By Carnegie Team (*)

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 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.

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?

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.

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.


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 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.

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.

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.


(*) Perry Cammack, Michele Dunne, Amr Hamzawy, Marc Lynch, Marwan Muasher, Yezid Sayigh, and Maha Yahya




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