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.
A Shaky New Regional Order
Beyond their repercussions within Arab countries on societies, economies, and politics, the aftermaths of the three shocks—the pandemic, the Ukraine invasion, and the already felt threat of climate change—are also rippling across the region’s geopolitics, reshaping relations between Arab states. They are affecting how these states position themselves toward other Middle Eastern powers and within the broader global order—an order that itself is shifting toward multipolarity.
Most notably, longtime rivalries and disputes have been shelved, if not settled. The motives for this bridging of differences are varied: exhaustion from wasteful and fruitless military adventures, economic constraints imposed by the pandemic’s fallout, and the perception of American capriciousness and lack of protection from Iran are the factors most commonly cited. Less noticeable, but perhaps more significant, is the newfound confidence Arab rulers have enjoyed since surmounting the internal political challenges of the 2011 uprisings and their aftermath—a confidence that makes these leaders less likely to project their insecurities onto regional rivals and more inclined to find common cause with like-minded autocrats. Such assuredness seems particularly evident in the recent halt to the famously personal and ideological discord between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE, on the one side, and Qatar and Türkiye, on the other. The split manifested itself in a harmful economic blockade and a low-level surrogate war. More recently, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed in March 2023 to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies, shuttered since 2016, in a deal that was brokered by China and that built upon previous mediation by Iraq and Oman. And, following similar moves by Abu Dhabi and other Gulf capitals, Riyadh also began talks on normalizing relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—talks that were facilitated by Russia, illustrating Moscow’s continued clout in the Middle East, despite the battering it has suffered because of its war on Ukraine.
Still, the exuberant proclamations that accompanied these de-escalation moves—and the expectation of a new era of calm in the region—need to be tempered by a dose of reality. This is shown most recently and starkly by the April 2023 eruption of fighting in Sudan, where other Arab states have long had interests and influence and where two key players, the UAE and Egypt, find themselves on opposite sides of the factional divide.
The seemingly transformative Saudi-Iran accord also needs to be heavily caveated, since it hinges upon both powers fulfilling pledges of noninterference and is unlikely to completely resolve the rivalry between them. Nor has it addressed the two other axes of Iran’s confrontation in the Middle East: First, its shadow war with Israel could very well escalate. And second, its conflict with the United States, which Tehran clearly compartmentalized from its pact with Riyadh, has continued as Iranian-backed drone and rocket strikes in Syria in March 2023 killed a U.S. contractor and injured other U.S. personnel and elicited an immediate American retaliation.
The deal certainly signals Beijing’s desire to expand its influence in the Middle East from relationships based on trade, energy, and technology—where it has outpaced the West—to more robust political and security ties. That said, it is unlikely that China’s nascent activism in this direction—which some commentators inside and outside the region have lauded as a refreshing change from the militarized, interventionist approach of the United States—will offer a path toward lasting stability. Like other great powers that have ventured into the Middle East, Beijing too will confront the challenge of balancing its relations with competing poles and interests. And it will likely discover that it is far easier to broker settlements than to institutionalize them and make them stick.
The Saudi-Iran agreement, then, is hardly the harbinger of a post-American moment in the Middle East that some breathless commentaries portray it. Measured by foreign aid, arms sales, and its downsized-but-still-present military forces, Washington still commands significant influence. It remains the security patron of choice in many areas for many Arab governments, some of which have perfected the game of courting other powers to extract concessions and more lenient deals from the United States. For its part, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was drawn back into the Middle East, a region it had pledged to exit, as it sought to persuade Saudi Arabia to boost oil output and lower prices. The failure of that appeal, along with Riyadh’s decision to join with Moscow in cutting oil production, confronted the administration with the reality of growing agency and autonomy by its Arab partners—a trend that the Ukraine war did not create but rather clarified.
Looking ahead, it still not clear that the recent wave of moves toward reconciliation among Middle Eastern rivals or the region’s growing multipolarity will produce an enduring peace or sustainable domestic orders. Ultimately, these intraregional accords are a form of authoritarian consolidation by ever-repressive dynasties, dictators, and theocrats with little to no input from their societies. Even the much-touted Abraham Accords and other Arab-Israel agreements accelerated a boost to Arab autocrats in the shape of surveillance technology transfer and other security assistance by Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Israel’s democracy is itself fraying and its politics are lurching further to the right, which has had devastating consequences for Palestinians and is also prompting criticism from the Arab signatories of the Abraham Accords, whose citizens, according to polls, increasingly oppose the agreement. Still, these Arab regimes are unlikely curtail their burgeoning defense, trade, and energy ties with Israel.
Similarly, Gulf Arab outreach to China and Russia is not simply about pragmatic security considerations, hedging, and diversification. It is rooted in a shared illiberalism and common worldview which, for Arab states, translates into little-to-no conditions placed on sales and transfers—a welcome relief from the scrutiny on human rights that some U.S. presidential administrations and Congress have applied to U.S. interactions with Arab partners (albeit unevenly). China has long exerted a particular appeal for Arab regimes: the clichéd and often vaguely defined “China model” promises economic growth and prosperity without meaningful reforms to existing ruling arrangements. But such a template, however applied, will be insufficient to meet the challenges many Arab governments face at home, including the long-standing problems of poor governance and socioeconomic exclusion that sparked the Arab uprisings, along with the effects from climate change and the difficulties of the transition to the post-oil era.
Left unaddressed, these impending challenges could very well flare up in the not-too-distant future, especially in weaker Arab states and as the traditional financial bailouts from wealthier Arab states and international donors become more constrained and subjected to stricter conditions. This, in turn, could jeopardize and possibly upset the current stability of the regional order—a stability that seems mostly bonded by the brittle mortar of authoritarian solidarity.
Clearer Views of the Arab World
Upon closer inspection, the shifting and complex tableau of Arab polities and societies defies simple narratives and comfortable tropes. Some of the Middle East’s headline-grabbing conflicts may have subsided, but this is a region still in the throes of great change, emanating from within and without. Capturing the contours and implications of this dynamism requires a lens that is at once granular, panoramic, and attuned to both local specificities and worldwide trends.
The authors of the ten essays in this collection do just that. Drawing from a range of disciplines and marshaling an array of sources, they analyze the forces that are reshaping the region, including shifts in the global economy, the transition away from hydrocarbons, climate change, advances in digital technologies and artificial intelligence, and great power rivalries. The authors home in on the local Arab actors that are both affected by and contributing to this transformation: regimes, security institutions, publics, civil society actors and Islamists, and increasingly imperiled populations like refugees and migrants, among others. The essays offer no easy solutions or packaged prescriptions, nor do they claim to be definitive in their conclusions. At best, they aim to advance the conversation and propose new lines of inquiry in a way that is both rigorous and accessible for public audiences and policymakers—and most crucially for the people of the Arab world.
Collectively, the authors of this volume are grateful for the generous financial assistance provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and in particular for the support of Dr. Toby Volkman, the former director for policy initiatives at the foundation, and Dr. Jonathan VanAntwerpen, the foundation’s program director for religion and theology. At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, we extend our deep thanks to Haley Clasen and Natalie Brase for adroitly editing the essays, to Madison Andrews for keeping the project on track, and to Jocelyn Soly for designing the compelling graphics.