3 million people)41 took to the streets in protest before being repressed by the security forces, with strong support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. But the rift between the disenfranchised Shia majority and the ruling Sunni minority is growing, and Bahrain’s long-term stability seems somewhat in doubt. In Lebanon, major sectarian groups, or more specifically their political representatives, are locked in a permanent conflict over the distribution of limited resources and competing regional affiliations. The resulting polarization has weakened state institutions, created political paralysis, and widened the rift between the Lebanese population and the political class governing it.

With few venues for consensual political expression, polarized systems allow rejectionist voices to dominate, and extreme political discourse becomes a potential gateway to radicalization or religious extremism. Unless democratic transitions are once again seen as viable and new social contracts between ruling establishments and citizens are developed to overcome economic grievances and governance deficits, extremism and terrorism may become more appealing for underprivileged and marginalized groups.


Case Study 1

Palestine—Divided It Falls

A decade of social and political polarization in Palestine has led to a steady erosion of governing institutions and the undermining of national aspirations.


Social Activism

Human Landscape  |  Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

For decades, Arab citizens have lacked access to public policymaking processes, formal political spaces, and mechanisms for effective government oversight. However, they have not been passive bystanders to developments in their countries, using mainly nonviolent activism to voice their concerns. In fact, in several Arab countries, young citizens and groups of civil society and labor movement activists have been at the forefront of peaceful protests opposing the status quo, culminating in the 2011 Arab uprisings. They have championed demands to improve deteriorating living conditions, fight corruption and nepotism, and commit governments to uphold human rights.

[Arab citizens] have not been passive bystanders to developments in their countries, using mainly nonviolent activism to voice their concerns.

Protests were hardly a rarity before 2011. They were among the assorted tools young activists used to denounce their government’s failures. Protests organized around political demands were less frequent, but occurred nonetheless, giving birth to a new type of citizen engagement and activism. Young and more established activists from civil society, labor movements and professional associations, and student groups sought to transcend the prevailing religious-secular divide and joined to establish informal protest networks. They broke with formal politics—regime and opposition alike—and channeled new energy into Arab societies and polities using peaceful protests and modern communication technologies. These included the April 6 Movement, Kefaya, and the Youth for Change movement in Egypt; the National Campaign for Defending Students’ Rights and the Jordanian Democratic Youth Union in Jordan; the Diplômés Chômeurs in Morocco; the Fifth Fence group in Kuwait; and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

Nothing brought to the fore the significance of the new activism among Arab citizens better than the Egyptian uprising. Inspired by events in Tunisia, the call by Egyptians to participate in the peaceful protest of January 25, 2011, was championed by those informal protest networks. Although most mainstream opposition political parties initially declined to participate, young activists gradually mobilized considerable segments of the population to engage in peaceful protests.42 

But if the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 represented the high-water mark of Arab social activism, popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes elsewhere were met with brutal force, as in Libya and Syria. The momentum of protests was broken, and security forces throughout the region reasserted themselves. The resulting dislocations have yet to be resolved.

Despite the different—and contradictory—directions that various Arab countries have taken after the democratic uprisings of 2011, activism has continued to shape realities on the ground. In Tunisia, young citizens have entered formal political arenas and have sustained their strong presence in informal spaces as well as on the protest scene, driven primarily by economic and social dissatisfaction.43

In countries consumed by conflict, civil society organizations are currently focused on finding safe havens to ensure their own viability. So long as severe repression continues, it will be difficult for Arab populations to engage in meaningful discussions about the contours of new social contracts. In Egypt, the military-led government has stifled pluralist politics and imposed severe restrictions on civil society organizations.44 However, this has not stopped young Egyptians from remaining engaged in informal spaces of protest, nor has it affected the cross-ideological nature of citizens’ activism. Informal networks have continued to bridge the religious-secular divide and have either expanded their roles in new public spaces such as the artistic45 or literary realms, or rediscovered their traditional strongholds in universities and secondary schools.46 Networks of young filmmakers, novelists, and university students have shaped a new anti-establishment narrative that does not shy away from demanding radical democratic reforms and commits to a vision of a secular and modern Egypt.

In Syria and Yemen, citizens’ initiatives have continued despite brutal civil wars. Especially during the brief cessation of hostilities that began in Syria in February 2016, local nongovernmental organizations and groups of activists resumed popular protests and facilitated the delivery of humanitarian assistance to embattled populations.47

Despite this resilience, it is indisputable that the forces of the status quo have regained momentum. The quest for stability and the backlash against religious politics in Egypt, not to mention the chaos in Syria and Yemen, have pushed significant segments of the Arab populations to side with autocratic regimes against demands for change. The horror of events in those countries at war has convinced many Arabs of the overriding need for stability—a sentiment that rulers have exploited to defend the existing state of affairs as the only way to avoid mayhem.

But even in these difficult circumstances, civil actors continue to engage using various modern technology and social media tools. Even as avenues for political reform have closed, the importance of defending personal freedoms through launching advocacy campaigns and citizen initiatives has increased in resonance. And the opportunity for progress remains feasible in several areas—for example, in the struggle for women’s empowerment, improvement of workplace conditions, modernization of educational curricula, and encouragement of fiscal transparency.

While status-quo forces seem to have regained the upper hand in most Arab countries, Arab citizens are unlikely to remain docile as socioeconomic stresses increase and welfare systems are curtailed in the years to come. They do not expect governments, ruling establishments, and state institutions to provide for their basic needs, nor to guide societies out of the persistent crises. Thus, citizens will increasingly use activism, albeit in forms different from those associated with the Arab Spring, to influence the fate of their countries.


Case Study 2

Tunisia—A Catalyst for Change?

Tunisian social activism was not just a feature of the 2011 Arab uprisings; it has also played a salutary role in the construction of democratic institutions in the years since.


CommentaryA Warning Unheeded

Rima Khalaf

War, death, and destruction, as well as skies congested with bombers from the four corners of the earth. These experiences have become the norm for many Arabs. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and millions have been displaced. Violent nonstate actors have proliferated, and borders have frayed. Decades of tyranny and foreign intervention have yielded the chaos and immeasurable suffering seen today.

Decades of tyranny and foreign intervention have yielded the chaos and immeasurable suffering seen today.

The UNDP Arab Human Development Reports, which were published starting in 2002, all but foretold this cataclysm. Deficits in freedom, knowledge, and women’s empowerment arrested development and marginalized the majority. Combined with military occupations and escalating foreign encroachment, this created an explosive mixture of anger, frustration, and despair. Without peaceful channels through which to address their grievances, some Arabs would eventually resort to violence, with dire consequences.

The reports called for serious political and economic reforms in order to make the transition to democracy orderly and peaceful. Yet little more than fragmented and cosmetic initiatives were the response. Freedoms remained stifled. The abuse of rights went on, as many continued to be killed for their opinions or affiliations or languished in detention indefinitely without due process.

For Palestinians, in turn, the violation of these and other rights, including the right to self-determination, has been the norm under the relentless Israeli occupation.

Discontent peaked in 2011, when Arabs rose en masse against injustice. In Tunisia a tyrant was deposed, initiating a peaceful transition to democracy. Where wisdom prevailed, as in Morocco, the people’s demands were met with major reforms. The less prudent, in contrast, redoubled their repression, preferring instead to stoke religious, tribal, or ethnic conflict and invite foreign military intervention.

The threats to Arab lives intensified, and the circle of oppressors expanded. Despotic regimes, foreign powers, and now violent groups and criminal networks are riding roughshod over the little freedom and few rights that Arabs had enjoyed.

Today’s crises leave limited options. The few who have been spared violence should not count their blessings too quickly. Without far-reaching reform to empower the people, the fire could reach them all. New social contracts are needed based on the consent of the governed, rule of law, and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.

New social contracts are needed based on the consent of the governed, rule of law, and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.

Arab rulers need to smother rather than fuel the fighting in neighboring countries, and they must work to save their unity and territorial integrity by supporting democracy based on equal citizenship that protects the cultural and religious rights of all. The kind of sectarian and ethnic-based, power-sharing agreements that may help to end wars, but which frequently fragment societies, must be avoided.

Injustice will continue for as long as the Israeli occupation of Palestine does. Half a century is far too long for one people to be dominated by another. Treating Palestinians as less deserving of universal rights is abhorrent. Calling for the establishment of purely religious states—Jewish, Islamist, or other—violates international principles of equality and nondiscrimination, and it amounts to perpetuating conflict and intensifying ethnic cleansing and human suffering.

Based on their own interests and for the sake of global peace, Arab states and international powers must take the path of reform and end wars and occupations. If they remain prisoners of continuity, they will only sink further into the abyss.

Rima Khalaf is executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. She previously served as assistant secretary-general and director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Program, as well as deputy prime minister, minister for planning, and minister for industry and trade for Jordan.

CommentaryTunisia’s Culture of Cooperation and Compromise

Rached Ghannouchi

Tunisia, which sparked the Arab Spring, remains one of the few Arab countries still standing in the struggle against tyranny and repression in the Middle East and North Africa. That is in no small part due to a culture of cooperation and compromise between Islamist and secularist parties, which has been consciously and assiduously nurtured over the past several years and indeed decades.

Tunisia, which sparked the Arab Spring, remains one of the few Arab countries still standing in the struggle against tyranny and repression in the Middle East and North Africa.

The difficult journey from dictatorship toward democracy could not have been begun in Tunisia without crossparty partnerships. In its transition, Tunisia was able to overcome the dangers of ideological polarization and the monopolization of the process by one side or the other. The country did this by building coalitions of different parties with intellectually diverse outlooks and cultivating a shared commitment to democracy, pluralism, human rights, and the fulfillment of the key demands of the revolution.

Long before the results of Tunisia’s first free and fair elections in October 2011, my party—Ennahda—and a number of others were already convinced that a coalition government was needed to build the foundations of a democratic Tunisia. We needed to forge a new democratic political culture based on respect and coexistence between parties and, in particular, between the two principal intellectual trends in Tunisian society: moderate secularists and moderate Muslim democrats. These have long been the two wings of the country’s national movement and are both critical to the democratic project.

Over a decade ago, Tunisian opposition parties and activists launched an initiative that brought together political activists from various parties, journalists, human rights campaigners, and independents into a body that came to be known as the 18 October Committee. The initiative began as a joint hunger strike in 2005 to draw attention to violations of human rights and the plight of political prisoners. It then turned into a forum for dialogue between opposition actors to develop a shared vision for a new democratic political system in Tunisia. Through long, detailed, and deep discussions, the committee produced joint position papers on the fundamental principles of a new political system, including mechanisms for the peaceful alternation of power, equality between men and women, freedom of belief and thought, and the relationship between religion and the state.

This process was not an easy one. It was attacked by those who opposed dialogue between secularists and Islamists. Participants faced intense intimidation and personal attacks from the Ben Ali regime, which was desperate to prevent any rapprochement between the opposition groups. Arab opposition parties have far too often become embroiled in internecine battles rather than focusing on the real culprit: dictatorial and unjust regimes. By allowing themselves to be co-opted by those in power in the hope of eradicating their ideological rivals, opposition parties have at times played into the hands of dictators who have skillfully manipulated social and ideological divisions to their own benefit, using one ideological camp against another before turning against both.

Tunisia’s democratic transition has managed to avoid such forms of exclusionary and maximalist politics by building partnerships between parties of different intellectual backgrounds. The first coalition government (2011–2014) contained the Ennahda Party and two center-left secular parties (Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic Party), and this proved to be a pioneering model of coexistence between secularists and Islamists. The current coalition government contains five parties, including secularists, leftists, trade unionists, center-right figures, and Muslim Democrats.

