“The elite have stolen our country from us,” the young Jordanian man exclaimed as we sat in a smoky café in southern Jordan in August 2020. He no longer believed any traditional institutions represented his interests—neither his tribe, the state, nor opposition parties. His comments echoed what I had heard from countless others throughout the country during my four years covering grassroots politics as a political officer for the U.S. Embassy in Amman between 2016 and 2020.
These sentiments are not unique to Jordan. The U.S. presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021, coincides with the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring. Back in 2011, I was serving in Cairo on my first Foreign Service assignment, meeting with young Egyptian activists across the political spectrum from Salafists to liberal entrepreneurs, whose common frustrations had become so severe they had—at least temporarily—overcome their long-standing divisions. Since then, many of the factors that contributed to those uprisings have only grown more acute, particularly frustration with economic inequality and corruption.
Although the incoming U.S. administration plans to prioritize domestic issues, it is likely that mounting tensions in the Middle East will once again demand attention. But that does not mean the United States and other international donors should reengage with the region in the same manner they have in the past. Too often, international efforts have inadvertently served elite interests at the expense of overall stability. The unintended consequences of this approach have become increasingly clear in the form of entrenched authoritarianism and increased protests. It is time to consider a new path forward.
How Simmering Frustrations Linger
Calls against corruption have become a familiar refrain in public squares across the Middle East. Economic tensions have united strange bedfellows, as people from lower-income communities—whether Sunni or Shia, Christian or Muslim—increasingly realize they have more in common with each other than with the elite classes of their own ethnic groups or religious sects.
The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated economic divisions in the region, since lower-income households have borne the brunt of curfews and economic disruptions. Those in power have noticed this trend and are worried about its political impact. In April 2020, Jordanian authorities arrested a local television station’s leadership after the channel aired a segment in which day laborers said their lack of income had led them to consider turning to theft or drug smuggling to support their families.
Emerging solidarity among previously competing groups, grounded in this economic climate, threatens to undermine the divide-and-rule approach that regimes throughout the Middle East have used to maintain control for decades. These regimes have developed time-tested toolkits for dealing with populaces divided along ethnic, national, and religious lines. But they are far less used to facing publics united by economic class.
How International Donors Exacerbate Class-Based Tensions
International donors, including the United States and international financial institutions, have made matters worse. By placing economic liberalization in the Middle East ahead of political reform, they have contributed to these emerging class-based tensions. Governments and elites in the region have welcomed this policy as they believe it helps to preserve their interests.
And in purely economic terms, they may be right. The growth and profits that have accompanied economic liberalization have disproportionately benefited elites. The World Inequality Database ranks the Middle East as the most unequal region in the world. Furthermore, the database indicates that, while it has decreased worldwide since the 1990s, economic inequality has remained constant in the Middle East. As former Carnegie fellow Lydia Assouad explains, most of the protests in the Middle East since 2018 stem from this inequality.
Without political reform, the focus on economic liberalization has enabled the elite to grab public resources for private gain. It has added to citizens’ frustrations with their relative economic status, while leaving them without peaceful institutional means of expressing their grievances.
This has left many people in the Middle East disillusioned with their governments and societal institutions. Even in Jordan, often seen as an oasis of stability in the region, a survey by the International Republican Institute in late 2019 found that more than twice as many people (52 percent) believed that “protest” was the most effective way to influence government decisions compared with those who answered “voting” (23 percent).
The lack of transparency in decisionmaking processes has led people across the region to assume that much of the elite’s wealth must have been illicitly acquired. In a 2018 Arab Barometer survey conducted across the region, the percentage of people in each country who said that corruption was present in their nation to a medium or large extent ranged from 71 percent to 93 percent.
The situation also leaves citizens with a dangerous sense that they lack ownership in their country. As one young Jordanian woman told me in April 2019, “If I don’t feel like I own my own country, why should I care if it burns?”
How Economic Frustration Threatens to Unite Political Opposition
As public frustrations with corruption and economic inequality have increased, the sectarian makeup of protests and the rhetoric used there have changed. In infamously sectarian Lebanon, demonstrations erupted in late 2019 with Sunni, Shia, and Christian citizens protesting jointly against a multi-sectarian corrupt elite. The same month, Shia and Sunni Iraqis demonstrated together against their own corrupt leaders, in stark contrast to the usual sectarian dynamics there.
In the summer of 2018, protests in Jordan unnerved the government, both due to their size and their diverse composition. The crowds included Jordanians of tribal non-Palestinian descent and Jordanians of Palestinian descent, who normally refrain from protesting because of historic divisions.
Middle Eastern governments and elites have defended their preference for economic liberalization and their aversion to political reform as ways of maintaining stability and avoiding chaotic change. International donors largely accept this argument, viewing stability as being in their economic and security interests. But by inadvertently contributing to elite policies that fan the flames of class tensions and widen the divide between citizens and the state, donors have made sudden disruptive transformation more, not less, likely.
A Better Way Forward
If the United States and other international donors want to reduce the risk of the kind of chaotic and violent change in the Middle East that was seen during the Arab Spring, they should abandon the notion that economic liberalization led by the elite, detached from political reform, will produce stability. Instead, a more effective approach would be to integrate advocacy for economic reform and good governance in tandem. For instance, loans and aid packages should not only be conditioned on privatization and tax structures but also on boosting transparency and combating corruption.
The IMF’s recent insistence that Lebanon address corruption before receiving additional loans is a step in the right direction. In addition, pushing to empower legislatures beyond their current rubber-stamp roles would provide an alternative to protests for frustrated publics across the region. These reforms would likely improve governance and economic performance alike, given the IMF’s and World Bank’s analyses of how corruption and monopolistic practices have held back the region.
A new U.S. administration taking office represents an opportune moment to make such a policy shift. Integrating political reform into existing economic reform initiatives also dovetails well with President-elect Joe Biden’s stated desire to make fighting corruption one of the key tenets of his foreign policy. In anticipation that illiberal donors like China may attempt to undercut these efforts by offering aid packages with no reform conditions, the incoming administration has called for a Summit for Democracy within its first year to coordinate global work to combat corruption and authoritarianism.
The sooner the United States and other international donors address Middle Eastern elites’ exploitation of their reform agenda for personal gain, the better the chances of actually fostering a more stable region.
David Linfield is a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is on sabbatical from the U.S. Department of State, where he is a career foreign service officer.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.