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.



China’s economic and political presence in the MENA region has grown considerably in recent years.

It has become the largest trade partner and foreign direct investor in numerous countries in the region, including Algeria, which has traditionally been the “preserve” of the European Union (EU), and especially France.

While China’s role in regional security matters has so far remained minimal, it will likely be compelled to play a greater role in conflict resolution over the coming decade, in order to protect its extensive economic interests.

Energy supply is vital to China’s continued growth and modernization, and the country currently imports close to half its oil needs from the Middle East; it will thus remain dependent on the MENA region for the next decade and beyond.

Given its energy needs, China should be expected to strengthen its economic partnerships with major MENA energy suppliers, as it has already done with Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Algeria, and others. While Africa will continue to be China’s major “sphere of influence,” the MENA region will remain its primary source of energy.

China has already laid out its MENA policy objectives through the publication of major documents, including “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road,” “Promoting the Silk Road Spirit and Deepening China-Arab Cooperation,” and the “Arab Policy Paper.”

However, it will face major obstacles in implementing them, including the conflicts and wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, as well as the various rivalries between regional and international actors (Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran, etc.).

In the face of a potential U.S. withdrawal from the region, the way in which China addresses these obstacles will be a litmus test for its great power status.

China’s most daunting challenge in the coming decade will be to uphold one of the fundamental principles of its foreign policy: noninterference. While China will certainly strive to keep its neutral approach in the region, it will eventually need to engage in effective mediation diplomacy.

Can it remain neutral between Riyadh and Tehran, for instance, its two major energy suppliers in the MENA region?

China will have to walk a tightrope in confronting the multifaceted challenges posed by the United States and the EU, as well as decide whether to cooperate or compete with Russia, which has become more active in the MENA region.

Another major question is whether China can protect its economic interests without opening additional military bases (as it did in Djibouti in 2017), so as not to appear to be an expansionist power.

Undoubtedly, China will increase its soft power to assuage such fears and insist that its policies are different from the interventionist policies of the United States and some European powers.

In sum, China will continue engaging economically and politically in the MENA region, while remaining cautious not to undermine the security architecture that the United States has instituted and which has served China hitherto.


This past year has been marked by the second wave of a “long-term revolutionary process” that started with the “Arab Spring.”

Fueled by the dual evils of socio-economic precarity and authoritarianism intimately connected to the ruling class’ policies, these recent popular mass mobilizations have echoed the famous 2010/2011 slogan of “the people demand the overthrow of the regime.”

They have spread across Arab countries that were untouched by the first Arab Spring, namely Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as non-Arab countries like Iran, which saw the most serious uprising in the four-decade history of the Islamic Republic crushed by unprecedented, lethal violence.

The latest popular protests are the symptom of a number of structural ills plaguing the region’s fortunes. In comparison to other parts of the world, the MENA region has:

a) the highest youth and women’s unemployment rates, compounded by high inequality and poverty rates,

b) the highest density of autocratic regimes and, last but not least, and

c) the highest level of water stress.

It is this “triple crisis” (socio-economic, political, and ecological) that has plunged the region into a state of constant turmoil, stoked by large weapons purchases, geopolitical rivalries between regional and international great powers, the ruling class’ quasi-irreversible crisis of legitimacy, and an overreliance on repression.

In addition to these factors, national and regional stability are rendered fragile by the lack of an inclusive security architecture and nuclear-weapon-free zone.

The absence of security structures threatens to make the region a perennial place for conflict, inviting foreign interference and depriving it of important safety nets to guard against a massive escalation of violence.

Across the region, one of the ruling elite’s core tactics to secure its survival will be to maintain a degree of geopolitical tension, thereby diverting attention away from the popular uprisings and their revolutionary demands.

Thus, 2020 will be a crucial year to gauge the direction of the region’s popular uprisings, amid the continuous struggle between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces.

Over the coming decade, learning from past decades’ accumulated policy failures, policymakers will need to take a solid look at the MENA region’s defining challenges – socio-economic, political, and ecological – to find ways to build sustainable states.

After all, one of the core, yet much ignored, lessons from the “Arab Spring” has been that “authoritarian stability” is a chimera, with sustainable stability only to be achieved through socio-economic and political development.

These states will need to be predicated upon a more economically just and democratic social contract, while being embedded in a more inclusive security architecture and integrated region.


The 2010s began with a political earthquake that shook the MENA region. People took to the streets to demand greater economic security, political freedom, and social justice.

For years, authoritarian states across the region had cut back on the provision of public benefits, services, and jobs, but failed to compensate their citizens with opportunities for greater economic or political participation.

Early political concessions by the regimes in response to the 2010 and 2011 protests quickly gave way to a resurgence of authoritarian control.

By 2018, most MENA countries had fewer political rights or civil liberties than before 2011, with only Tunisia registering significant gains in developing democratic institutions.

Yet, as recent rounds of social unrest in Sudan, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon attest, the social contract within the region remains under severe strain. States either need to keep their end of the bargain or enter into a new deal with their citizens.

Over the coming decade, MENA governments must do more to address the legitimate economic, political, and social aspirations of their citizens.

The path forward will not be easy. The first challenge will be to build the capacities of large, entrenched, self-serving bureaucracies to respond more effectively to citizen needs.

The second challenge will be to wean citizens themselves off public benefits, subsidies, and jobs, while substantially increasing economic opportunities for them in the private sector.

In order to grow their countries’ economies and provide these opportunities, MENA governments will have to address a third, more difficult, challenge of finding a way to limit the insatiable rent-seeking behavior of state clients and cronies.

The fourth challenge will be to create space for real political and civic participation, allowing citizens to interact with and lobby state institutions more effectively.

One group of countries, led by Tunisia, Jordan and Kuwait, is working to increase institutional capacities and respond more effectively to the needs of citizens.

Other countries are increasingly turning to repression and control, with little corresponding improvement in economic or political inclusion.

Both groups will witness social unrest, but over time the former will be better placed to engage its citizens and accommodate their demands, while the latter will become ever more susceptible to violent protests and even regime change.

The path of citizen engagement, while requiring more effort today, will support a healthier relationship between rulers and citizens both today and tomorrow.

New methods of governance built on the principles of human-centered design, such as policy labs and nudge units, are already helping policymakers respond more effectively to citizen needs.

However, these policy innovations are practically non-existent in the region outside of Dubai. Although this is changing, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has recently introduced accelerator labs into its regional programming.

MENA countries seeking to improve their governance structures need support and guidance in order to chart a more inclusive and sustainable development path for their citizens and for other countries to follow.

Regional development actors and the international development community must stand ready to assist the efforts of MENA countries that are serious about expanding economic opportunities and creating space for citizen participation.


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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