Only by abandoning all exclusionary attitudes toward one’s political adversaries can we build stable, inclusive democracies.

Making such partnerships work requires a principled commitment to pluralism and a willingness to build consensus through dialogue and compromise. Only by abandoning all exclusionary attitudes toward one’s political adversaries can we build stable, inclusive democracies that reflect the will of the people and abandon polarization, the eradication of dissent, and dictatorship in favor of healthy political competition, pluralism and cooperation.

Rached Ghannouchi is a Tunisian politician, intellectual and president of the Ennahda Party. He has authored numerous works on Islam, democracy and human rights and is one of the leading proponents of democracy in the Muslim world.

CommentaryA Technology-Driven Arab Social Contract

Fadi Ghandour

One of the Arab world’s most critical, but least discussed, transformations is the digital disruption. The onset of digitization and digital technology has prompted fundamental changes in the way Arabs connect, voice their opinions, learn, seek entertainment, consume goods and services, and conduct business.

The region’s transforming digital economy will reshape the future of work and create types of jobs that do not exist today. While this change is more apparent in some industries than others, digital disruption is everywhere, affecting first and foremost younger populations by connecting them with each other and with the rest of the world in unprecedented ways.

The Middle East has one of the fastest rates of adopting digital technology in the world. The constant double-digit growth of e-commerce saw it develop into a $5 billion industry in 2015.1 Arabs average more than five hours per day online, mostly on different social media platforms. As of 2014, Saudis were collectively viewing around 90 million YouTube videos daily, the highest per capita rate in the world.2 Mostly lacking real democratic outlets, Arabs share their political and socioeconomic opinions on social media, as evidenced by the 17 million tweets per day originating from the Arab world, also as of 2014.3 Saudis, once again, top the world with a Twitter penetration rate of 33 percent.

These new realities require that governments, businesses, and societies redefine their relationships with citizens. In a recent regional survey, 68 percent of respondents said the internet and social media have increased their political influence, while 70 percent were comfortable voicing political opinions on Facebook.4 The region’s estimated Facebook user base of 114 million people as of November 2015 represents a sizable constituency with which governments must engage and a potentially powerful platform for direct access and immediate engagement with citizens.5 

Similarly, the rapid encroachment of technology and technology-enabled businesses into facets of the economy that, until now, had been immune to change will cause economic displacement. For example, Careem, a successful regional competitor of Uber, is disrupting traditional taxi monopolies, while allowing tens of thousands of unemployed and underemployed people to participate in a once-protected market. Jamalon, the region’s largest online bookstore, is revolutionizing publishing by offering on-demand printing—opening doors to a new generation of authors and publishers.

The emergence of technology-enabled financial businesses (or FinTech) will potentially bring financial inclusion to the 86 percent of adults in the Middle East and North Africa that lack accounts at financial institutions.6 By giving citizens and small business owners access to credit markets from which they had been previously shut out, platforms such as Liwwa and Beehive are empowering individuals, helping businesses grow, and creating jobs. Instagram has enabled countless female Arab entrepreneurs to launch online stores with nothing more than smartphones.

The digital economy is creating a new generation of entrepreneurs who are challenging tired, traditional governance structures and creating new, flatter social systems where access to information is key.

The region is already witnessing the pioneers of an entrepreneurial movement building disruptive businesses and creating wealth outside the region’s traditional spheres of the public sector; legacy, family-driven trading monopolies; and real estate. Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury built Maktoob, which was later acquired by Yahoo, creating the region’s first large-scale digital success story. Together with Ronaldo Mouchawar, a native of Aleppo, Syria, they proceeded to build, the region’s largest and first billion-dollar e-commerce business.

The digital economy is creating a new generation of entrepreneurs who are challenging tired, traditional governance structures and creating new, flatter social systems where access to information is key. Regardless of the direction that the development of the digital economy takes, one thing is certain: Both governments and businesses need to be agile in their responses or they will be left behind in the new digital world.

Fadi Ghandour is executive chairman and CEO of Wamda Capital, a MENA-focused technology venture fund; founder of Aramex, a logistics firm; and founder and chairman of Ruwwad for Development, a development organization.

1 T. Kearney, Inc., Getting in on the GCC E-Commerce Game (Chicago: A. T. Kearney, Inc., 2016),

2 Fouzia Khan, “90 Million Videos Viewed Daily on YouTube in KSA,” Arab News, March 7, 2014,

3 Racha Mourtada, Fadi Salem, and Sarah Alshaer, “Citizen Engagement and Public Services in the Arab World: The Potential of Social Media,” 6th ed., Governance and Innovation Program, Mohamed Bin Rashid School of Governance, June 2014,

4 Everette E. Dennis, Justin D. Martin, and Robb Wood, “Social Media,” in “Media Use in the Middle East, 2015,” Northwestern University in Qatar, 2015,

5 “Facebook Now Has 114m Monthly Active Users in MENA,” Arabian Gazette, November 11, 2015, http://

6 Asli Demirguc-Kunt et al., “The Global Findex Database 2014: Measuring Financial Inclusion Around the World” (World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 7255), World Bank Group, April 2015,

The Political Landscape

While some Arab monarchies, and certainly Tunisia’s postrevolutionary governments, have recognized the need for change, most regimes are hunkered down in a high-stakes game of survival. Ironically, their coercive responses to the uprisings have exacerbated what were already deep-rooted socioeconomic, political, security, and cultural challenges, making it even more difficult for them to regain control. It is no longer a question of whether they can return to the status quo, but rather how to outlast the unraveling and, in many cases, the collapse of their political systems and authoritarian bargains. Arab states are contending with rapid transformations in four main areas: governance, rentierism, security, and media and information technology.


Human Landscape  |  Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

Six years into the Arab uprisings, most Arab states are still facing a crisis in governance, but their responses have varied. Many of the regimes that did not experience uprisings insist the current regional turmoil is a consequence of these upheavals and are thus seeking a return to the stability of the pre-2011 Arab order. Countries that have undergone transitions are struggling to create more inclusive and responsive systems of government. Others are caught up in civil wars, or, as in the case of Egypt, are headed toward further repression and a new brand of authoritarianism.

Six years into the Arab uprisings, most Arab states are still facing a crisis in governance, but their responses have varied.

Arab social contracts began eroding at the turn of the twenty-first century; inflated budgets and bloated government bureaucracies could no longer provide adequate education, health care, and other services and failed to create the proper environment for private-sector growth and job creation.48 When the social contracts no longer adequately delivered, people took to the streets.

As part of their stratagems for remaining in power, regimes often favored certain groups over others and relegated women to second-class status either through constitutions or the laws that limited these constitutions’ practical applicability. This showed how cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity was not regarded by many states as a source of strength but rather as a political weakness.

Thus, a common theme of the Arab uprisings was the need for social justice. Lacking equal protections before the law, citizens gradually fell back on narrower forms of identity—based on religion, tribe, or geography—as more effective means of addressing their grievances. In countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria, tribal or sectarian affiliations are most often stronger than those to the state.

The enemy of bad governance is an informed, educated public able to think critically and be tolerant of different outlooks. That is why an area where serious reform is desperately needed in Arab countries is education—primarily the quality of education. What has been absent from many Arab educational systems are curricula that nurture the evolution of a healthy concept of citizenship and lead to proper state building by teaching values, including tolerance and appreciation for diversity.49

The enemy of bad governance is an informed, educated public able to think critically and be tolerant of different outlooks.

Instead, Arab children today are taught from an early age to suppress personal differences in service of larger Arab common goals. They are encouraged to think monolithically and one-dimensionally. Critical thinking is neither valued nor encouraged. Entire generations have been raised to believe that allegiance to a country means allegiance to the party, the system, or the leader governing it. Such reflexes stifle the pursuit of good governance.50

Another common theme of the uprisings was the call for accountability and transparency. In the 2016 “Arab Voices” survey, conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the experts polled identified authoritarianism and corruption as two of the three most important issues facing the region: 65 of 103 experts cited authoritarianism and forty-eight cited corruption as being among the most pressing.51

Tunisia is the rare example of an Arab state that has responded to these challenges by seeking to forge a forward-looking, inclusive social contract—awarding equal treatment for women, assuring the rights of all components of society, and putting in place the elements for a civil, democratic state—even if the country has not resolved its economic and security challenges. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, while resisting political liberalization, have made strides in improving their economic regulatory environments.52  Most other Arab states, though, have either engaged in cosmetic reform or reverted to a security-first mindset.

The failure of Islamic parties, most notably in Egypt, to present credible alternative governance models, the pervasive fear of violent movements, and the conflation between the two has facilitated a counterrevolution similar to what took place in Europe in 1848. Attempts to wind back the clock to before 2011 will most likely fail, as the frustrations that led to the uprisings remain very much in place. The region is in dire need of new, agreed-on and inclusive social contracts that address citizens’ political, economic, and social needs. But so far, there is little evidence that most Arab countries, with the exception of Tunisia, are thinking along these lines.


Case Study 3

Iraq—Authority in the Shadows

Systematic governance failures have severely inhibited political legitimacy in Iraq and have paved the way for nonstate actors to exert significant political influence.



Human Landscape  |  Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

Most Arab countries in recent decades have in some way benefited from the region’s abundant resource wealth. This not only includes producers of hydrocarbons, who were able to use the profits to buy loyalty and establish what were effectively welfare states; it also includes non-oil producers, who benefited from aid or capital inflows from oil-producing countries or from remittances of nationals working in those countries.

But the Middle East’s large oil reserves have proven to be as much a curse as a blessing.53  Along with the obvious improvements that oil brought to the material quality of life in the region, it also gave birth to rentier states whose wealth derived mainly from the rent of their hydrocarbon resources to outsiders. This led the onetime Saudi oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani to allegedly declare, “All in all I wish we had discovered water.”54

The governments of oil-producing countries used their income to act as general providers for their people, rather than encourage self-reliance or growth led by the private sector. Thus, citizens became dependent on rulers for jobs, services, and favors. As governments did not need to levy taxes on their citizens to raise national income, their authoritarianism was even more difficult to challenge.

Even Arab governments in non-oil producing countries became heavily dependent on aid and capital from oil-producing countries—including the remittances sent home by their citizens living there—to compensate for their limited ability to provide social services to their own populations. This resulted in a system of regional rentierism, whereby most Arab countries became somehow tied to the network of wealth generated by the oil-producing economies. Political and economic elites in both oil-producing states and other countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, benefited from privileges provided by regimes in exchange for their allegiance. Over time, the luxuries enjoyed by these elites and the manifest injustice and corruption of resource distribution resulted in increasing public alienation.

As Arab social contracts started to fracture, several countries, including Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, responded by introducing economic reforms. At the time, it was thought that economic reform should precede political reform if these countries were to avoid social unrest.55 However, the economic reform processes undertaken fell short for two reasons.

The privatization of many state industries, although much needed, often took place without complete transparency and led to a perception, often justified, of corruption.

First, without the necessary political reform to ensure robust monitoring and parliamentary oversight, the unchecked, economic reform programs tended to benefit only a small elite rather than the general population. The privatization of many state industries, although much needed, often took place without complete transparency and led to a perception, often justified, of corruption.56 The 2016 Arab Barometer survey found that a large majority of the public in each country surveyed—Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia—believed that corruption existed in state agencies and institutions to a “great” or “medium” extent.57

Second, most economic reform programs paid insufficient attention to the resulting social dislocation. Although perceptions of economic well-being are normally positively correlated with growth in the gross domestic product, a Gallup poll conducted on the eve of the Egyptian uprising found that the opposite was true: While the Egyptian economy grew by 5 percent in 2010, only one in five Egyptians perceived an improvement in economic conditions.58 As a result, the public came to associate economic reform not with prosperity and an amelioration in their lives, but with corruption and economic abuse.

