A fascinating new study by the World Bank conclusively demonstrates that on the eve of the Arab Spring in late 2010, most Arab states were actually making adequate macroeconomic progress compared to other regions. Buoyed by oil rents, per capita incomes were relatively high, extreme poverty levels were dropping, and broader human development indicators were improving. Yet paradoxically, Arabs were among the least content people in the world, frustrated by the shortage of good jobs, the quality of public services, and the lack of government accountability.

The report’s fundamental insight—that the region’s downward spiral into violence and extremism is rooted in decades of catastrophic governance failures—has long been known, but frequently ignored or considered impractical to address. For Arab governments, escaping this downward spiral requires an urgent focus on improved and more accountable governance. For U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, this means an approach more deeply grounded in these longer-term socioeconomic and political deficiencies. 

A conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on October 29, “Understanding the Drivers of Instability in the Arab World,” sheds important light on these governance challenges. The conference marked the launch of the Arab World Horizons project to explore the social, economic, political, and strategic trends in the Arab world.

A trio of alarm bells has sounded with increasing urgency, warning of the need to tackle the Arab world’s crisis of governance. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report revealed a region mired in repression that was “richer than it [was] developed.” The 2011 Arab Spring initially seemed to offer a rejoinder to al-Qaeda’s nihilism, but succumbed to violence, feeding into extremist narratives. Then the 2014 emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) revealed that the decay at the heart of some Arab states was even deeper than imagined.

Unfortunately, most states still cling to an untenable status quo, incapable of dealing with the underlying social and economic grievances that led to the Islamic State in the first place. Governments double down on the approach they know: reverting to repression and a security strategy that may provide temporary relief but is likely to further alienate their publics over time. In the most extreme cases in Syria and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq, this came in the form of regimes that waged brutal wars against their own peoples. According to former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad speaking at the Carnegie conference, “Failure of governance is key. Until or unless there is a governance model that is able to competitively confront this ideology, ISIS or ISIS-like structures or organizations are going to have a place.”1

Instead, central authority is eroding across the region. While ruling legitimacy is impossible to measure with precision, the authoritarian bargains of decades past—whereby regimes traded government jobs and physical security for political acquiescence—are clearly breaking down. Most governments are unable to create sufficient public sector employment to keep pace with the youth bulge, and populations are increasingly frustrated at predatory crony elites crowding out middle-class economic opportunities. Except in Tunisia, posttransition governments have not performed better than their predecessors.

This crisis of authority plays out differently in different contexts. For example, Egypt’s short-lived 2012 parliament devoted significant time and energy to abstract ideological issues but was unable to pass a single piece of legislation relevant to its public’s socioeconomic needs. With each constitutional declaration, Egyptian state authority receded. The Gulf monarchies have been significantly more resilient to societal pressures than their republican counterparts. But if the ruling families do not provide for their people’s aspirations, their legitimacy, too, is likely to eventually be questioned.

Across the region, this breakdown in institutions, security, and the rule of law has opened the door for tribal, ethnic, and sectarian forces to fill the void and offer protection from other communities perceived as threatening.

Meanwhile, the age of U.S. military regional intervention that began in 2003 has coincided with the expansion of Islamic extremism from isolated cells into a self-declared caliphate capable of holding territory larger than many of the states in the region. While terrorist groups have long existed in the Middle East, only since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq have they been able to recruit vast numbers of foreign fighters to the heart of the region, control vast swathes of territory, and engage in wonton, indiscriminate destruction at such a massive scale.

Arab states are themselves increasingly seeking to apply military solutions to what are fundamentally political challenges. Almost every Middle Eastern country is now militarily involved in some capacity in one or more of the ongoing civil wars in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. But there is little evidence that these military approaches will have any better luck addressing the root causes of the extremism. In the words of Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, “The least effective response to ISIS, whether we’re talking about the actual people in Iraq and Syria, or the echoes and ripples elsewhere is to go fight over there. . . . Everyone sends their token six aircraft. . . . But it’s not about fighting over there, it’s about what government can and should be doing at home.”2

Glimmers of Hope

Fortunately, all is not lost. Life under Islamic State oppression in Raqqa is hardly representative of the broader Arab experience. Some Arab thinkers express frustration that Western media is oblivious to positive occurrences in many countries and in many sectors. In the past, most Arab societies lacked meaningful feedback loops between governments and their citizens, greatly impeding progress. But going forward, Arab governments will not be immune from the global trend toward individual empowerment, led by technological growth, greater educational attainment, and the growth of the middle class.

Fadi Ghandour, a prominent serial entrepreneur, argues that the opportunities created by the disruptive technologies of the digital economy will be just as transformative in the Arab world as anywhere else.3 The regions of the Middle East and Africa are experiencing the fastest mobile data traffic growth in the world, transforming their economic opportunities, social interactions, and relations with ruling authorities. In a digital economy, youth are no longer beholden to their countries’ anemic public education systems and have instant access to educational and entrepreneurial tools.

