By Tarik M. Yousef, Noha Aboueldahab, Adel Abdel Ghafar, Yahia H. Zoubir, Ali Fathollah-Nejad, and Nader Kabbani

In this outlooks, the scholars tackle pressing challenges tied to governance, civil society, inequality, security, autocracy, climate change, and citizen participation.


Nearly a decade ago, citizens across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region rose up in protest during the so-called Arab Spring, triggering a number of political and economic shifts, the effects of which are still being felt today. In the years since, the region has been subject to proliferating conflicts, heightened economic pressures, increased repression, and the up-ending of long-standing geopolitical dynamics.

With 2020 already off to an eventful start, Brookings scholars look forward across the coming decade, sharing their thoughts on what the most important policy issues will be to shape the MENA region over the next ten years and what steps regional and international policymakers should take to address them.

In the following outlooks, the scholars tackle pressing challenges tied to governance, civil society, inequality, security, autocracy, climate change, and citizen participation.

While their analyses range widely, they all provide salient policy recommendations for the coming decade, aimed at securing a more peaceful and prosperous future for this troubled region.


While the Arab Spring protests of 2010 and 2011 were grounded in the unique grievances and political dynamics of individual states, protesters shared a common assessment of governance failings. 

Political and economic power were overly concentrated in the hands of a narrow elite. Public sectors were ponderous and generally non-responsive.

The rule of law was not adequately enforced, and corruption was a serious problem.

These sentiments were felt profoundly and motivated thousands of ordinary citizens to undertake acts of extraordinary courage and defiance.

Over the past decade, the poor economic and political conditions that sparked the Arab Spring have not only continued, but also worsened, driving the recent return of large-scale protests across the MENA region, including in countries that were previously spared.

There is growing evidence, for example, suggesting that the size of the poor and especially the vulnerable populations in non-oil exporting countries has risen significantly in the past decade.

The heightened economic vulnerability of the middle class—due to failing social protection systems and emphasis on selective and targeted subsidies—together with rising income inequality and limited intergenerational mobility, is contributing to the spread of political discontent and even militancy.

Meanwhile, public perception of the quality of public services, including health and education, especially in rural areas, has become increasingly unfavorable. Furthermore, the region’s regulatory practices continue to be the least transparent and inclusive in the world.

During the same period, and with few exceptions, governance indicators in the region’s non-oil exporting countries have not improved. Public sectors expanded in size, experienced chronic skill shortages, and became increasingly ineffective.

Countries in conflict have fared the worst, facing widespread institutional degradation and wholesale loss of human capital. Autocrats have undermined the integrity of the few available independent accountability institutions.

Co-opted parliaments and judiciaries have seldom challenged executive power. Supreme audit agencies have been stripped of independence, while bureaucratic abuses have gone unchecked.

Access to information has become more limited and the space for civil society severely compressed, as full-blown authoritarian practices and national security imperatives have made a strong comeback.

Over the next decade, it will become increasingly untenable for governments to wield extraordinary influence and control over the lives of their citizens and their economic development trajectories, while simultaneously sustaining costly, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucracies.

Look no further for evidence than the recent rise in political discontent and the spread of protests across the region. In the past, governments have adopted reforms most eagerly in response to severe economic downturns and political crises.

Most of these reforms were technocratic in nature, although a few supported greater transparency and social accountability. Some of these reforms have been quite successful, others were dismal failures, and many ended up somewhere in the muddled middle.

The lessons of past efforts provide an important foundation for launching a new governance reform agenda for the coming decade;

MENA policymakers must understand that such an agenda is an essential part of any solution to the region’s growing and complex development challenges.


While the past decade has seen mass atrocities and unprecedented levels of repression in several countries in the MENA region, civil society and ordinary citizens remain key forces of resistance and change.

Despite major crackdowns on journalists, human rights activists, scholars, lawyers, judges, and artists, many such actors have found ways to not only continue their work, but also to develop and disseminate it to wider audiences.

This has made it increasingly difficult for politicians to silence dissenting voices altogether.