The current decline in global oil prices, if sustained over several years as expected, will present significant challenges for rentier systems in the region. Saudi Arabia is shifting its assistance paradigm from a grants-based to an investments-based approach.59 That will increase pressure on recipient governments to improve their economic performance and shift away from welfare systems to ones based on merit and private-sector-led growth.

The rentier model, hitherto so pervasive in the region, has reached a saturation point. Governments have reached the limits of their ability to maintain public-sector employment, raise their public debt, and sustain outside grants. But attempts to change such systems are likely to be met with significant resistance from political and economic elites who do not want to lose their privileges. Opposition can also be expected from state bureaucracies, which lack a vision of how to transition to a system of inclusive and sustainable growth.

The Arab world cannot hope to develop prosperous economies without abandoning rentier systems. But the transition will prove arduous, given governments’ decades-long overreliance on rent resources. As Arab societies are asked to sacrifice in the form of reduced subsidies, fewer government jobs, and reduced services and support in general, it will become much more difficult for their leaders to bar them from the decisionmaking process. Economic reform will not succeed in the Arab world if it is not accompanied by a political reform process that gives people a meaningful voice and builds a system of checks and balances.


Case Study 4

Jordan—Between Status Quo and Reform

Jordan’s institutional and economic development continues to be hindered by an unsustainable dependence on foreign assistance and a bloated public sector.


Security Sector

Human Landscape  |  Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

The predominance of the security sectors and armed forces in Arab states has contributed significantly to the region’s current political and governance crises. In the states that experienced popular uprisings, public anger with police abuses fueled discontent. But even where those revolts were successful, weak interim governments and inexperienced representative assemblies failed to place security-sector reform on the public agenda.

The predominance of the security sectors and armed forces in Arab states has contributed significantly to the region’s current political and governance crises.

Such reform would have applied to law enforcement, security agencies, and other paramilitary or coercive state agencies. It would also have included a parallel shift in civil-military relations to bring national armed forces under the unambiguous control of democratically elected civilian authorities. Instead, rival political factions either competed for control over the security sector and the armed forces or sought to appease them.60 The inability to engage in reform also revealed the residual influence of former regime figures and networks within security and military institutions.

As a result, security and military institutions in Libya and Yemen, for instance, broke down completely, triggering a wider crumbling of the state and a deepening of social divisions. The fragmentation of Libyan and Yemeni societies along regional, tribal, and sectarian-ethnic lines generated multiple security dilemmas. Rebuilding central security sectors and national armed forces became integrally linked to redefining the nature and purpose of their states and renegotiating the relations between state and society, greatly complicating both tasks.61 The same dilemmas have manifested in Syria since 2011 and Iraq since 2009; when Nouri al-Maliki became Iraq’s prime minister, the Iraqi army largely collapsed, resulting in the rise of the Shia-led Popular Mobilization Forces.

In other countries, the departure of powerful autocratic leaders enabled their security sectors and armed forces to expand their autonomy. This was demonstrated most graphically in Egypt, where the security forces and army colluded in ousting the country’s first-ever elected civilian president in July 2013. But they have failed to transform coercive power into stable political and social control, let alone resolve the deep structural problems of the Egyptian economy, which they have penetrated extensively.

In Tunisia, conversely, political parties successfully achieved a democratic opening by resolving their differences through dialogue and respecting electoral outcomes. However, they have failed to assert control over the interior ministry, which remains a black box dominated by informal networks that permeate the security sector.62 

Similar trends have emerged among republican Arab systems undergoing a political or postconflict transition, but without the same degree of systemic crisis or institutional breakdown. The erosion of constitutional frameworks and political consensus over the prerogatives and responsibilities of state agencies have degraded governance of the security sectors in Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Sudan. In some cases, the loose distribution of power formed by rival political parties, elite groups, and institutional factions has paralyzed the security sector, reducing its effectiveness and undermining government legitimacy. In others, it has enabled the security sector to operate with increasing autonomy, setting its own policies and priorities in the absence of coherent government guidelines or goals.

Compounding the challenge of weak or nonexistent security-sector governance is the severe decline or outright paralysis of the criminal justice sector. Where the security sector has broken down, as in Libya and Yemen, judges have been exposed to assassination or fled, leaving entire communities without an official judiciary. Even in Tunisia, court officials have been assaulted by security-sector personnel demanding the release of colleagues put on trial for the unlawful killing of citizens.63 

Arab monarchies have fared better by and large. Ruling elites in the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Jordan, and Morocco are at least relatively more united around core goals and policies, and their policymaking processes are more coherent. The close intertwining of ruling families and the alliance of elite groups with the security sectors and armed forces underpins the loyalty of the latter two, as does major government spending on salaries and procurement. Financial austerity has sometimes strained this relationship, as in Jordan in 2010;64 and political reforms have occasionally subsumed partial authority over the security sector from the royal court, as in Morocco since 2010.65 But the monarchies have preserved mutual dependency with their security sectors and armed forces. However, the absence of meaningful political reforms or power sharing, except in Morocco,66 means that domestic politics in Arab monarchies are generally becoming more security-driven. Indeed, for some countries—most prominently Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—police repression remains a fundamental feature of their political systems.67

Political power is more visibly dependent than ever on the ability to build and maintain the means of coercion.

Going forward, three challenges stand out. First, despite significant variations across Arab states, political power is more visibly dependent than ever on the ability to build and maintain the means of coercion. This is driving contrary efforts by state agencies to centralize the organization and control of security sectors and the armed forces on the one hand and by nonstate agencies to construct their own parallel security and military structures on the other. The resulting duality of such institutions is a fact of life in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. It is also implicit in the growing distinction between better-trained and armed special forces and counterterrorism units and the undertrained, underequipped, and underpaid units that form the bulk of the armed forces in countries such as Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

Second, the erosion of governments’ political authority and the capacity of key state institutions—coupled with financial crises and economic cronyism—has expanded the scope of corruption in the security and defense sectors of most, if not all, Arab states. This has affected all aspects of state functioning—from admission into police and military academies, to promotions and appointments, to all aspects of procurement, to the conduct of basic operational tasks and service delivery.

Moreover, the decline of state capacity and armed conflict has generated extensive cross-border economies based on smuggling, in which security sectors are often embedded, making it much harder to dismantle black markets. The armed forces have also become an important economic actor in several Arab states. They have, varyingly, engaged in formally registered or black market activities or acted as vehicles for speculative investments and commission-taking by members of ruling families and governing elites.

Third, employment in the security and defense sectors, which has often functioned as a job-generation and welfare scheme, is under strain as a result of financial retrenchment in many Arab states. In numerous countries, employment also drives the factionalization of security sectors and armed forces along regional, tribal, rural-urban, or political-ideological lines, depending on the specific country context.

To achieve real progress, states must firmly place the reform and governance of security sectors and armed forces on the public agenda.

These challenges stiffen resistance to security-sector reform and to renegotiating civil-military relations within a context of democratic governance. They, moreover, impede the professionalization of the security sector and armed forces, the rebuilding of collapsed security and military institutions, the integration of nonstate militias into government security and military institutions, and the bridging of partisan or communal divides among the security and military rank and file. To achieve real progress, states must firmly place the reform and governance of security sectors and armed forces on the public agenda, and international actors must avoid prioritizing counterterrorism to the detriment of these reform efforts. A culture of consultation and dialogue is needed to build political coalitions around agreed-on goals and then pursue these consistently through coherent policies and concrete programmatic approaches.


Case Study 5

Egypt—The Limits of Lawless Security

Egypt’s military is now more firmly in control than at any other time in recent decades, stifling civilian politics and threatening economic growth.


Media and Information Technology

Human Landscape  |  Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

Arab citizens today are formulating their attitudes in the context of a fundamental and irreversible change in the nature of political communication. For decades, Arab states used media as tools for political mobilization and control. Stifling censorship and heavy-handed state broadcasting largely shaped the availability of information to Arab citizens. However, state control began to erode in the 1990s with the appearance of satellite television stations such as Al-Jazeera. The rapid spread of the internet brought about unprecedented opportunities for citizens to access information and express their opinions. Thus, the Arab uprisings of 2011 took place within a media-saturated region, in which most citizens had regular access to a dizzying spectrum of television stations, newspapers, websites, and social media outlets.

Arab citizens today are formulating their attitudes in the context of a fundamental and irreversible change in the nature of political communication.

Internet access, once very low by international standards, has grown extremely quickly, as has usage of social media networks, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The proliferation of online and broadcast media had powerful effects during the Arab uprisings, when they played a critical role in linking together protest movements across the region and spreading the dynamics of political contention from Tunisia to other countries. The uprisings, in turn, allowed previously marginalized figures to gain access to mainstream media while encouraging the proliferation of numerous new online media platforms.

However, the early hope invested in this open media environment was quickly tempered by many of the same obstacles hindering other aspirations for regional change. Arab regimes began exploiting the new media forms, devoting resources to using them as tools of repression, mobilization, surveillance, and control. Similarly, state sponsors began applying more pressure on transnational satellite television stations, using them as policy instruments to encourage uprisings against regional adversaries while simultaneously supporting friendly regimes. Most national media institutions, even in transitional countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, resisted fundamental change and remained dominated by old-regime loyalists. Newer private media platforms often came to represent the interests of political parties or wealthy individuals.

Not all of the pathologies of this new media environment can be blamed on regimes. The polarization of politics along sectarian and ideological lines has been exacerbated by the global trend toward partisan media and the tendency of social media consumers to self-segregate into like-minded, closed communities. Those tendencies contributed to the polarization and mistrust across ethnic, sectarian, and ideological lines, which undermined political transitions.68 Social media is an integral component of the Islamic State and other extremist groups, which have developed highly sophisticated media organizations to coordinate efforts across borders, disseminate propaganda, and attract recruits globally.

Such media effects were most obviously felt in transitional countries, including Egypt and Tunisia, where the media exacerbated mutual fears and the breakdown of revolutionary unity between Islamists and their adversaries. The media proved to be a powerful tool for mobilizing support for Egypt’s coup in 2013 and for discouraging political dissent in other states.69 Arab states have sought to regain their control over media and to mobilize its power in the service of protecting their rule.

The internet and social media provide abundant opportunities for citizens to connect with others across social and physical distances.

Although states and regimes have vast resources to devote to controlling and exploiting the media, they will struggle to dominate the flow of information. The Middle East has one of the highest rates of internet adoption of any global region, technological changes continually offer new means for communication, and Arab citizens now see access to information and freedom of expression as a basic right.70 Even after years of autocratic resurgence, two-thirds of respondents in the 2016 Arab Barometer survey believed they could criticize the government without fear.71 The internet and social media provide abundant opportunities for citizens to connect with others across social and physical distances. That is why state efforts to reimpose censorship and dominate their populations will face stiffer odds in the future.

CommentaryPutting Institutions First

Salam Fayyad

While initiating political reform is difficult, sustaining it is even more so. This is not unique to Arab societies. Rather, it is a challenge that today’s well-functioning democracies had to contend with in their often-turbulent formative years. The answer is a process of smart incrementalism, which establishes and safeguards state institutions while creating the potential for additional reforms down the line.

To expect a nation to move from authoritarianism to a near-perfect democratic system through the instrument of elections alone is to invite failure. At some point, one has to stop and realize that elections are not the foundation of democracy, but a manifestation of it. And once a country has passed the point of already initiating reform, a key organizing principle to sustaining it is smart incrementalism.