Arabs committed to structural political and economic reform reject the notion that they are defeated, insisting that to give in to despondency is to submit to the autocratic order they resist. Amr Hamzawy, a member of the Egyptian parliament for six months in 2012 until it was dissolved by the judiciary, notes that despite the increased repression, there are undercurrents in Egypt of cultural, intellectual, and artistic dynamism, even if most of it is not directly political. “Whatever positive elements you find,” he says, “are really not sanctioned by governments.”4

The most significant sign of hope, of course, is Tunisia itself. Though the country’s security and economic situation remains precarious, Tunisian leaders, including President Beji Caid Essebsi and Ennadha party co-founder Rached Ghannouchi, have followed a fundamentally different path than other post-2011 Arab leaders in seeking compromise and putting aside philosophical differences for the good of their country. Critically, the Tunisian military has endorsed civilian control.

New Directions

What does all of this mean for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?

U.S. President Barack Obama has broadly succeeded in meeting the four core U.S. interests in the Middle East outlined in his September 2013 speech at the United Nations General Assembly. A comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program—the region’s chief nonproliferation concern—has been agreed to, though implementation will be challenging. Severe oil supply disruptions have been avoided, and there is no conventional military threat on the horizon threatening regional allies and partners. And mass-casualty homeland attacks have been averted since 9/11, though the horrific November 13 Paris terrorist attack is a potent reminder that the Islamic State possesses both the capabilities and the desire to wreak havoc far beyond its borders.

Protecting core American interests clearly depends on the security of Washington’s regional partners and allies. But the militarization of U.S. policy over the last quarter century has not contributed to regional stabilization. In the views of many Arabs, Washington’s relentless focus on security and counterterrorism cooperation often comes at the cost of contributing to the very socioeconomic and political deficiencies fueling extremism. After the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, Obama’s apparent determination to avoid being drawn into the Syrian civil war is understandable, but has hardly led to improved outcomes. U.S. policy has become reactive, and neither Western nor Arab governments seem to have answers to the region’s most pressing challenges. It is not surprising that Arabs have come to doubt American judgment and resolve.

There are some indications that U.S. policymakers recognize the need for a policy recalibration. In a speech at the Carnegie Endowment launching the Arab World Horizons project on October 28, 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted that most Arabs are “far more interested in plugging into the world economy than slugging it out with historic foes. It is in them that we place our faith. It is for them and for their horizons that we dedicate our collective efforts.”5 

The Obama administration’s prioritization of diplomacy over military action is a good starting point, but U.S. policy should be far more proactive in devoting energy and resources to the region’s bright spots, such as Tunisia and Morocco, while showing increased restraint over time in dealings with autocratic regimes. Durable partnerships ultimately require durable partners.

A renewed effort to promote better governance in the Middle East need not be grounded in interference in the internal affairs of other countries, which will surely create a backlash. Instead, it should be rooted in the United States’ comparative global advantages—its entrepreneurial dynamism, its technological innovation, its higher education system, and the strength of its governing institutions. Although Arab citizens and governments are responsible for finding solutions to their region’s many systemic socioeconomic and political problems, Washington is in desperate need of a more comprehensive affirmative agenda for the Middle East that puts these challenges front and center.

The recent history of the Arab world is a reminder that most successful political transformation is evolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature. The process of creating a more stable Middle East is a decades-long project. Brittle political systems should not be expected to change quickly. But the turbulence of today is unlikely to respect the region’s fragile political boundaries. Those countries unwilling or unable to meaningfully begin a process of creating more accountable political systems are sooner or later likely to find themselves on the wrong side of history.


1 Salam Fayyad, “Drivers of Instability: Human Development in the Arab World,” YouTube video, from the Understanding the Drivers of Instability in the Arab World conference, posted by “CarnegieLive,” October 29, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghCtjm8IbpI.

2 Yezid Sayigh, “Drivers of Instability: Fragile States and Regional Fissures,” YouTube video, from the Understanding the Drivers of Instability in the Arab World conference, posted by “CarnegieLive,” October 29, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liKLgdiLzZA.

3 Fadi Ghandour, “Drivers of Instability: Human Development in the Arab World,” YouTube video, from the Understanding the Drivers of Instability in the Arab World conference, posted by “CarnegieLive,” October 29, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghCtjm8IbpI.

4 Amr Hamzawy, “Drivers of Instability: Fragile States and Regional Fissures,” YouTube video, from the Understanding the Drivers of Instability in the Arab World conference, posted by “CarnegieLive,” October 29, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liKLgdiLzZA.

5 John Kerry, “U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the Future of U.S. Policy in the Middle East” (speech, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, October 28, 2015), http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/10/28/u.s.-secretary-of-state-john-kerry-on-future-of-u.s.-policy-in-middle-east.