The Middle East and North Africa over the next decade: Key challenges and policy options

Flags are pictured before a preparatory meeting between Arab foreign ministers ahead of the Arab summit in Tunis, Tunisia March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

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.

Tarik M. Yousef – MENA policymakers must launch a new governance reform agenda

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.

Noha Aboueldahab – International policymakers must engage indigenous civil society actors

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.

Adel Abdel Ghafar – Policymakers must address the drivers of inequality to promote long-term regional stability

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.

Yahia H. Zoubir – China will need to play a greater security role in the MENA region to protect its economic interests

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.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad – Policymakers must address the MENA region’s “triple crisis” in order to build sustainable states

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, 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.

Nader Kabbani – MENA states must do more to address the legitimate aspirations of their citizens

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.