To expect a nation to move from authoritarianism to a near-perfect democratic system through the instrument of elections alone is to invite failure.

For far too long, key international players have pushed the idea that basic democratic principles would inevitably materialize in countries if only free and fair elections were allowed to be held—or, in simpler terms, the idea that elections come first and individual liberty comes later. Yet time and again, one has seen new democracies established, only to later watch them fall into the same traps as their predecessors: protesters are silenced, media outlets are censored, and even satire is banned.

Inexperienced elected leaders often feel weak as they take over turbulent nations, and this pushes them to resort to the tactics of strongmen, rather than work toward building up a tradition of strong leadership. As a result, democratic ideals and civil rights are trampled upon in the pursuit of stable government.

If sustainability is the end goal, there needs to be a foundation made up of strong institutions that guarantee basic democratic principles for citizens, even if their leaders are not elected through the will of the people. Freedom of speech and government transparency are essential to a more democratic system, as they create openings for additional reforms. Authoritarian rule and government for the people are ideas that seem to be mutually exclusive, but they are not entirely so. They can, in fact, coexist until one erodes, or overpowers, the other. For example, if citizens are able to speak out about their governments’ expenditures and elicit a certain degree of responsiveness, not only will they feel empowered, they will also notice when those rights are stripped away from them. In a way, the people start to serve as a check and balance on the government. Step by step, in an incremental fashion, good governance that is for the people will ultimately become governance of the people and by the people as well.

This is not to say that one should be content with aiming for mediocrity. It is to say that in many places mediocrity just happened to be a part of what turned out to be the long road toward democracy. Pushing for the best should give way to incrementally establishing institutions that put in place, promote, and safeguard basic democratic principles and rights—beginning with the right of access to information and the freedoms of speech and of the press.

And if this sounds like a pitch for mediocrity, that would be a small price to pay if—along the long path toward well-functioning democracies—slippages or, worse, reversals were avoided.

Salam Fayyad is an economist and a former prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority.

CommentaryThe Internet, the Media, and the state in Egypt

Lina Attalah

In the summer of 2016, news spread in Egypt that a media law was about to be passed. A draft has been in the making since 2014, when former prime minister Ibrahim Mehleb formed a committee to write the new law. The draft, which continues to be an object of disagreement, was motivated by a desire to control what state institutions perceive to be unregulated media spaces, particularly online ones.

According to the draft that was circulated this summer, media outlets operating online, such as newspapers, will now have to register for authorization to publish from the Supreme Council for the Regulation of Media, the head of which is chosen by the president. A minimum bank deposit of 500,000 Egyptian pounds (about $56,000) is required for registration.1 The draft contains a number of prohibitive measures such as rendering censorship official in times of war—albeit enacted through a judicial order—and banning the dissemination of foreign media if such content is deemed harmful to national security. Fines as high as 1 million Egyptian pounds (about $113,000) are imposed if an entity publishes without authorization.

For a long time, the Internet has represented an alternative political space for Egyptians—one in which young media outlets have been able to operate and offer a different kind of journalism than that sponsored primarily by state money or corporate wealth. State-sponsored or state-friendly media have been succumbing to a new level of unprecedented restrictions, either by order of state institutions, through indirect means of intimidation or the chilling effect of seeing journalists arrested, or simply because of pressure from the wealthy individuals subsidizing them.

New voices online, such as Aswat Masriya, Qoll, Za2ed18, Zahma, Welad El Balad, and Mada Masr (which I co-founded)—while still marginal in their abilities to secure wide followings—are set to define the future of journalism in the country, if they survive. They are outlets that have been experimenting with meaningful explanatory journalism, have made room for writers with new ideas on how to address Egypt’s state of affairs, have been writing intelligently about the economy (Egypt’s most pressing issue), and have created a space for interesting editorial subcultures.

New voices online, such as Aswat Masriya, Qoll, Za2ed18, Zahma, Welad El Balad, and Mada Masr . . . are set to define the future of journalism in the country, if they survive.

New online voices are attracting attention—sometimes too much of it—despite their presence on the margins of a mainstream media landscape that is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of wealthy individuals aligned with the state. Recently, a youth band that has been producing online satirical political videos online at no cost was arrested for doing so.

Everyone knows that, whatever happens with the new media law, the state’s impetus will be to control these margins. That way, Egypt’s regime would have a full menu of control over the media, from the informal channels of direct contact and intimidation in newsrooms—imposing self-censorship and pushing private wealth in the direction of media consolidation—to the blunter instruments of imprisoning journalists, closing down news outlets, imposing gag orders, and of course, passing prohibitive legislation.

It remains to be seen how these nascent media voices will resist, survive, and grow in influence. What is certain is that they can potentially be at the forefront of media practices the moment the political space is liberated and reappropriated by people who would be rigorously looking for the truth amid the media maze.

Lina Attalah is a journalist based in Cairo and is the co-founder and director of Mada Masr.

1 Mohamed Shuman, “A Critical Eye on the Law for Organising Media,” Ahram Online, June 11, 2016,

The Geopolitical Landscape

Although the Middle East witnessed high levels of geopolitical tension and frequent interstate conflict during the Cold War era, the turmoil was generally characterized by principles of state sovereignty and, after 1967, relative structural stability. That regional order has now collapsed and been replaced by anarchy, which Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century British philosopher, described as the natural state of man—that of “war of all against all.” In this new Middle East anti-order, there is no evidence that powerful states are refraining from interfering in the affairs of weaker ones. Multiple countries, including Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, are competing for regional dominance, playing outsized roles in surrounding countries such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Meanwhile, previous regional powerhouses, Egypt and Iraq, are now constrained by domestic weaknesses. The breakdown in the Arab regional order can be understood from four angles: state collapse and internal conflict, regional conflict, energy geopolitics, and the environment.

State Collapse and Internal Conflict

Human Landscape  | Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

The decay at the heart of many Arab states has been revealed to be deeper than most imagined, exacerbating the region’s deep socioeconomic deficiencies, polarizing its societies, and reducing the scope for political compromise. The result has been three broad types of breakdown in recent years: institutional collapse, social collapse, and a collapse of the broader Arab state system.

The decay at the heart of many Arab states has been revealed to be deeper than most imagined.

The institutional collapse has, perhaps, been the most apparent, as governance structures have struggled against the rising demands of dissatisfied populations. For as long as hydrocarbon rents could be translated into enough public-sector jobs to keep pace with population growth, Arab leaders could focus on regime security and stage-managed legitimacy (and in many cases economic predation) at the expense of genuine political and economic development. As a result, it is not accidental that the Arab states beset by civil war consist of the most repressive—Iraq, Libya, and Syria—and the least institutionally developed—Libya and Yemen.

Social collapse, in turn, has been most visible in the fragmentation of states along confessional, ethnic, and even tribal lines. As state institutions have come unglued, individuals have fallen back on primordial identities, accelerating state disintegration. In practical terms, this means that even once the fighting ends in such places as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, those countries are unlikely to be reconstituted as centrally controlled, unitary political entities. New arrangements will have to be contemplated, including constitutional mechanisms to allow regions and local communities greater latitude in managing their own affairs and to offer physical protections for minority groups.

These institutional and social breakdowns have contributed to an unprecedented broader collapse of the Arab state system. Gone is the relative coherence and sense of shared purpose that once characterized the collective actions of Arab states. While the roots of conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen seem specific to their locales, the simultaneous eruption of the conflicts strongly suggests a dynamic interplay of destabilizing regional linkages.

The breakdown of the Arab state system represents a paradox. In 2016, the Sykes-Picot agreement—the British-French scheme to divide the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of control—turned one hundred years old. In the popular imagination, the agreement is synonymous with the supposedly artificial boundaries of the Middle East, which Arab nationalists have traditionally held were designed to divide an otherwise single, unified Arab people. However, notwithstanding the destructive colonial legacy, Arab borders have proven more resilient than many borders in the Balkans, East Africa, or Southeast Asia, which have seen the creation of new states or the transformation of old ones.

At the same time, to assume that there are natural borders in the Middle East is a potentially dangerous concept, implying that more stable political institutions might result if only such borders could be created. The reasoning is that such natural borders could be defined by the imposition of ethnic and sectarian homogenization, opening the door to even more violence and destruction than is already convulsing the region. With the significant exceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Arab-Kurdish struggles in Syria and Iraq, the turbulence in the Middle East is not fundamentally about territory. These conflicts are about the nature of states within borders, not the borders between states. In each of the four countries suffering from seemingly intractable internal conflicts—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—political fragmentation is well advanced and, in the best case scenario, some form of decentralization seems likely.

These conflicts are about the nature of states within borders, not the borders between states.

The results of the Middle East’s wars have been catastrophic, fueling many of the other crippling problems facing the region—including massive human displacement, political instability (not just for immediate neighbors but as far away as Europe and beyond), and regional intervention. Terrorism was hardly unknown in the region in decades past. But the combination of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the regional collapse since 2011 has unleashed a monumental wave of terrorism in the region’s failing states. Iraq suffered more than 2,000 suicide attacks between 2003 and 2015, an astounding 41 percent of all suicide attacks in the world since 1982.72 Similarly, in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, which is experiencing a more limited insurgency in the Sinai, attacks have also increased substantially since 2011.73

Given the linkages between internal conflict and global terrorism, refugee flows, and humanitarian disasters, resolving the Middle East’s myriad wars is among the most urgent challenges facing global leaders. Until these conflicts can be contained, reduced, and eventually settled, they are likely to overwhelm all other regional challenges.

Meanwhile, because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the international policy and donor communities should focus on bolstering weak and fragile states, as well as states located near conflict zones. In particular, international support for countries that have at least marginally responsive governments or civil societies—such as Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and Lebanon—should be a priority.

As hopeless as the situation in the Middle East might seem, state failure is not a permanent condition. While complete state collapse, as in Syria, permanently changes a country’s trajectory, numerous countries have experienced a partial or robust recovery in recent decades, including several African, Balkan, and Southeast Asian states. Even Somalia, the archetypal failed state, has shown meaningful indications of rebirth since the deployment of African Union troops there in 2007.74  Arab states, too, have stepped back from the brink. As fragile as Lebanon is, it has managed to partially recover from a devastating civil conflict, as did Yemen after earlier conflicts in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s, though it has since relapsed into turmoil. So, even in Syria, eventual stabilization is not only possible, it is probable.


Case Study 6

Libya—The Hollowed State

Libya today is a failed state, plagued by hollowed or nonexistent institutions, a collapsing economy, endemic violence, and the rise of localized, subnational identities.


Regional Conflict

Human Landscape  | Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

Perhaps no recent event has exemplified the complicated interaction of the conflicts reshaping the Middle East more than Russia’s intervention in Syria in the fall of 2015. Not only has Moscow ensured the survival of the Assad regime, it has highlighted Washington’s ineffectiveness and created the most complex geopolitical moment in decades.

Adding to the high stakes of these conflicts, struggles for domestic reform have been unfolding within this increasingly confused context of regional and international power plays, especially in the eastern part of the Arab world. The Arab uprisings have upended the rhythms of regional politics. The profound weakening of former Arab powerhouses, in particular—such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—has unsettled the balance of power. As a result, the role of both non-Arab regional powers—Iran, Israel, and Turkey—and the Gulf monarchies has increased. The successive, disastrous wars in Iraq, and more recently the war in Syria, have created institutional vacuums at the heart of the Middle East, inviting competitive interventions in both countries while destabilizing their neighbors. The collapse of state authority in Libya and Yemen has had a similar effect.

