The Causes of Stability and Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa: An Analytic Survey

We have updated and greatly expanded our analysis of the metrics that can cause political instability and unrest in the Gulf and Middle East.

This report is entitled  “The Causes of Stability and Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa: An Analytic Survey” and is available on the CSIS web site at:

The report focuses on underlying forces and causes at a time when political crisis -- and serious security issues -- dominate the region.  These political dynamics and unrest are, however, only part of the story.

The trends in demographics, economics, internal security and justice systems, governance, and social change show how much other factors affect both the region and individual nations, and will remain sources of violence and instability until they are dealt with. They show how basic data on the size of given economies, per capita incomes, populations, and population growth rates also contribute to instability. Finally, they illustrate the critical role of governance, social change, and justice systems in shaping and dealing with each nation’s problems.

The Contents of the Analysis

The analysis is divided into eleven main sections covering every state in the Middle East and North Africa:

  • Setting the Stage - I: Comparisons  Between regions
  • Setting the Stage - II: The Critical Importance of National Differences and the Problem of Perceptions
  • Population Growth: Demographics Threaten the Stability of Virtually Every MENA State
  • Human Economics, Not Macroeconomics, Drive Instability: Low per capita incomes in most states. Very poor income distribution, and serious – if uncertain – poverty levels
  • The Illusion of Regional Oil Wealth: Most petroleum exporting countries end up as rentier states with distort economies, limited job creation, and limited per capita income
  • Like Poverty, Food Supply and Costs Are a Serious Issue and Key Cause of Instability: Some estimates indicate the region has an exceptionally high spending on food as a percent of total income
  • Ethnic, Sectarian, and Tribal Differences: “Clash Within A Civilization”: Not a “clash between civilizations,” but an Arab and Islamic world torn by internal ideological conflicts and power struggles
  • Rapid Social Change and Uncertainty and Risk: Past social norms, social stability, status, roles, and leadership elites replaced by constant change in unstable and often socially anonymous conditions
  • Excessive Security, Weak Rule of Law, and Sometimes Repression: Failures threaten stability and often the regime as much as the people
  • Problems in Governance – I Corruption, Inefficient State Sectors, Barriers to Business and Growth: Over-dependence on non-competitive state industries, government jobs for employment, mixed with corruption and barriers to private sector growth and job creation
  • Problems in Governance – II Uncertain Provision of Key Services: Problems in funding education, health, water, refuse removal, housing, and mixed use of subsidies and barriers.

The Need for Far Better Data, Planning, and Analysis

This briefing serves another purpose as well: it illustrates the severe limits to the availability and quality of the data on many key aspects of stability. As such, it is often a warning that countries, intelligence experts, members of international institutions, NGOs, and area experts need to do a far better job of developing basic data on the causes of instability.

The charts and tables show just how many variations exist in basic data on factors such as the size of given economies, per capita incomes, populations, and population growth rates. They include comparisons of efforts to provide summary scores on factors including governance and justice systems. Some of these comparisons speak for themselves in showing how untrustworthy such systems area a substitute for looking at the details of how given countries do or do not meet given challenges.

They show that far better data are needed in key areas like unemployment and underemployment, income distribution, the efficiency of the state sector, barriers to growth and economic development, the size and function security forces and police, and quality of governance.

Some key societal factors affecting a remarkably young population remain unmeasured. These include factors such as access to meaningful, job-related education, the cost of marriage, substantive employment leading to real careers and income to marry, dependence on the state sector, career options for young women, social mobility and status, and the belief that government and social order offer dignity and justice while being free enough of corruption and favoritism to create loyalty and hope.

The figures in this briefing also reflect the fact that there are few reliable qualitative data on key government services such as education, housing, medical services, water and refuse removal, and infrastructure. The data on corruption and rule of law do not begin to reflect the degree to which given elements of MENA populations are angry at their governments, furious about their living conditions, and identify the political and social framework as unjust.

Furthermore, the data that are available shows that there is a need for far better efforts at statistical standardization, for transparency, for added data on critical aspects of stability, and for accepting the sheer complexity of the various forces at work.

Finally, it is clear that metrics and analyses that do not include survey data on popular perceptions of the quality of all the factors involved, and which ignore the country-by-country causes of popular discontent and anger, have only limited value.

Polls can be a key tool in supplementing the metrics provided in this briefing, but they are often lacking – or unreliable – in measuring key areas of popular perceptions of the causes of instability.

The Near Certainty of Regime Change Cannot Bring Near Term Stability

That said, it should be stressed that many of the metrics presented in the briefing do illustrate the conditions that have made popular unrest so great, and show why many of the peoples in the MENA region have reason to distrust their governments. 

There are no reliable ways to provide exact measurements of the quality of governance and the justice system, but the briefing shows that indicators that are available on the quality of governance show that “corruption” is only part of a much broader pattern of gross inefficiency, favoritism and nepotism, and indifference to popular needs that has built up over decades.

The demographic and economic data reveal patterns of population growth and other trends that make any quick solutions or improvements difficult to impossible.  In the cases of far too many countries, problems such as the need for jobs on the part of the region’s youth are, in and of themselves, certain to put extreme stress on their governments for a decade or more to come.

In such cases, governments may become more “legitimate” in the way they are chosen and in their reduced reliance on repression. They will not, however, be able to build legitimacy by successfully treating the underlying causes of unrest for years to come, and therefore political change alone offers little hope of future stability.

A Decade, Not a “Spring”

Finally, the broader patterns the emerge from the entire set of indicators warn that that the “Arab Spring” is likely to involve a decade of more of political, economic, and social unrest. The causes of unrest are deep, complex, and involve structural problems in governance, demographics, and economics. None can be solved in a few months or years. Even the most successful nations – and the briefing shows that such nations clearly exist – still face major challenges over the next decade. Others must fight their way out of problems that have brought them close to the edge of becoming “failed states.”

Most MENA states lack modern and effective political parties and pluralistic structures, and only the monarchies have a history of traditional political legitimacy. In many cases, there as yet is no clear base for representative government, no experience with political compromise and making elections work, and no pattern of effective governance combined with economic progress and social evolution to build upon.

Ethnic and religious issues often cut deep and have been repressed for decades. Justice systems are weak and/or corrupt, religious extremism challenges necessary social and economic change, and the security forces are often an equal or more serious problem.

The US and the West may still think in terms of rapid, stable democratic change. None of the proper conditions for such exist in many states, and careful political evolution is the only road to stability in the others. History warns that far too many revolutions in the West “ate their young” and the hopes of those who caused them. The “European spring” of 1848, for example, produced continuing instability through 1914 – when new crises led to still greater problems.

There will be Arab successes, particularly with proper support and help from neighboring Arab states and the outside world.  But sudden successes are unlikely and even the best regimes face major challenges where it will take years for them to meet popular hopes and expectations.



Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Nicholas S. Yarosh