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Has the Arab Spring Failed? Not yet, reckons the Economist – Highlights from its excellent Special Report

July 16, 2013
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By blog-reader standards, the Economist’s Special Reports can be pretty long (15 pages in this case), but they are sharply written and stuffed full withArab Spring cover great stats. As long as they steer clear of economic policy, they are also not as ideology-laden as some of the magazine’s other content. So if you can spare half an hour, read this week’s report on the Arab Spring by its Middle East correspondent, Max Rodenbeck. If not, here are a few highlights:

“Before it began to stir in December 2010, the world’s 350m Arabs had seemed oddly immune to the democracy bug that had infected most corners of the globe. Whether republics or monarchies, nearly all of the world’s 19 predominantly Arabic-speaking states had solidified into similar political forms, their varied constitutional veneers flimsy disguises for strongman rule. The people, including legions of often jobless youths, had no say in how things were run.

In breathtakingly short order the decades-old dictatorships of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen collapsed. As popular pressure mounted, other Arab governments announced political reforms, more public spending and other concessions to appease their restless people. A region-wide burst of youthful energy that reminded Westerners of their own liberating social upheaval of the 1960s suggested a new sense of empowerment. The “Arab exception”—the apparent inability of these neo-patriarchal states to move towards political norms shared by most of the world—seemed to have been overcome.

Those heady, hopeful days have long passed…. the scorecard for the Arab spring so far looks overwhelmingly negative. But such an assessment is premature. Rather than having reached a sorry end-point, the wave of change may have only just begun. Judging by experience elsewhere, such transitions take not months but years, even decades.

Further unrest and almost certainly further bloodshed lie in store. But this may well be unavoidable in a part of the world where bewildering social change, including extremely rapid population growth and urbanisation, for so long went woefully unmatched by any evolution in politics. Debate on such crucial issues as the relationship between state and religion, central authority and local demands, and individual and collective rights could not be indefinitely stifled. Something had to give.”

“In terms of casualties suffered, the Arab-Israeli conflict is far from the worst trauma that Arabs have had to endure. Civil wars in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq have each claimed many more lives. Syria, with grim certainty, soon will. Egypt lost more soldiers when it intervened in Yemen in the early 1960s, in support of republicans against Saudi-backed monarchists, than in the sands of Sinai during the six-day war against Israel in 1967. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s left vast numbers of people dead, perhaps half a million, possibly over a million; no one knows for sure.”

“It is mainstream Islamists rather than radicals who have won the most votes: men with trimmed beards and ties; women wearing headscarves rather than burqas. These newly empowered movements have generally shied away from imposing harsher religious rules. They sense that apart from a committed minority, voters care more about cleaning up government than bringing society closer to God.”

arab spring timeline“Life expectancy in the region has risen by 25 years since 1960, faster than in most parts of the world. Literacy in Saudi Arabia has shot up from 10% in 1960 to 87%, and 99% for youths of school-leaving age. Quantity, however, has not been matched by quality. Saudi Arabia spends a higher proportion of its GDP on schooling than most rich nations, yet in a recent set of standardised global maths tests, under half of Saudi 13-year-olds reached the lowest benchmark, compared with 99% in South Korea and 88% in England. Barely 1% of the Saudi children gained an “advanced” level, against 47% of South Korean and 8% of English ones.

These surveys showed up another anomaly. Almost everywhere else boys and girls did more or less equally well, but in Arab countries girls outperformed their pampered male siblings by huge margins, and most Arab countries have more female than male university students. Yet Arab countries also have extremely low female labour-force participation rates. For example, barely 15% of Algerian women of all ages have paid jobs, compared with 58% in America. And the ratio of women to men in low-quality jobs in Arab countries remains the highest in the world, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).”

“What drives [young] people to extremes is not simply the difficulty of scraping a living and being harassed by the law but the seemingly inescapable bind they find themselves in. Arab social conventions remain rigid. Marriage is a prerequisite for sex, and having a house or flat is a prerequisite for marriage. Bad state planning, poor access to finance, tangled property laws and rapid population growth all ensure that in most Arab countries demand for affordable housing far outstrips supply.

The average age of marriage in Arab countries has risen inexorably in recent decades, suggesting that youths are being forced to postpone setting up home. “I think one of the main indicators of what was behind the revolutions is the question, how long would you have to work to get a house compared with your parents?” says Kito de Boer, who runs the Dubai office of McKinsey.”

And here’s the author discussing the report with his boss (10m)


  1. Hi Duncan, thanks for the post, its exciting to see the second wind of the Arab spring. However I think that you may have over simplified what is driving young people to participate and to lead these uprisings. I am sure that for some young people the lack of accessible houseing and the implications that has on marriage and sex are true. But young people are not a homogenous group. What is common across the youth of the region however the fact that their voice continue not to be heard, which will for many be infuriating or may just lead to disengagement. The lack of processes to facilitate youth participation both within government and also within civil society have forced young people to the streets. This is something that governments and NGO’s need o grapple with. INGO’s such as Oxfam have quite a way to go when it comes to shifting their ways of working if they want to be able to work in effective partnerships with young people to effect positive change.
    ps love your blog :)

  2. So Oxfam wonk cites Economist spivs who cite McKinsey Dubai guy who says it’s all about sex and houses?


    Yes The Economist and McKinsey have very smart writers and great graphics, but really Duncan, they just reinvent the recent past and package it for gullible customers. But they have no more idea than anyone else what is happening or why. Look at their record.

    And yes I love your blog too.

  3. well we may not quite realise… after all probably we don’t face these problems that most young people acutely perceive as “immediately” affecting them and which are indeed underpinned by much deeper problems. Certainly, current micro-level qual data from a set of Ethiopian villages reflect exactly that – how much more difficult it is to establish an independent livelihoods, hence marry etc. The one thing I’m not sure is that this set of circumstances isn’t unique to Arab countries and yet what we have is the Arab spring. But perhaps the same question should be asked to other ‘movements’ of different kinds.

  4. The social problems caused by lack of access to housing (in this case due to the high price of roof tiles) is also a major problem in Rwanda, according to Marc Sommers in ‘Stuck’, and in ‘Life after Violence’, Peter Uvin finds the same for Burundi, in both cases making it impossible for many young people to attain formal adulthood in their communities. Both identify this as a major source of potential future instability.

    However, one could make the same argument about the UK, except for the access to sex part.

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