Political warfare across state lines has shaped the course of not only shattered states but also those going through transitions after the 2011 uprisings. Gulf states suspicious of democratic change and keen to preserve regional stability, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have provided support to fellow monarchies. They also backed Egypt’s military coup in 2013 both financially and politically, and they supported the Nidaa Tounes coalition in Tunisia that opposed Ennahda, the country’s leading Islamist party with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar and Turkey, in turn, supported Islamist movements in Egypt and Tunisia, translating local politics into a wider regional competition for power.75 This pervasive external involvement has meant that no transition, failed or successful, has been purely a domestic affair.

This pervasive external involvement has meant that no transition, failed or successful, has been purely a domestic affair.

The disintegration of multiple Arab states created many new opportunities for countries to advance their interests through support to local allies. Their interventions have included open and covert financing and arming of local allies, information campaigns through local and transnational media outlets, and, in the most extreme cases, military action. These actions have essentially created proxy wars and profoundly shaped local politics. Local power struggles have been subsumed into broader regional divides, such as between Sunni and Shia Muslims or Islamists and their adversaries. That is why any attempt to address domestic problems without taking these dynamics into account will likely fail.

There is not a single, clear line of regional conflict. Instead, there are several overlapping lines connecting the region’s states, which have varied in salience and potency over time:

Iran versus Saudi Arabia

The conflict between U.S.-backed “moderates” and the “resistance” camp, which structured politics throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, has given way to an increasingly sectarian proxy war waged across a broad regional canvas. Both Riyadh and Tehran view conflicts in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen through the lens of an Iran–Saudi Arabia regional rivalry, even where such links are at best tenuous. Tensions between the two countries have added a geopolitical dimension to what began as local conflicts, complicating efforts to de-escalate or resolve them.

Qatar and Turkey versus the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia

This regional conflict revolves around Islamism, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded movements. Regional proxy interventions have occurred in transitional countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. However, this line of conflict has receded somewhat since Qatar’s young emir ascended to the throne in June 2013 and Egypt’s military coup shortly thereafter brought the most intense battle between these countries to a climax. Since then, the rivals have cooperated in the Syrian and Yemeni wars, but the potential for renewed polarization remains close to the surface.

Israel versus Palestine

The Palestinian conflict is no longer at the center of regional disagreement, having been replaced by the Syrian conflict. Arab regimes continue to voice support for a two-state solution, but they seem ever more comfortable coordinating with Israel against Iran, even without meaningful progress on the Palestinian issue. It is less clear that Arab publics have lost interest in Palestine, however, and the cooperation between Israel and Arab regimes could emerge as a contentious issue if and when Israeli-Palestinian violence resumes.

Salafism-jihadism versus the Arab states

The Islamic State and al-Qaeda reshaped the long-standing jihadi challenge faced by Arab regimes. No state openly supports jihadists, but each has a different perception of the threat and whether to prioritize the fight against Salafi-jihadi groups, such as the Islamic State, or against Iran, especially in Iraq and Syria. Even if the Islamic State collapses in both countries, new strands of the jihadi insurgency will likely emerge wherever state failure opens up opportunities. The terrorism threat certainly adds to the security and societal challenges facing the Arab states, but it has also been used as a pretext for Arab states to narrow the scope of political expression, free association, and peaceful protest by defining such activities as security threats.

These regional power struggles have unfolded within an uncertain international setting. U.S. regional hegemony has been disrupted by sharp disagreements with key allies such as Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey over U.S. policy in Syria, the nuclear agreement with Iran, and the promotion of democracy. Russia has moved opportunistically into the region—most directly through its military intervention in Syria—to court unhappy U.S. allies and to establish itself as an unavoidable power broker in the region’s strategic conflicts.

Within autocratic states, these proxy wars have undermined democratic transitions, driven fragile states into civil war, and exacerbated sectarianism and violent extremism.

Within autocratic states, these proxy wars have undermined democratic transitions, driven fragile states into civil war, and exacerbated sectarianism and violent extremism. The impact of these conflicts is not limited to the states where the wars rage. Refugee flows from Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are placing great and growing stress on neighboring countries. Where regional powers have cooperated, it has generally resulted in the reinforcement or restoring of autocratic rule at the expense of desperately needed reforms. Regional powers and the unsettled international environment have therefore intensified the problems of the region rather than helped to solve them. Addressing the manifold challenges to Arab governance will become much more tractable if these powers pull back from these destabilizing proxy competitions. 


Case Study 7

Syria—A Web of Conflict

Syria lies at the epicenter of the Middle East’s overlapping conflicts and geopolitical interests.


Energy Geopolitics

Human Landscape  | Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

Although the Middle East’s hydrocarbon wealth remains critical to the global energy supply, the recent collapse in oil prices—expected to remain a feature of energy markets for years to come—adds significantly to the challenges facing Arab countries.

In 1908, oil was struck at Masjed Soleyman in southwestern Iran, marking the beginning of the oil era in the Middle East. The region’s hydrocarbon wealth has been an indispensable engine for unprecedented global economic expansion since the end of World War II. The result was the remarkable transformation of many Arab societies. However, the ease with which these revenues came has masked enormous wealth disparities between Arab countries and complicated the political and long-term economic development of the beneficiaries of oil resources.

In August 2014, a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude cost more than $100. In January 2016, the price briefly dipped below $30, though it has since stabilized in the $40–$50 band.76 Oil receipts can account for 80 percent or more of the Middle East’s energy-exporting countries’ revenues,77 so the price collapse has created massive fiscal challenges in a region already experiencing profound turmoil. Oil revenue in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states is estimated to have declined by $390 billion in 2015—some 20 percent of the gross domestic product—and losses in 2016 will likely be greater.78

Most experts agree that supply factors—such as a glut of exploration investment and increased Iraqi and Iranian exports—have played a more prominent role in the price drop than demand factors—such as the recent sluggish economic performance in China, Europe, and many developing countries.79 But more significant is the extent to which the collapse was caused neither by cyclical supply and demand nor by short-term political factors, but by technological transformations—increased energy efficiency, the North American shale gas and tight oil revolution, and the early stages of an expected boom in electrical automobiles—portending permanent and fundamental structural changes.80

Futures markets did not predict the collapse, and it is certainly possible that its magnitude will set the stage for a coming price spike as the sharp decline in exploration investments leads to supply shortages in the years to come.

But taking a longer view, profound changes are apparent. In 1970, oil accounted for 50 percent of global energy consumption. The proportion has fallen to 30 percent and will continue to drop, albeit more slowly, amid continued technological advancements.81 The Middle East accounts for nearly half of all proven global oil reserves and more than 40 percent of its natural gas reserves.82 It will increase its production share in the decades ahead, but there is good reason to believe that oil prices will not return to $100 a barrel anytime soon.83

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, has said that the United Arab Emirates will celebrate loading its last barrel of oil,84 while the Saudi Vision 2030 project articulates a diversified economic future.85 However sincere these statements are, they suggest that prominent oil producers are themselves girding for a sustained price depression.86

The GCC countries, and Algeria to a lesser extent, are prepared to handle several years of reduced prices. They enjoy minimal debt, retain massive currency reserves (except Oman and Bahrain), and have extremely low production costs. However, these countries are likely to face massive challenges in the period ahead as they confront the need to reduce vast public sectors while creating vibrant private sectors capable of keeping up with the demographic youth bulge.

They have generally taken some positive steps: making sharp cuts in domestic spending and energy subsidies,87 moving toward the introduction of value-added taxes, and signaling the need for economic diversification and limited political reform. But in countries ruled by absolute monarchies, where ruling families have used oil wealth to impose patriarchal social contracts, such moves are likely to create counterreactions with important long-term consequences, as calls for transparency, openness, and accountability increase.

For Iraq and Libya, both engulfed by war, the crises have already arrived. Iraq, having squandered hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenues through corruption and mismanagement, is nearly bankrupt and facing a severe fiscal crisis.88 Libya, in turn, has veered toward economic collapse, as warring factions continue to fight over control of the post-Qaddafi state and its ultimate structure.

Eventually, the price drop could begin to narrow the tremendous wealth disparities between the Middle East’s oil exporters and importers. The massive increase in military procurement of recent years is unlikely to be fully sustained amid far-reaching austerity measures.

But in the shorter term, the region’s non-oil exporters, including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia, may be more prone to fiscal shocks. On the surface, regional oil importers benefit since production costs and energy subsidy expenditures have significantly declined. But many of them also lack large foreign-currency reserves and have become dependent on Gulf oil rents—in the form of financial assistance, investments, job opportunities, and remittances—which has impeded political and economic development over time.

Systemic economic, political, and social transformations are urgently needed to rein in unaccountable spending as regional and domestic challenges proliferate.

Across the region, Arab leaders face a real conundrum. Systemic economic, political, and social transformations are urgently needed to rein in unaccountable spending as regional and domestic challenges proliferate. Yet, these same transformations could increase the possibility of domestic unrest. Sustained low oil prices are likely to add to the tribulations of the Middle East, possibly creating new openings for nonstate actors and extremist groups as discretionary spending and political patronage decline.

There are indications that at least some leaders are beginning to understand the dilemma. For example, if nothing else, the Saudi Vision 2030 program, which aims to end Saudi Arabia’s dependency on hydrocarbons in fifteen years,89 marks an important public recognition that economic modernization and diversification are essential to the kingdom’s long-term prosperity. But until Arab societies are able to clearly articulate their socioeconomic futures, efforts to get there are unlikely to be successful.


Case Study 8

Saudi Arabia—Visions or Mirages?

The ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 offers a road map to a post-oil Saudi Arabia. Its success or failure will have huge implications for the entire Arab world.


The Environment

Human Landscape  | Political Landscape  | Geopolitical Landscape

World energy markets are not the only factor likely to influence the Middle East and North Africa in a major way; climate change is also likely to have grueling direct and indirect effects on the people of the region. On July 21, 2016, Mitrabah, Kuwait, recorded a temperature of 54.0°C (129.2°F), and on July 22, Basra, Iraq, recorded a temperature of 53.9°C (128.0°F).90 If confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization, these would be the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere and Asia. Moreover, one recent study found that on the current trajectory, the number of warm days will increase sharply, with temperatures on the hottest days projected to rise from 43°C (109°F) on average to 46°C (115°F) by the middle of the century and to almost 50°C (122°F) by the end of the century.91 Such projections have led some researchers to conclude that the temperatures alone could make some parts of the region uninhabitable.92

In addition to producing uncomfortable and even life-threatening temperatures, climate change will have a profound effect on water and food supplies, as well as on air quality.

In addition to producing uncomfortable and even life-threatening temperatures, climate change will have a profound effect on water and food supplies, as well as on air quality. The Middle East and North Africa region already has scarce water resources. Arab countries have more than 5 percent of the world’s population and 10 percent of its land area, but receive only 1.2 percent of the world’s annual renewable water resources.93 Rising temperatures are expected to diminish that share further—perhaps by as much as 20 percent by 2030. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that droughts are likely to be more frequent, exposing an estimated 80–100 million residents to water stress by 2025 and resulting in increased pressures on groundwater resources.94

Higher temperatures, combined with poor agricultural practices, are contributing to desertification, with implications for agriculture as well as air quality. About 85 percent of water in the Middle East and North Africa is used for agriculture, representing an overuse of groundwater resources, which in most countries of the region are not well monitored or managed.95 Some countries are already facing extreme dryness. In Yemen, for example, citizens have access to only 88 cubic meters of water per capita annually—far below the global definition of scarcity of 500 cubic meters.96 The IPCC predicts only modest increases in precipitation along with rising temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa, even as populations continue to expand, leading to increased evaporation and water shortages unless consumption patterns change.97

Climate change is damaging air quality as well as water supplies, because desertification has increased fine particulate air pollution. Desert dust in the air above Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria has grown by up to 70 percent in the last fifteen years.98 Conversely, an excess of saltwater in the form of rising seas will also create problems by contaminating scarce groundwater reserves as well as flooding heavily inhabited, low-lying coastal areas and ports in Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.99

So far, Middle Eastern and North African governments have coped with freshwater scarcity by engaging in extensive desalination. Much of this has taken place in the Gulf states, which account for almost 70 percent of the world’s desalination plants, supported by fossil fuels.100 However, current processes are too expensive and environmentally harmful to be permanent solutions. The more water that is desalinated, the more saline the surrounding waters become and the more energy intensive the process. Much more research is needed into renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, to make desalination a more affordable and sustainable strategy.