With hundreds of thousands of innocent people killed, millions displaced, and tens of thousands of people tortured and forcibly disappeared, it is crucial that policy advisors take the incredible and courageous work of civil society much more seriously in the coming decade.

Civil society actors’ persistent documentation of decades of violations ensures the preservation of history and memory.

Legal and social mobilization, including criminal accountability efforts and street protests, keeps politicians in check and pierces right through the authoritarian wall that the Arab Spring attempted to tear down nearly ten years ago.

And while regional and international actors fuel conflicts and authoritarianism in countries such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, they must also play an important role in alleviating the human cost of those conflicts.

That role, as numerous calls by the United Nations (U.N.) and other international actors have made clear, is primarily to halt military support for the warring parties. For years now, the conflicts in Libya and Yemen have demonstrated that their resolution will lie in political settlements, rather than the use of force.

However, externally prepared political settlements à la the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative in Yemen have proven to be massive failures. The policy advice of indigenous actors, including civil society, is what should drive such political solutions.

While this is an obvious requirement for meaningful peacebuilding, indigenous actors and their lived experiences are often overlooked or dismissed by an international community bent on quick fixes that fail to address the structural roots of conflict and repression in the region.

If political settlements are to succeed, external powers will need to cease their meddling and instead support the establishment of safe spaces where Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis, and many others throughout the region can decide their own futures.

Moreover, there is a crisis of expertise in the international policymaking field, namely a reliance on quick analysis by “experts” far removed from sites of conflict, rather than meaningful engagement with civil society actors embedded in those sites, whose experiences can and should inform policymaking.

There must be a genuine effort on the part of policymakers in general, and policy advisors in particular, to ensure that such informed expertise plays a leading role in shaping policy in the MENA region.


The headlines coming out of the MENA region are dominated by ongoing conflicts, sectarianism, irregular migration, and radicalization. However, while growing inequality is a key policy issue that contributes to all of these problems, it garners much less attention.

In the MENA region, individuals face a range of intersecting and compounding inequalities, including those tied to income, wealth, education, gender, employment, and healthcare.

Perpetuated over generations, these types of inequality inhibit social mobility, thereby adversely impacting society, the economy, and the long-term prospects for regional stability.

According to the U.N., the understanding of inequality has shifted over the past decade from an outcome-oriented perspective, in which income represents well-being, to an opportunity-oriented perspective, which proposes that birth circumstances are key to life outcomes and that equal opportunity cannot exist without giving everyone a fair starting point.

At face value, and using income metrics, inequality has been falling across the Arab world; however, household survey figures can be misleading. According to the World Bank, a key problem in assessing inequality is the mismeasurement of top incomes.

A recent joint report by the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the Economic Research Forum (ERF) has made a number of alarming findings.

First, despite gains in human capital in the Arab world, conflict has widened inter-country inequalities.

Second, while within-country outcome inequalities in health and education have decreased, levels of inequality in education remain high and inadequate educational quality is a major challenge.

Third, overall inequality of opportunity continues to increase, to varying degrees, across the Arab world.

Growing inequality, coupled with the challenges posed by conflict, climate change, water scarcity, and authoritarianism, does not bode well for the future of the MENA region.

While there is no one-size-fits-all policy to address inequality, MENA policymakers and their international partners would be well served to focus in the coming decade on the drivers of inequality, and how to address them.

This should involve integrated efforts to increase access to quality education and healthcare, promote inclusive growth, support the private sector as an engine of job creation, and improve governance and accountability.

Doing so would go a long way toward promoting healthy societies, strong economies, and long-term stability in the MENA region.


About the Autors:

Tarik M. Yousef Director – Brookings Doha Center and Senior Fellow – Global Economy and Development, Brookings Doha Center.

Noha Aboueldahab – Fellow – Foreign Policy, Brookings Doha Center.

Adel Abdel Ghafar – Fellow – Foreign Policy, Brookings Doha Center.

Yahia H. Zoubir – Visiting Fellow – Brookings Doha Center.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad – Visiting Fellow – Brookings Doha Center.

Nader Kabbani – Director of Research – Brookings Doha Center and Senior Fellow – Global Economy and Development.






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