Refugee Crises in the Arab World

Marwan Muasher and Maha Yahya


The Arab Middle East faces unprecedented socioeconomic, political, and institutional challenges. Amid burgeoning conflict and economic stagnation, trust has eroded between governments and their citizens. In most Arab countries, authoritarian bargains developed in recent decades, wherein leaders traded social services and government jobs for citizens’ quiescence. But the rentier economic systems that undergirded these bargains failed to keep pace with rising demands from growing populations.

Thus, the old order is breaking down with no clear articulation of what comes next. With few exceptions, Arab governments are turning to coercive measures to maintain control as well as to influence developments in other countries. In some places, such as Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the results have already been catastrophic. Elsewhere, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, the warning signs of rising popular displeasure are flashing. Four challenges loom particularly large.

Regional conflicts have caused the wholesale collapse of state institutions and a catastrophic regional migration crisis. While Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have been particularly impacted, no Arab country has been unscathed. These conflicts—fueled by regional competition, unfettered brutality, and skyrocketing arms sales—have created tremendous headwinds for efforts to address pressing domestic challenges.

Arab countries generally lack rules-based systems. Effective states require effective institutions. In most Middle East countries, accountability is lacking, and government services are inadequate in many states. Economic development efforts are unlikely to succeed without increased citizen participation and the rule of law.

Arab economies seem unable to generate the tens of millions of jobs necessary in the coming decade.Public sectors areno longer capable of keeping pace with population growth. Crony capitalism, corruption, and bureaucratic impediments in most Arab countries have resulted in anemic private sectors that are incapable of dynamic job creation.

Perry Cammack
Perry Cammack was a nonresident fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on long-term regional trends and their implications for American foreign policy.
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Too many Arab states treat citizens as threats to be managed rather than as resources to be nurtured. The enemy of bad governance is an informed and engaged public. But few Arab states invest sufficiently in their nations’ human capital. Thus citizenries are insufficiently equipped to address the urgent socioeconomic and political challenges facing their societies.

Frameworks for Action

The 2011 Arab uprisings and ensuing conflicts demonstrate that piecemeal reforms are not enough and that military interventions seldom produce positive outcomes. “Arab Horizons” is based on the premise that citizens and states need to forge new social contracts to address massive challenges. The chapters in this report attempt to offer possible new policy frameworks for five, interrelated challenges facing the region: political economy, governance, education, migration, and regional conflict.

Political Economy: Beyond the cascading conflicts, ongoing strife in post–Arab Spring countries, and the lingering strain of the 2014 collapse in oil prices, the Middle East faces a more fundamental economic challenge: the rentier model of natural resource extraction, upon which Arab economies were built, has unraveled. Constructing a new economic order will require states to begin confronting the patronage systems and crony networks that have distorted economic outcomes and suppressed job creation.

While different states face different circumstances, certain fundamental elements are clear: new, successful Arab political economy models will require leaders to prioritize youth and women; new standards of accountability will require fair and transparent rules-based regulatory frameworks.

Governance: The 2011 uprisings resulted in a fundamental shift in relations between Arab leaders and citizens. While the initial euphoria quickly faded, the anger and frustration that led to revolution, protest, and war remain. Across the region, citizens have grown impatient with governments they perceive as ineffective, corrupt, and unaccountable.

Three issues are paramount: access to decisionmaking, effective service provision, and combating corruption. There are no quick fixes to any of these challenges. But governments, civil society, and the international community can work together to achieve incremental progress. By empowering local actors, states can help rebuild trust while improving service delivery. Participatory mechanisms, such as town halls and referenda, can begin to engage publics. International actors can support such initiatives while promoting transparency.

Education: Existing Arab educational systems do not—and are not designed to—foster a genuinely democratic and engaged citizenship. They produce graduates with credentials but not the range of skills necessary to deal with the political, economic, and social challenges facing their societies. With such profound challenges, technocratic solutions will fall far short.

But if states take a holistic approach, involving actors from across their societies in educational reform, there is much room for progress. All actors—not just schools and ministries—must be encouraged to develop visions for education. Such efforts must empower agents for positive change throughout existing systems: educators who care deeply about their work, officials who devise innovative solutions, and students who display imagination and aspirations.