The tensions among Middle Eastern and North African states, and between them and their non-Arab neighbors, are already playing a role in exacerbating water scarcity and could become much more of a problem in the future. A considerable amount of the region’s freshwater originates outside the region. The Nile River flows through northeastern Africa, transiting through, among other countries, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Sudan, before draining into the sea via Egypt. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers originate in Turkey—and the Euphrates crosses Syria—before flowing through Iraq. Ethiopia’s construction of the Renaissance Dam across the Blue Nile in order to harness hydroelectric power has caused apprehension in Egypt about the possibility of reduced flows. At certain points, this has become a domestic issue in which Egyptian politicians compete with each other to show who would be strongest in taking harsh action against Ethiopia.101 

The social and political implications of climate change in the Middle East and North Africa are difficult to ascertain as the environmental impacts will unfold on timescales best measured in decades. There is evidence that a years-long drought in eastern Syria contributed to the socioeconomic pressures as unrest boiled over in 2011.102 Increasing temperatures and decreasing water in the years ahead would greatly complicate the already daunting array of issues facing the region, necessitating wise preparation and interstate cooperation. Absent such cooperation, the prospects for growing and widespread water, food, and energy insecurity—and the possibility of conflicts related to that insecurity—are alarming.

CommentaryThe Future of Political Islam

Mohammad Abu Rumman

In looking at the diversity of Arab Islamist movements, there are two main currents: one that is peaceful and one that is based on Salafi jihadism.

In looking at the diversity of Arab Islamist movements, there are two main currents: one that is peaceful and one that is based on Salafi jihadism.

The first current encompasses a peaceful Islamist movement that accepts the democratic game and participates in the political process, as seen in parties associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or similar organizations. The second current is characterized as a Salafi jihadist movement that favors military action and rejects democratic states, seeking instead to establish a religious state governed by Islamic law as it is understood by those who are part of the movement.

Islamist groups that accept peaceful political action have clearly transitioned into a new phase since the 2011 Arab revolts and their aftermath. This new phase is altogether different from the earlier one, which was characterized by limited participation in elections and politics in general.

In Morocco and Tunisia, Islamist groups today have become active participants in politics. They now must face economic and governance crises, which have prompted a gradual transition from ideological to programmatic parties, allowing their visions of democracy to evolve.

The dilemma of such movements is clearer in the Arab Mashreq, including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen, which seem to be closed to the possibility of fundamental changes to their political systems. Indeed, there have been setbacks in the process of democratic transition, and in many cases, these Islamist movements are experiencing an unprecedented degree of internal friction, as well as a growing number of defections.

Two major trends are emerging within peaceful Islamic movements. The first is the promotion of self-criticism, the acceptance of the democratic process, and the separation of party and movement, allowing for qualified civilian political parties that avoid mixing politics with their religious callings. This trend is apparent in Morocco and Tunisia, places where there is a growing distinction between religious advocacy and political aims, as well as in Jordan, where the Muslim Brotherhood participated in the 2016 parliamentary elections without its familiar slogan, “Islam is the solution.”

The second trend is an insistence on prioritizing organizational development and preserving traditional religious principles. Adherents to this trend are skeptical of the democratic path, especially after what happened in Egypt and with regard to the West’s current approach to Iraq and Syria. Some followers of this trend evoke the legacy of Sayyid Qutb, the influential Egyptian Islamic theorist, and his perspective on governance, Islamic law, and the conflict with secularism and other ideological trends.

The second broader Islamist current in the Arab context is Salafi jihadism, which views the use of violence and terrorism as critical to achieving its political objectives. In recent years, the region has seen the emergence of the Islamic State, the most prominent and effective organization among global jihadist movements, to which many local groups have pledged loyalty. Terrorists have shifted from an elitist approach—whereby groups such as al-Qaeda carefully selected the perpetrators, operations, and targets—to an approach that instead is more indiscriminate, acting through lone-wolf attacks that make it so anyone can conduct terrorist operations against any target, as seen in the West.

Which of the two Islamist currents will prevail? The answer is tied to the region’s general political situation. If Arab countries and societies move toward democracy and openness, attempt to end civil wars, and work for the triumph of national and reformist agendas, then the trend of peacefully promoting democracy and integration will prevail.

Preliminary indicators, however, are not reassuring. Even if the international coalition succeeds in eliminating the Islamic State militarily, a new and more dangerous iteration could emerge as a result of dire political and societal conditions in the region. The Arab world suffers from internal crises, which have caused a large part of the Mashreq to collapse. Meanwhile, Morocco and Tunisia have a seemingly better chance of developing an improved version of political Islam—one that involves engaging in the democratic process.

Dr. Mohammad Abu Rumman is a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan and writes for the Jordanian daily al-Ghad.

CommentaryNational Reconciliation in Bahrain

Khalil Al-Marzooq

After more than five years of unrest, Bahrain is entering a new phase. In 2016, the government implemented the toughest measures against Bahrain’s Shia in decades. This included revoking the citizenship of the supreme Shia leader, Ayatollah Isa Qassim; shutting down Al Wefaq, the largest political society in the country; and doubling the prison sentence of Al Wefaq’s secretary general, Sheikh Ali Salman. With sectarianism running high in the region and political tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensifying by the day, a continued deterioration of the situation in Bahrain will have negative repercussions well beyond the country’s borders.

There is only one solution to Bahrain’s instability: national reconciliation that aims to build an inclusive political system that embraces all the factions in the kingdom.

There is only one solution to Bahrain’s instability: national reconciliation that aims to build an inclusive political system that embraces all the factions in the kingdom. What is needed is a solution that maintains the monarchy and gives greater political representation to the people—though this is easier said than done. Such an outcome will require a new commitment to dialogue from both the authorities and opposition alike. However, it will also require a strong commitment from the international community to support the process and encourage compromise.

A credible national reconciliation process must address the main grievances of all Bahrainis, provide governance that protects their rights and interests, and institutionalize guarantees of these rights. A new social contract must be agreed on through constitutional reforms; this would also create a new legislative framework that complies with international norms, especially with respect to protecting rights and freedoms. Comprehensive judicial, security, social, and economic reforms have to be implemented, and this too requires strong international support.

Though it is true that the situation is gloomy now, a success story could loom on the horizon once all parties are ready for constructive dialogue. Bahrain can no longer be ruled solely by a single stakeholder. This has long been unsustainable given the country’s demographic makeup. Bahrain belongs to all Bahrainis, and its stability and prosperity are of paramount concern to all the country’s people, the region, and the international community. National reconciliation, too, is the responsibility of all Bahrainis as well as the international community, especially the country’s strategic allies and friends.

Khalil al-Marzooq is a former first deputy speaker of the Council of Representatives of Bahrain and is an assistant to the secretary general for political and international affairs of Al Wefaq National Islamic Society.

CommentaryToward a New Social Contract for Syria

Bassma Kodmani

Rarely do dictators who have faced a serious uprising manage to reimpose their authority over society. The same holds true for Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

In part that is because a society, once awakened, doesn’t easily revert to apathy. At the same time, the machinery of Assad’s security order has lost all sense of cohesion, disintegrating into militias in ways that mirror the fragmented armed opposition.

This reality defines the path ahead. A large majority of Syrians want a state that treats all citizens as equals. However, rebuilding the country’s security apparatus is a priority that will determine the success of all other aspects of the transition, including the ability to implement a social contract that Syrians want.

An inclusive social contract [for Syria] becomes possible when the extremes on both ends of the social spectrum are excluded.

An inclusive social contract becomes possible when the extremes on both ends of the social spectrum are excluded: radical jihadis on the one hand, and the dictator who bears responsibility for mass killings and a genocidal prison system on the other. By excluding both, Syrians will have an opportunity to preserve what remains of state institutions and redefine the terms of a common future for the different parts of society.

Because no Syrians will accept injustice anymore, the country will need to address the fears of the Alawites, the aspirations of the Kurds, the alienation of the Christians, and the frustration of the Sunnis. Most importantly, it will have to address the culture of dissent that has become ingrained in young men and women.

Syrians are being asked to set the stage now, and without delay, for a stable country and a functioning democracy so as to respond to the myth that there is no alternative to Assad rule. The moderate opposition has done much work to respond to all the challenges of the transition period—such as devising an inclusive social contract and a comprehensive security plan that combats terrorism and establishing participatory civil governance. A realistic transitional justice program has been elaborated, and its implementation is being planned in such a way as not to hinder the process of negotiations. Awareness campaigns to spread the values of forgiveness and reconciliation are taking place wherever possible inside Syria. Options have been discussed for the establishment of a democratic constitution and the introduction of decentralization that would preserve the integrity of the country, while allowing local governance to flourish and minority rights to be expanded.

It is not often that societies have the time to prepare themselves for the replacement of a dictatorship. Yet Syria has conceived an alternative to Assad rule, and the proverbial baby is ready to be born. The world should help midwife it without further delay.

Bassma Kodmani is director of the Arab Reform Initiative and a member of the negotiating team for the Syrian opposition in the Geneva peace talks.


Amid the profound demographic, economic, social, and psychological dislocations in the Middle East since 2011, the prevailing organizational logic of most Arab states has run its course as regimes have lost the capacity either to generate sufficient public-sector employment to keep pace with population growth or to control and manage information and communication flows to their publics. Arab governments have faced rising popular dissatisfaction as their failures to create vibrant, prosperous, well-governed economies have become increasingly obvious.

Amid the profound demographic, economic, social, and psychological dislocations in the Middle East since 2011, the prevailing organizational logic of most Arab states has run its course.

While governing institutions have been under tremendous stress globally, authoritarian states in the Middle East have been particularly brittle and slow to adapt to the simultaneous challenges of technological and demographic change, regional turbulence, and oil-revenue declines. Status-quo political forces have managed to maintain power in most Arab countries, but that power increasingly rests on coercive means.

Meanwhile, the concurrent Arab civil wars are arguably the most urgent crises facing the global community. The Syrian conflict has been particularly catastrophic, leading to untold suffering and severely shaking the foundations of the post–World War II global order.

While these conflicts look likely to continue for some time, it is incumbent upon regional leaders to begin formulating their visions for a postconflict Middle East now. Addressing the tensions that have engulfed many Arab nations in conflict will require both new forms of governance within states as well as new norms of acceptable behavior between states.  The latter is only likely to happen when regional powers decide that proxy conflicts undermine their own internal stability. This is a long-term project, but one which the international community should urgently support.

At the same time, external actors should increase efforts to support the resiliency of frontline states, particularly those whose governments have committed to investing in their human capital. Tunisia, whose own political and economic transition has been complicated by the civil war in neighboring Libya, is the most obvious example. Jordan, Morocco, and even Lebanon, which despite its political dysfunctions has shown surprising resilience in hosting many Syrian refugees, are others.

