The Underlying Causes of Stability and Instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region

Analytic Survey and Risk Assessment

The Burke Chair at CSIS is introducing a two-volume survey of the underlying causes of stability and instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It draws upon the work of Anthony H. Cordesman, the Burke Chair in Strategy at the CSIS, and Dr. Abdullah Toukan—a Senior Associate at CSIS and President and CEO of Strategic International Risk Assessment (SIRA) in Dubai.

The New Stability and Risk Assessment Reports

The new reports include:

  • Stability in the MENA Region: Beyond ISIS and War, Volume One: Regional Trends, a comparative survey of the key quantitative civil factors and trends shaping stability and instability in the region. This volume is available on the CSIS website at

  • This volume begins by illustrating the sheer complexity of the forces now shaping the MENA region, and the difficulty of finding any overall model that fits the different variables involved. It explains the broad outline of the risk assessments used in the study—which compare a wide range of quantifiable longer terms trends drawn from a range international sources—with the full knowledge that many factors cannot be reliably quantified or ranked, and there are often serious uncertainties in the data.

    The report then surveys various estimates of:

o Governance, Security, Regulation, Rule of Law, Corruption, and Effectiveness

o Corruption

o Authoritarianism, Repression, and Failed Governance: Popular Fears and Concerns

o Popular Perceptions of the State

o War and the Cumulative Human Impact of the “Arab Winter”

o Demographics, and Hyperurbanization

o The Size and Impact of “Youth Bulges

o Societal Change and Human Development

o How Religion and Ideology Interact with Sect and Ethnicity

o Budget Trends and Stability

o Economics, GDP Per Capita and Wealth Distribution

o Finance and Banking

o Ease of Doing Business Indicators

o The “Energy Curse” and the End of the “Petroleum Bubble”?

o Food Cost and Security

o Trade, Balance of Payments, Tourism

o Water, Climate Change, and Drought

o Environment

  • Stability in the MENA Region: Beyond ISIS and War, Volume Two: Country-by-Country Trends, a country-by-country risk assessment and survey of the key quantitative civil factors and trends shaping stability and instability in the region. This volume is available on the CSIS website at

    It contains a country-by-country summary risks assessment, and then provides country-by-country selective comparisons by country and sub-region, and comparisons of the trends in governance, corruption, violence, and rule of law. It also includes country-by-country analyses of human development indicators, demographics and unemployment, trends in GDP per capita, global competitiveness, ease of doing business, current account and balance of payments, and global information technology.

  • Stability in the MENA Region: Beyond ISIS and War, Volume Two: Country-by-Country Trends in North Africa, a regional risk assessment and survey of the key quantitative civil factors and trends shaping stability and instability in North Africa. This volume is available on the CSIS website at

  • Stability in the MENA Region: Beyond ISIS and War, Volume Two: Country-by-Country Trends in the Levant, a regional risk assessment and survey of the key quantitative civil factors and trends shaping stability and instability in the Levant. This volume is available on the CSIS website at

  • Stability in the MENA Region: Beyond ISIS and War, Volume Two: Country-by-Country Trends in the Gulf States, a regional risk assessment and survey of the key quantitative civil factors and trends shaping stability and instability in the Gulf States. This volume is available on the CSIS website at

  • Stability in the MENA Region: Beyond ISIS and War, Annex: The SIRA Strategic and International Risk Assessment Model, a technical explanation of the new risks assessment and data analysis model developed by Dr. Abdullah Toukan and used throughout the analysis. This volume is available on the CSIS website at

Looking Beyond War, Extremism, and Terrorism

These two volumes, and the Annex presenting the risk model, look beyond the immediate political and security issues that shape the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and look at broader range of forces that are shaping both its instability and violence in the region, and the fact that the majority of MENA nations have remained relatively stable and continue to make progress.

This does not mean that there are many factors such an analysis does not cover, or that the political dynamics and violence that shape the current crises in the MENA region—and the daily events in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen—do dominate the immediate course of violence and instability in the region. They are, however, are only part of the story. There are deep structural causes of violence and instability as well.

Looking Beyond Politics, Terrorism, and Conflict

The present wars and upheavals have also been shaped by the major tribal, ethnic, sectarian, and regional differences within a given nation. In addition, an examination of the broader demographic, economic, and security trends in the MENA region shows how critical these factors have been in shaping public anger and discontent and will continue to be in the future. The same is true of the critical role played by the quality of governance, internal security system, justice systems, and progress in social that are shaping each nation’s problems.

These factors not only help explain the current conflicts, they are critical to any risk assessment of the countries and areas in the MENA region. The UN Arab Human Development Reports (UNAHDR) began to warn over a decade ago that the region faced critical demographic pressures, failures in economic development, and a combination of challenges related to income distribution, deep problems with corruption, nepotism, and discrimination. The UNAHDRs warned that these factors were compounding on a pre-existing agitation over a lack of freedom to threaten regional stability, and create significant challenges to given countries. Current UN, World Bank, IMF, CIA, and World Economic Forum data and reports show that these pressures and trends have generally gotten worse, particularly in conflict states. They also show that the pace of change and reform in most countries lags badly behind actual need for change and reform.

Modeling Risk as Well as Showing Key Data

This analysis displays the size of many of the problems involved, as well as key trends, using wide range of different sources and metrics. It also provides a new approach to integrating these data into summary risk assessments developed by Dr. Abdullah Toukan. There is no fully reliable way to quantify or assess the deep underlying structural impacts of such factors in shaping regional extremism, unrest, violence and conflict.