Refugees: Forced displacement of people has become a hallmark of the contemporary Middle East. In Syria, more than 11 million people have been forced abroad or displaced internally. Millions more have been displaced in Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen. In response, Arab governments have sought to return refugees to their countries of origin. Previously open borders have closed, fueling human smuggling networks.

Engaging with this crisis requires a transformative vision and a real commitment by international donors to promote solidarity with displaced people and sharing burdens across neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, which have been the most effected. This requires rethinking current governance structures and devolving decisionmaking to local actors. Protecting the right of refugees to return to their homes should be a cornerstone of any discussions about a post-conflict settlement.

Regional Conflict: In the Middle East, hard power and military might prevail. Ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as in Libya and Iraq, seem intractable. Regional power struggles, such as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, are widely understood to be complicating factors. But there are also broader dynamics at work.

The regional balance of power has become highly uncertain following the 2011 uprisings and perceptions of U.S. disengagement. Local disputes have become the stage on which regional rivalries are fought. Arms imports to the region have skyrocketed, further fueling conflict. Lastly, the Middle East suffers from a dearth of regional dispute resolution mechanisms. Although progress is likely to be incremental and slow, there are steps that regional and international actors can explore to address these factors and mitigate the risk of further escalation.

Renewing Social Contracts

If any semblance of regional order is to return, citizens and states must forge new social contracts that establish accountability and energize systemic political and economic reform. This means new power dynamics that create checks and balances and submit rent-seekers to genuine competition. Because the challenges facing the region are deeply interrelated, top-down and piecemeal reform efforts have generally not been successful. What is needed is a new, holistic approach based upon broader partnerships and citizen engagement at all levels.

Every state will need to find its own way. There are no quick fixes, and progress is likely to be incremental and uneven.  

  1. New Investments: In the twenty-first century, success will be measured not by resource wealth but by human capital. Citizens are vital stakeholders in the transformation of their societies, not subjects to be controlled. New frameworks should invest in citizens, especially the youth, women, and minorities, and they should demonstrate solidarity with those affected by conflict. This requires that educational systems be redesigned into learning systems that emphasize critical thinking and analysis over rote memorization. It also requires robust legal protections for all citizens, including full citizenship and civil and human rights.
  2. New Accountability: Where political power and economic power are jointly concentrated in the same narrow elite, corruption and cronyism are almost inevitable byproducts. Arab societies will need new norms of accountability, both within states and between them, to become prosperous. Achieving these norms requires confronting the patronage networks that dominate many Arab societies. Doing so will demand rules-based regulatory frameworks, an independent judiciary, and specialized bodies to promote transparency and prosecute corruption.
  3. New Institutions: To be effective, Arab governing institutions need to build capacity, improve efficiency, and increase transparency. New arrangements are necessary to allow local governments greater latitude in managing their own affairs. Most Arab states seek to permeate citizens’ lives but have limited capacity to do so. Rightsizing Arab governments can help to mobilize underserved communities as well as promote local initiatives and policy innovation. Regional structures are also needed to reduce the likelihood and scope of conflict as well as to deal with transnational challenges such as the migration crisis.
  4. New Incentives: New incentive structures are needed that promote new norms of state behavior. This means rewarding merit, innovation, and initiative over personal connections and nepotism. Constructing a new order requires states to begin to confront the patronage and crony networks that distort economic outcomes and suppress job creation.

There is a symbiotic relationship between regional conflicts and local political challenges. States that construct more stable social contracts will be less prone to internal disorder and more resilient against outside interference. To the extent that conflicts can be contained, reduced, and resolved, leaders will have greater leeway to focus on their own citizens’ pressing needs.

It is easy to be pessimistic about the Middle East’s prospects. Authoritarian leaders seem unlikely to loosen their grip on power. Entrenched economic interests will resist efforts at reform. The turbulence of recent years has narrowed Western interests in the region to security, at the expense of the deeper socioeconomic failures. Those countries unwilling to begin creating more accountable political systems are likely find themselves on the wrong side of history. In many countries, the prospects for reform seem remote.

But pockets of hope remain, which the following chapters will explore. Actors outside the region can support positive developments when they occur and support fragile states so that they do not become failing ones, while increasing efforts to ensure that assistance efforts are not captured by the very elites they are trying to circumvent. Every Arab country will have its own preferred pathway to success, some of which are more viable than others. Until governments and their citizens begin to articulate visions of more dynamic societies, their countries will likely continue to languish.