It is easy to look with despair at the Middle East and conclude that continued chaos is inevitable. Yet, other regions have experienced similar collapses of a regional order as the complex dynamics of multiple local conflicts fed off of and transformed each other, including the Indochina wars of the 1960s and 1970s, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and several clusters of postcolonial African wars, such as the Great African War in the Congo in the 1990s and the 2000s.

Most of these regions somehow managed to step back from the precipice and create more stable, if still fragile, regional orders, offering some hope that the same is possible in the Middle East. Four decades after the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong, some experts believe that Vietnam is poised to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the next several decades.103 Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia have not resolved the underlying political and sectarian divisions that tore the former Yugoslavia apart, but they have been at peace and relatively stable for more than fifteen years. Meanwhile, Africa is outgrowing its war-torn reputation: More sub-Saharan wars have ended in the twenty-first century than have begun; and the Congo, while still unstable, is now far less violent.104

Political and economic control is integrally linked in almost every Arab country, with corruption and cronyism as an almost inevitable byproduct.

Political and economic control is integrally linked in almost every Arab country, with corruption and cronyism as an almost inevitable byproduct. Most of the region became dependent on oil revenues that, in many ways, have impeded political and economic development. Building the institutional bases for sustainable, private-sector-led economic growth requires breaking this linkage and opening the way for dynamic competition and innovation. Leaders, who until now have failed to value their populations as sources of economic development, are unlikely to prioritize their welfare unless they become convinced there is no alternative.

While destructive, the fiscal crises resulting from the crash in oil prices have created opportunities for champions of political reform: As Arab citizens confront the erosion of the generous welfare systems to which they have long been accustomed, it is only natural that they will expect increased accountability and agency in their own affairs. Because of the economic, political, and human linkages between Arab states, even resource-poor countries have been affected by the collapse in prices.

Breaking the linkage of political and economic control requires new political and economic models. Cultures of consultation and dialogue will need to be built in which political coalitions organize around agreed goals and then pursue them through coherent policies. In monarchies, power sharing means giving citizens a greater voice in political affairs through elected parliaments, shura councils, and local advisory councils; over time, these governments might come to resemble constitutional monarchies. In North African republics, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, power sharing means creating a separation of powers so that no single political institution or constituency can dominate. In unitary states riven by internecine conflict, including Libya, Syria, and Yemen, more dramatic changes may be necessary—for example, constitutional mechanisms to allow regions and local communities greater latitude in managing their own affairs and to offer physical protections for minority groups.

While the picture is grim, there are building blocks in place. Although human development levels in the Arab world remain lower than in most other regions and some recent gains are being jeopardized by numerous conflicts, the Arab region currently enjoys higher levels of literacy and improvements in women’s educational achievement. Further, despite unrelenting pressure in many Arab countries, civil society has matured considerably, demonstrating that the spirit of the Arab uprisings has not been entirely vanquished—though civic actors have struggled to translate this resilience into political influence. A few countries, particularly Tunisia, and to some extent Morocco, have begun to accept the necessity of updating state-citizen relations. At least some Gulf leaders are beginning to recognize that the old model is fraying, though it remains to be seen if royal families are willing to allow their citizens to play a meaningful role in governance.

Experience in other contexts shows that prudent policy choices can lead to improved stability and better governance. But until Arab states begin to articulate visions of more dynamic societies, they are likely to continue to languish. Building on the analytical framework presented in this report, future phases of the Arab World Horizons project will explore plausible pathways to a more prosperous and peaceful Middle East and seek to articulate policy options in support of such an outcome.

Imagining a more inventive Middle East can seem like an audacious act. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a movement of radical Arab intellectuals began to reject the prevailing political malaise characterizing the region. In 1968, one of its members, the Syrian philosopher and dissident Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, who passed away in December 2016, published “Self-Criticism After the Defeat,” for which he was jailed. Although ostensibly an analysis of the humiliating Arab defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War, in fact this seminal volume was a scornful critique of Arab political culture. Al-Azm lamented that rather than accepting responsibility for the military defeat, Arab leaders instead sought to make excuses and deflect blame, thereby squandering the opportunity for a cultural rejuvenation.

If these uprisings have succeeded in nothing else, they have helped to illuminate the profound challenges Arab societies face in the long journey toward civility and a better future.

Nearly half a century later, al-Azm reflected upon the legacy of the tumult of recent years.105 He argued, in an echo of his earlier critique, that the Arab uprisings have helped us to see regional realities for what they are: states that are now dominated by sectarian and ethnic identities instead of inclusive national identities, and dictatorships that have given way to civil war, state collapse, and terrorism. If these uprisings have succeeded in nothing else, they have helped to illuminate the profound challenges Arab societies face in the long journey toward civility and a better future.

CommentaryAnchoring Pluralism in Arab Societies

Marwan Muasher

Pluralism can be defined as respect for—and appreciation of—political, cultural, religious, and gender-related diversity. It has largely been lacking in Arab political and cultural behavior. If there is one factor that has most contributed to the stagnation of Arab societies in the last few decades, it is a predisposition toward often suffocating uniformity. What have prevailed are cultures in which truths are presented as absolute and single leaders, parties, or ideologies are portrayed as having the answers to all problems.

Hope for sustainable and prosperous societies and the renewal of the Arab world cannot be attained without a firm commitment to all aspects of pluralism.

Yet, hope for sustainable and prosperous societies and the renewal of the Arab world cannot be attained without a firm commitment to all aspects of pluralism. Politically, that means the right of everyone, whether secular or religious, to engage in peaceful political participation. No one should have the right to monopolize truth or power. If the peaceful alternation of power does not become fully entrenched both in Arab constitutions and political practice, authoritarianism will lead only to further fragmentation, dissent, and violence.

Arab countries need to focus on creating strong national identities that can trump all other allegiances. The Arab world’s cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity should be regarded as a strength rather than a weakness. That means governments must foster a sense of citizenship that values diversity, rather than promoting narrow forms of nationalism that emphasize the preeminence of certain groups over others. A vital factor in reinforcing citizenship is acknowledging the rights of women by anchoring these rights in constitutions and legislation.

Achieving these ambitions requires several important steps. First, national education systems have to be reinvented. Teaching subservience and devotion to an all-powerful leader or group of leaders should be supplanted by teaching an allegiance to the nation.

Second, the rule of law must apply equally to all, whether majorities or minorities. A common theme of the different Arab uprisings in 2011 was social justice. Citizens of Arab countries were reacting against a patronage system—in which favors are accorded to some at the expense of all in exchange for loyalty—a system that has long existed in much of the Arab world. As a consequence, people do not feel that merit is enough to allow them to advance in life. Most have fallen back on sub-identities—whether religious, tribal, or geographic—as more effective channels through which to address their grievances.

Third, the freedom to be different must be legally protected. It is vital that countries transitioning toward more open systems institutionalize the rights of all parts of society. Enshrining these freedoms early on will both ensure a smoother transition process and reassure citizens that their basic rights will be protected by their governments. This, in turn, will promote stronger identification with the state among citizens.

A commitment to pluralism in the Arab world is not a sufficient condition to ensure stability and prosperity. However, it is a necessary first step to place countries in the region on the right track toward achieving such fundamental aims.

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Jordan.


1 Perry Cammack and Marwan Muasher, “Arab Voices on the Challenges of the New Middle East,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 3, 2016,

2 “A Tale of Three Islands,” Economist, October 19, 2011,

3 United Nations Development Programme, Arab Human Development Report 2002,

4 World Economic Forum, “The Global Competitiveness Index 2014-2015 Rankings,”

5 World Bank, “World Development Indicators: Adult Female Literacy,”

6 Catriona Davies, “Mideast Women Beat Men in Education, Lose Out at Work,” CNN, June 6, 2012,

7 World Bank, “World Development Indicators: Labor Force Structure,” October 14, 2016,

8 See remarks by UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet in 2012, Also see UN Women data from 2016 showing Arab countries having lowest percentage of female parliamentarians except for the Pacific region,

9 World Bank, “Fertility Rate, Total (Births per Woman),” October 14, 2016,

10 World Bank, “World Development Indicators: Fertility Rate,”

11 U.S. Census Bureau, “International Data Base,” last modified September 27, 2016,,BA,CN,DJ,EG,GZ,IZ,JO,KU,LE,LY,MR,MO,MU,SA,SO,SU,SY,TS,AE,WE,WI,YM.

12 Jack. A Goldstone, “Youth Bulges and the Social Conditions of Rebellion,” World Politics Review, November 20, 2012,; and Omen Yair and Dan Miodownik, “Youth Bulge and Civil War: Why a Country’s Share of Young Adults Explains Only Non-Ethnic War,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 33, no. 1 (February 2016): 25–44,

13 According to the International Labor Organization, youth unemployment rates averaged 30.5 percent for the Middle East and 28.2 for North Africa in 2014, compared to a global average of 13 percent.

14 World Bank, “Visual Report: Why MENA Needs a New Social Contract,” June 3, 2016,

15 Population Reference Bureau, “Youth Population and Unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa,” July 2011,

16 Richard Cincotta, “Will Tunisia’s Democracy Survive? A View From Political Demography,” New Security Beat, May 12, 2015,

17 World Bank, “More Jobs, Better Jobs: A Priority for Egypt,” June 1, 2014,

18 Calculations are based on World Bank population estimates for Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen; cited in “Population, Total,” World Bank, 2016,

19 Calculations are based on the total number of people forcibly displaced in the following countries: Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen; cited in “IDMC’s Global Internal Displacement Database,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 2016,

20 Calculations are based on World Bank estimates; cited in “Arab World: Population,” World Bank, 2016,; and “Population, total,” World Bank, 2016,

21 Calculations are based on the global refugee population estimate (21.3 million) cited in “Figures at a Glance,” United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 2015, Around 5 million come from various Arab countries (see “Refugee Population by Country or Territory of Origin,” World Bank, 2014) and another 5 million come from Palestine (see “Palestine Refugees,” United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA),

22 “Syrian Refugees,” European University Institute, Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, and Migration Policy Center, 2016,

23 UNHCR, World at War: Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2014 (Geneva: UNHCR, 2015),

24 “Iraq IDP Figures Analysis,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 2016,

25 Calculations are based on the average number of registered Palestinian refugees cited in “UNRWA in Figures,” UNRWA, January 1, 2015,

26 Don Murray, “UNHCR Says Most of Syrian Arriving in Greece Are Students,” ed. Jonathan Clayton, UNHCR, December 8, 2015,

27 “Under Siege: The Devastating Impact on Children of Three Years of Conflict in Syria,” United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), March 2014,

28 “Confronting Fragmentation!: Impact of Syrian Crisis Report,” Syrian Center for Policy Research, February 11, 2016,

29 “Millions of Yemenis Face Food Insecurity Amidst Escalating Conflict,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, April 15, 2015,

30 “Iraq,” World Food Program, 2016,; and “WFP Libya: Situation Report #7,” World Food Program, March 31, 2016,

31 “Syria Regional Refugee Response: Total Persons of Concern,” UNHCR, November 7, 2016,

32 “Syria Regional Refugee Response: Total Persons of Concern,” UNHCR, September 30, 2016,

33 “Where We Work, Jordan,” UNRWA, December 1, 2015,

34 “Where We Work: Lebanon,” UNRWA, July 1, 2014,

35 Calculations are based on the total number of registered refugees in the two camps (158,683), divided by the total number registered in Jordan (655,833), cited in “Syria Regional Refugee Response,” UNHCR, September 18, 2016,

36 Maha Yahya, “Refugees and the Making of an Arab Regional Disorder,” Carnegie Middle East Center, November 9, 2015,; and Katherine Jones and Leena Ksaifi, “Struggling to Survive: Slavery and Exploitation of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” Freedom Fund, April 12, 2016,

37 World Food Program, UNHCR, and UNICEF, “Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: 2015 Report,” World Food Program, December 2015,

38 Raf Sanchez, Josie Ensor, and Magdy Samaan, “Daraya Surrenders to Assad Regime After Four Years of Siege and Starvation,” Telegraph, August 26, 2016,; “Milaff Almua’taqleen wa Taghayer Aldemugrafia “Yfijjran” Hudnat Alzabadani” [Captive soldiers and demographic change end the zabadani truce], Al Hayat, August 16, 2015,

39 “Europol and Interpol Issue Comprehensive Review of Migrant Smuggling Networks,” press release, Europol, May 17, 2016,

40 “Confronting Fragmentation!” Syrian Center for Policy Research.