There are inevitable limits to any summary risk assessment. Both past efforts at modeling and analysis, and a review of the uncertainties in the data, show that any method of assigning a weight to a given measurement or trend presents inevitable problems.

The new risk assessment model used in this report does, however, cover a wide range of variable and trends for every country that is based on different sources of data, and highlights the trends that are not dependent on politics, diplomacy, or conflict. It is explained in detail in the Annex to this report, but it draws on a sufficiently wide range of indicators and data sources to ensure that it can provide clear warnings of key problems and risks.

The Analytic Focus of Volume One and Volume Two

The region-wide data in Volume One of the report, and the country-by-country data in Volume Two, show that a focus on politics and violence, and on issues like terrorism and religion, sharply understates the full range of forces at work and the time and effort needed to correct key problems.

These volumes set the stage for a better understanding of the underlying causes of unrest by surveying some of the key statistics and data on the key trends in demographics, economics, internal security and justice systems, governance, and social change on a country-by-country basis, and showing how they affect both the region and differ by individual nation.

The Need for Far Better Data, Planning, and Analysis

Both volumes illustrate the importance of generating more accurate data on many key aspects of stability. For example, they show the need to generate better data on the impact of population pressure, corruption, poor distribution of income, and every aspect of the opportunities and problems faced by the region’s youth, growing urban population, and farmers.

They warn that no amount of improvement in counterterrorism, or level of repression, can bring lasting stability to any nation in the region. The social and economic forces driving the future of each country are simply too great. Security must be developed on the basis of meeting human needs as well as countering extremism, terrorism, and violence.

Finally, the data and risk assessments provide a further 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 Need for Valid Data, and More Relevant Metrics, in A World of International Statistical Gaps and Uncertainties

The current crises in the region have sometimes made it difficult to impossible to collect accurate, up-to-date data that measures the seriousness of the problems involved in nations whose instability and violence has now led to years of deterioration in the real-world politics, governance, economics, and human development factors that affect their citizens and key ethnic, sectarian, tribal, and income groups.

In some cases, key data predate the beginning “Arab Spring,” and the unfolding of what became the “Arab Winter.” Most of the available data do not go beyond national totals and provide a basis for examining differences by ethnicity, region, sect, tribe, class, and other key sources of discontent. This is important because nation-wide trends like GDP growth and GDP per capita have value, but can show progress that is misleading in regard to their real world impact on most of the population, and on pressures and perceptions that shape the actions of key elements of the population.

The effort to gather the data in the charts and tables in Volume One and Volume Two also show the need for far better international statistical standardization. Important variations exist in the way given countries and sources report or estimate even basic data on factors such as the size of given economies, per capita incomes, populations, and population growth rates. These discrepancies challenge much of the single point analysis used by the US government, some UN agencies, and key international organizations like the World Bank and IMF.

There are problems in many of the efforts to provide summary scores on factors like governance and justice systems. Some comparisons seem very uncertain in the way they measure how given countries do or do not meet given challenges. These problems often seem to be driven by underfunding although there are inherent limits to collection and methodology, but better efforts are necessary.

It is also important to note that no one source or organization clearly emerges as reliable in reporting on any key parameter that is currently being measured. Seeming agreement between sources is sometimes the result of using the same uncertain method or data. More often, different sources do not agree on even basic data like the size of given economies, per capita incomes, populations, and population growth rates. There is a clear need for far better efforts at international statistical standardization, providing clear estimate of uncertainty, and making methodology more transparent.

Measuring What Actually Counts

The problems and trends that are revealed in the existing data also show that new forms of data are needed on key potential causes of instability 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 that affect a remarkably young population remain unmeasured. These factors include 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.

There is a need for more 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 and corruption, angry about their living conditions and job prospects, feel deeply discriminated against, identify the political and social framework as unjust, and support some form of violent or extremist reaction.

Finally, it is clear that there is a need for metrics and analyses that include survey data on popular perceptions of the quality of all these factors. 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.

A Decade to a Quarter Century, Not a “Spring” or a “Winter”

For all these limits in the data, both the data and the risk assessment in these volumes do, however, said, illustrate the range and intensity of the conditions that have made popular unrest so great in much of the region, and show why many of the peoples in the MENA region have reason to fear their futures and distrust their governments.

There are no exact ways to measure the quality of governance and the justice system, but World Bank governance indicators alone are reliable enough to warn that that “corruption” is sometimes part of a broader pattern of problems in governance that includes favoritism nepotism, and indifference to popular needs that has built up over decades.

Similarly, the demographic and economic data often reveal pressures from population growth and other factors that clearly make quick solutions or improvements difficult to impossible. In 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.

Finally, the broader patterns that emerge from the entire set of indicators warn that that the “Arab Spring” or “Arab Winter” is likely to involve a decade or 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.”

Some in the region and the West may still think in terms of stable democratic change. None of the proper conditions exist in many states, however, and political revolution will be the only road to stability in the others. The reality is that far too many past revolutions failed to meet the hopes of the moderates and reformers that began them or serve the people they are meant to help. The “European spring” in 1848, for example, produced continuing instability through 1914 – when new crises led to still greater problems.

Some MENA states have no real opposition political parties or pluralistic political structures, and it is largely the monarchies have a history of political legitimacy. In other states, the forces shown in this analysis can trigger upheavals, revolutions, or violent opposition where there is no clear basis 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 that have been repressed for decades can cut deep. Justice systems can be weak and/or corrupt, religious extremism can challenge necessary social and economic change, and the security forces can create popular resentment and anger.

There will be Arab successes even in states where such upheavals do occur in spite of such problems, 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

Abdullah Toukan