Since 2011, the Arab world has undergone massive upheavals—geopolitical shifts, climate shocks, mounting economic pressures, and authoritarian restructuring, to name a few. Dynamic responses from governments and citizens are laying the shape of the next decade.
An alluring narrative has arisen about the Arab world’s recent evolution that goes something like this.
The dislocations of the 2011 Arab uprisings, which dominated headlines and rippled across the region in the shape of crackdowns, civil wars, and so-called proxy conflicts, have largely subsided. Violent extremist groups that once held sway over vast tracts of territory and conducted spectacularly lethal attacks against local and foreign targets have been reduced to a shadow of their former selves.
Fierce debates among and within Arab states about political order—often centered around the role of Islamists and, more fundamentally, about participatory governance and democratization—have also faded to the margins. Old foes are now talking to one another, previously sacrosanct redlines have been breached, and pariahs have been welcomed back to the fold.
The winners of this contest, the argument continues, are the region’s autocratic rulers, led by the confident dynasties of the oil-rich Gulf, who spearheaded the counterrevolutionary wave with money, media, and military interventions and who have blocked the emergence of another moment like the one at Tahrir Square, using increasingly sophisticated forms of monitoring and social control.
Cowed by this repression, activists, dissidents, and oppositionists have all but abandoned the streets: some have fled into exile or cast their lot with the rulers they once challenged, while many languish in prison or have been executed with impunity.
Across the Arab world, a model of governance and economic development is said to be spreading, one that advertises itself as not only survivable but also adaptive and worthy of being emulated. Originating in the Gulf, it incorporates a purported reframing of the timeworn ruling bargain that engages new constituencies through dialogues and other forums, promising both well-being and social tolerance.
In tandem, the vanguards of this emergent Arab order are enjoying newfound assertiveness and maneuverability on the global stage amid the apparent retreat of a chastened and distracted America from the Middle East, skillfully playing the great powers off against one another. These Arab rulers are also basking in the nationalist glow of climate summitry and the hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Like many storylines with a linear arc and satisfying ending, this one too is beguiling in its simplicity and clarity. It is also misleading and inaccurate.
ARAB STATES BEYOND THE VENEER OF STASIS AND STABILITY
To begin with, the political and socioeconomic grievances that fueled the Arab protests and revolutions of 2011 still remain and, in many instances, have only gotten worse. In fragile, conflict-scarred, and economically distressed states across the region, the livelihoods and human security of many citizens has sunk. Populations have swelled, inequalities have deepened, middle classes are increasingly squeezed, and unemployment is high, especially for youth and women.
Arab educational institutions are still struggling to prepare young people to compete in the interconnected global economy. Corruption is a grinding part of daily life for many people, while social safety nets are meager and fragmented. Private sectors are underdeveloped, and plans to restructure rent-based economies are fledgling. Though some Gulf countries have shown signs of improvement in this area, they remain heavily dependent on hydrocarbon export rents, which continue to be central in their economic and energy diversification plans.
In varying degrees, these deficiencies fueled the protests that rocked four Arab states from 2018 to 2019 and ousted the regimes in two of them, Sudan and Algeria. They underscore in stark terms that Arab citizens—especially jobless, discontented youth—have hardly reconciled themselves to the authoritarian order and are still pushing for more accountable governance and better economic opportunities, adjusting their tactics to new realities. And the maladies that drove these citizens into the streets have only been amplified by more recent shocks to the region.
At the forefront of these crises was the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching socioeconomic fallout, which in the Arab world included diminished trade, tourism, remittances, and investment. Among those particularly affected were already vulnerable inhabitants, including youth, women, migrants, refugees, and those working in the informal labor sector. The pandemic also impacted state-society relations in ways that are still being felt—for instance, giving Arab autocrats new means of social control via digital technologies that were initially fielded for public health management.
Recovery from this ordeal has been uneven: the wealthier, oil-rich Gulf states led the way in terms of vaccine rollout and containment measures, benefiting as well from a surge in post-lockdown energy demand. Meanwhile, poorer, fractured, and post-conflict countries have unsurprisingly lagged behind. And while some Arab regimes may have won a supposed reprieve from criticism for their expedient handling of the crisis, the underlying vulnerabilities and problems of governance remain entrenched in many countries.
Then came the unexpected blow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, a disruption that has had far-reaching effects on the global order. Here again, the impact on the Middle East has been uneven.
Among hydrocarbon-exporting states, particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the resulting rise in global oil and gas prices has proved a boon, shrinking if not erasing their budget deficits. It has also enabled them to embark on public spending sprees and so-called megaprojects, allowing them to expand clean energy exports and badge themselves as leaders of greener and more diversified economies while providing opportunities for their citizens.
But in less-endowed countries, the spike in food, commodity, and energy prices produced by the war and the attendant rise in inflation has had deeply injurious effects on citizens. Governments in these states are being pressured to enact more social spending while simultaneously confronting already-high levels of public debt and rising costs of capital as a result of tightening monetary policy by central banks. The result, in many cases, is an attenuation of state capacity and the deliberate devolution of some governance functions to substate actors, especially those in peripheral regions and in borderlands.
In many respects, the shocks of the pandemic and the Ukraine war serve as a portent of the Arab world’s darkening horizon. Despite the recent surge in energy revenues, a future of diminishing global demand for hydrocarbons—the resource upon which much of the modern Arab order, for better or for worse, has been erected—is likely inescapable. With less demand for hydrocarbons, Arab regimes face dire consequences for the timeworn ruling bargain, in which autocratic governments maintain citizen quiescence through oil-funded welfare systems, repressive security sectors, and military support from foreign patrons.
The imperatives of mitigating global warming through decarbonization and the green transition are thrusting more challenges upon both oil-exporting Arab states and those that depend indirectly on hydrocarbon revenues. Arab governments have long been slow to appreciate the threats from climate change, even though their countries are among the most exposed to deleterious climate effects such as water shortages, rising temperatures and sea levels, and extended droughts and sandstorms, to name a few. In many instances, these effects will sharpen preexisting vulnerabilities and inequalities that arose through years of uneven development, exclusionary governance, corruption, war, and displacement.
Here, however, it is important to avoid an overly deterministic, monocausal frame in linking climate change to violent conflict or protests. Ignoring the intervening variables between a climate change and the outbreak of serious unrest—factors like governance and economic policies—could lead to a securitization of climate policy while also absolving Arab regimes of their own culpability in contributing to instability.
Many oil-rich states have made ambitious net-zero pledges, renewable energy targets, and plans for carbon capture, carbon reduction, and clean hydrogen exports, along with promises to slash household subsidies. Even many oil-importing states have set such goals. But these projects have been hobbled by the fact that the incentive structures in many export-driven, rent-dependent Arab economies remain unchanged. This status quo underscores the urgent need for more holistic economic, regulatory, and political reforms to make the green transition more feasible.
More importantly, though, inclusive socioeconomic policies for climate adaptation across the Arab world lag behind technical mitigation plans. Grassroots actors, such as civil society groups and municipalities, with both the will and capacity to promote climate resilience are in many cases cut out of the climate conversation because of the preference of Arab rulers for excessively centralized administration. To rectify this, governments will need to involve a broader swath of their citizenry in climate action and prioritize reforms that protect acutely vulnerable communities.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.