41 “Bahrain,” World Bank, 2016,

42 Jennifer Preston, “Movement Began With Outrage and a Facebook Page That Gave It an Outlet,” New York Times, February 5, 2011,; Rajia Aboulkheir, “Key Players in Egypt’s Jan. 25 Revolution: Where Are They Now?” Al Arabiya, January 25, 2014,; and Samaa Gamie, “The Cyber-Propelled Egyptian Revolution and the De/Construction of Ethos,” in Online Credibility and Digital Ethos: Evaluating Computer-Mediated Communication, eds. Moe Folk and Shawn Apostel (Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2013), 316–30.

43 Charis Boutieri, “Jihadists and Activists: Tunisian Youth Five Years Later,” openDemocracy, July 29, 2015,

44 Ragab Saad, “Egyptian Political Parties and the Civil Society Crisis,” Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, May 10, 2016,

45 Megan Detrie, “Cairokee: One Cairo Band Becomes a Revolutionary Discovery,” National, December 29, 2011,; and Sarah Sirgany, “Incendiary Lyrics and High-Powered Motorbikes: Egypt’s Revolutionary Rock Band Won’t Keep Quiet,” CNN, April 3, 2014,

46 Jihad Abaza, “Egyptian Students Protest Against ‘Oppressive’ Education System,” Aswat Masriya, June 27, 2016,; and Amina Ismail, “After University Crackdown, Egyptian Students Fear for Their Future,” Reuters, June 1, 2016,

47 “Dirasat Mashiat Hawl Wade Munazzamat Almujtamae Almadani Almahalliat fi Alyumin- 2015” [Econ media: A survey on the status of local civil society organizations in yemen], Studies and Economic Media Center, May 25, 2015,

48 Shanta Devarajan and Lili Mottaghi, “Visual Report: Why MENA Needs a New Social Contract,” World Bank, January 2016,

49 Muhammad Faour and Marwan Muasher, “Education for Citizenship in the Arab World: Key to the Future,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 26, 2011,

50 Perry Cammack and Marwan Muasher, “Arab Voices on the Challenges of the New Middle East,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 12, 2016,

51 Ibid.

52 The UAE and Qatar are the two Arab countries in the top 20 in the Global Competitiveness Index 2016–2017 rankings. See: Klaus Schwab, ed., The Global Competitiveness Report 2016–2017 (Geneva: World Economic Forum, September 28, 2016),

53 This paragraph and the two following were drawn from Marwan Muasher, The Second Arab Awakening: And the Battle for Pluralism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 19–20.

54 Elias Lambrianos-Sabeh and David Graves, “Mid-East States Attempt to Diversify Economies Amid Low Oil Prices,” Forbes, August 26, 2016,

55 Marwan Muasher, “Freedom and Bread Go Together,” Finance and Development 50, no. 1 (March 2014): 14–17.

56 Ibid.

57 Question 210 in “Arab Barometer IV,” Arab Barometer, publication forthcoming 2017,

58 “Egypt: The Arithmetic of Revolution,” Gallup, April 2011,

59 “Thriving Economy Investing for the Long-Term,” Saudi Vision 2030,

60 Yezid Sayigh, “Missed Opportunity: The Politics of Police Reform in Egypt and Tunisia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 17, 2015,

61 Yezid Sayigh, “Crumbling States: Security Sector Reform in Libya and Yemen,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 18, 2015,

62 Sayigh, “Missed Opportunity.”

63 Omar Belhaj Salah, “Liberty and Security in Tunisia,” Sada (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 16, 2014,

64 Jeremy M. Sharp, “Jordan: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, April 21, 2011,

65 Patricia J. Campbell, “Morocco in Transition: Overcoming the Democratic and Human Rights Legacy of King Hassan II,” African Studies Quarterly 7, no. 1 (Spring 2003):

66 Maati Monjib, “Record Gains for Morocco’s Islamist Party,” Sada (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 27, 2016,

67 Anthony Shadid, “Bahrain Boils Under the Lid of Repression,” New York Times, September 15, 2011,; and “Saudi Arabia: Repression in the Name of Security,” Amnesty International, December 1, 2011,

68 Alexandra Siegel, “Sectarian Twitter Wars: Sunni-Shia Conflict and Cooperation in the Digital Age,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 20, 2015,

69 Marc Lynch, “How the Media Trashed Transitions,” Journal of Democracy 26, no.4 (October 2015): 90–100; Edward Webb, Media in Tunisia and Egypt: From Control to Transition? (New York: Palgrave, 2014); Rasha Abdulla, “Egypt’s Media in the Midst of Revolution,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 2014,; Jared Malsin, “Pro-Regime Journalists Are Shaping Public Opinion in Egypt,” Columbia Journalism Review, January 22, 2015,

70 Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain, Democracy’s Fourth Wave?: Digital Media and the Arab Spring (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Tarek Elmasry et al., “Digital Middle East: Transforming the Region Into a Leading Digital Economy,” McKinsey & Company, October 2016.

71 “Arab Barometer IV,” Arab Barometer, publication forthcoming 2017,

72 All data from this paragraph are from the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, “Suicide Attack Database,” University of Chicago, accessed on April 19, 2016, Between 1982 and 2000, there were an estimated 85 attacks conducted throughout the region, mostly by Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, including 42 in Lebanon, 15 in Israel, 12 in Turkey, 11 in the West Bank and Gaza, 2 in Kuwait, and 1 each in Algeria, Iran, Kuwait, and Yemen.

73 The numbers of suicide attacks between 1982 and 2011 in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen were 7, 0, 5, and 20, respectively. But between 2012 and 2015, these respective numbers jumped to 21, 32, 201, and 88.

74 Sulaiman Momodu, “Somalia Rising From the Ashes,” Africa Renewal 30, no. 1 (April 2016): 36–37,

75 For details, see Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (New York: Public Affairs, 2016).

76 “Crude Oil 1946-2016,” Trading Economics, 2016,

77 “After the Party,” Economist, March 26, 2016,

78 Aya Batrawy, “The International Monetary Fund Says Oil Exporting Countries in the Middle East Lost $390 Billion in Revenue Due to Lower Oil Prices Last Year, and Should Brace for Losses of Around $500 Billion This Year,” U.S. News & World Report, April 25, 2016,

79 Clifford Krauss, “Oil Prices: What’s Behind the Volatility? Simple Economics,” New York Times, last updated November 2, 2016,; and Josh Zumbrun, “Supply or Demand? The IMF Breaks Down the Collapse of Oil Prices,” Real Time Economics (blog), Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2015,

80 “Commodity Special Feature,” in World Economic Outlook: Too Slow for Too Long, International Monetary Fund (Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, April 2016),

81 Ibid.

82 “BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2016,” BP, June 2016,

83 In April 2016, the IMF projected a $25–$75 price band through the end of 2019, with a 68 percent confidence interval. See: “Commodity Special Feature,” in Too Slow for Too Long.

84 Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, “Remarks at the 2016 Government Summit” (speech, Dubai, February 9, 2016), Embassy of the United Arab Emirates,

85 “Foreword,” Saudi Vision 2030,

86 Karen E. Young, “Drop in the Bucket: Reduced Fuel Subsidies Offer Little Deficit Relief,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, April 6, 2016,

87 Sarah Diaa, “GCC States in Agreement on 5% VAT,” Gulf News, February 22, 2016,

88 “Iraq’s Economic Outlook – Spring 2016,” World Bank, 2016,

89 “Foreword,” Saudi Vision 2030,

90 World Meteorological Organization, “WMO Examines Reported Record Temperature of 54°C in Kuwait,” July 26, 2016,°c-kuwait/.

91 J. Leliveld, Y. Proestos, P. Hadjinicolaou, et al., “Strongly Increasing Heat Extremes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the 21st Century,” Climatic Change 137, no. 1 (July 2016): 245–60.

92 Hugh Naylor, “An Epic Middle East Heat Wave Could Be Global Warming’s Hellish Curtain-Raiser,” Washington Post, August 10, 2016,

93 United Nations Development Program, Water Governance in the Arab Region: Managing Scarcity and Securing the Future (New York: United Nations Publications, November 2013),

94 World Bank, “Adaptation to Climate Change in the Middle East and North Africa Region,” December 21, 2007,,,contentMDK:21596766~pagePK:146736~piPK:146830~theSitePK:256299,00.html.

95 World Bank, Making the Most of Scarcity: Accountability for Better Water Management Results in the Middle East and North Africa (Washington, DC: World Bank, June 2009),

96 “Yemen’s Looming Water Crisis,” Stratfor, December 1, 2014,

97 Habiba Gitay and Ian R. Noble, eds., “Executive Summary” to chapter 7 of The Regional Impacts of Climate Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability (Cambridge: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, November 1997),

98 Klaus Klingmuller, Andrea Pozzer, Swen Metzger, Georgiy L. Stenchikov, and Jos Lelieveld, “Aerosol Optical Depth Trend Over the Middle East,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 16, no. 8 (Spring 2016): 5063–73. Quoted in Johannes Lelieveld, “Climate-Exodus Expected in the Middle East and North Africa,” Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, May 2, 2016,

99 United Nations Development Program, Water Governance in the Arab Region.

100 Stephen Leahy and Katherine Purvis, “Peak Salt: Is the Desalination Dream Over for the Gulf States?” Guardian, September 29, 2016,

101 Ayah Aman, “Sad al-Nahda: Moadalat Mortafea Fey al-Inshaat Wa Masar Moakad Fey al-Mofawadat” [Dam construction going full steam while Egypt-Ethiopia talks stall], trans. Muhammed Hussein Talat, Al-Monitor, August 10, 2016,; Liam Stack, “With Cameras Rolling, Egyptian Politicians Threaten Ethiopia Over Dam,” The Lede (blog), New York Times, June 6, 2013,; and “Ethiopia Blames Egypt for State of Emergency,” Voice of America News, October 10, 2016,

102 “Drought Driving Farmers to the Cities,” IRIN, September 2, 2009,

103 Enda Curran, “Asia’s About to Spawn a New Tiger Economy: Good Morning, Vietnam,” Bloomberg, March 22, 2015,

104 David T. Burbach, “The Coming Peace: Africa’s Declining Conflicts,” Sustainable Security (blog), Oxford Research Group, September 22, 2016,

105 Khaled Salama, “Al-Azm: Alrabiya Alarabi Kashaf aan Hawayat wa Asbiat taht Wataniya” [Al-Azm: The Arab Spring revealed identities and tensions under the state], DW, August 28, 2015,العظم-الربيع-العربي-كشف-عن-هويات-وعصبيات-تحت-وطنية/a-18620694.

The authors wish to thank the following individuals for their valuable contributions to this report: Joseph Bahout, Nathan J. Brown, Renad Mansour, and Frederic Wehrey.