Across the world, societies are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing global order and transnational populism. But the Arab region, riven by authoritarianism and religious extremism, has struggled with a perfect storm of local and global challenges—technological and demographic change, regional turbulence, oil-revenue declines, conflict and foreign intervention, and the legacy of decades of authoritarianism and economic mismanagement. The result is the most destructive period in the Middle East since the establishment of modern Arab states after World War I.
Carnegie’s multiyear Arab World Horizons project, launched in October 2015, aims to shed light on these turbulent events. We are happy to announce the publication of “Arab Fractures: Citizens, States and Social Contracts,” which examines underlying national and transnational trends in the human, political, and geopolitical landscapes of the Arab countries. Drafted by scholars from Carnegie’s Middle East Program, the report features commentaries by noted Arab public figures as well as case studies on how these dynamics are playing out in particular Arab countries.
Arab Fractures finds that two pillars of the Arab order consolidated political and economic power in most Arab countries while impeding development. For decades, Arab regimes operated on the basis of “authoritarian bargains,” whereby jobs and basic services provided to citizens were traded for political subservience. These social contracts began eroding as inflated budgets and bloated bureaucracies could no longer keep up with the rising demands of growing populations.
At the same time many of the same countries operated rentier systems, in which oil rents financed vast national systems of patronage and sustenance. But the sharp decline of oil prices beginning in 2014 created monumental long-term fiscal challenges for the Arab world. For all but the region’s wealthiest countries, this rendered rentier systems increasingly unsustainable. With the collapse of these two pillars, the prevailing organizational logic of most Arab states has run its course.
But rather than address the region’s underlying socioeconomic and political grievances, Arab leaders have generally resorted, with varying degrees of sophistication and brutality, to a familiar playbook of cooptation through social welfare and coercion through repression. Thus, the inherently corrupt predatory systems, which developed in many countries over decades, have remained intact, resisting reform efforts and depriving states of the tools to address the region’s emerging crises of confidence between citizens and their governments.
As a result, the most repressive Arab states—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—have begun fragmenting along ethnic, ideological, sectarian, and tribal lines, while another half dozen or more have experience 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 Islamic State. Former regional powerhouses, such as Egypt and Iraq, are severely constrained by domestic weaknesses, and powerful states are increasingly interfering in the affairs of weaker ones.
Leaders, who until now failed to value their populations as sources of economic development, are unlikely to prioritize their welfare unless they become convinced there is no alternative. Instead, with few exceptions, regimes continue to cling to an untenable status quo, even at the risk of catastrophe. But as citizens are asked to sacrifice longstanding social welfare benefits in the name of fiscal austerity, they will demand accountability, justice, and a greater say in national affairs in return.
It is easy to conclude that continued chaos in the Middle East is inevitable. But other regions have experienced similar collapses and managed to step back from the precipice, such as Southeast Asia after the Indochina wars of the 1960s and 1970s, the Balkans after the wars in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s, and several parts of Africa, including the continent’s center after the Great African War in the Congo in the 1990s and the 2000s.
If Arab societies are to break today’s cycle of terrorism, authoritarianism, and economic stagnation, new political and socioeconomic models are desperately needed. Citizens and states must forge new social contracts that establish accountability and energize systemic political and economic reform, while regional leaders need to begin formulating their visions for a post-conflict Middle East.
For the region’s monarchies, this might mean increased power-sharing to give citizens a greater voice in political affairs through elected parliaments and advisory councils, both local and national. In North African republics, such as Algeria and Egypt, this might mean a firmer separation of powers, such as the parliamentary system in Tunisia, so that no single political institution or constituency can dominate. In once-unitary states riven by internecine conflict, such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, more dramatic changes may be necessary to allow regions and local communities greater latitude in managing their own affairs and to offer physical protections for minority groups.
One thing is certain. The old order in disarray, and there is no clarity about where the region is heading. This is the reality faced by today’s Middle East, a region that remains critical to global peace and security.
On February 1, Carnegie will be announcing the launch of the English version of the report at the Carnegie offices in Washington D.C. To register for that event, viewers can go here, where the full program is also available.