- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Exploring Social Contracts in the Arab World

| Spring 2016

In this issue, the Belfer Center is pleased to feature the contributions of Hedi Larbi, the 2015–2016 Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at the Middle East Initiative. During his stay, Larbi led a dynamic study group of students, fellows, and faculty in examining social contracts. In 2014–2015, he served as Minister of Economic Infrastructure and Sustainable Development and as Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister of Tunisia.

Over the past five years, the Arab world has felt the shockwaves of mass political mobilization on a scale not seen for generations. This new era of political action has rippled through and even beyond the region, touching each nation, but with different results. Outcomes vary from internationally heralded success in Tunisia to nearly unmitigated disintegration of Arab states in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. In other countries like Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan, tradeoffs between stability and voice frame politics, as citizens eye the bright hope of nascent democracy in Tunisia and the grim specter of civil war in Syria, backlit by regional vested interests and international geopolitics.

These multiple outcomes have also attracted a great deal of inquiry from social scientists often focusing, as Arab citizens and politicians have, on political change. In parallel, the economic and social issues at the root of the Arab uprisings have received little attention and in some cases have been entirely overlooked by the scholarly and policy communities and the transitioning countries themselves. While the paths toward transition have undoubtedly been divergent, they stem from the same demands: across the Arab world, people asked for social justice, economic opportunities, freedom, and dignity. Now, compounded by five years of political turbulence and deteriorating state institutions and capacity, economic conditions have further declined and the challenges have only grown more daunting.

These issues were at the heart of a fall 2015 study group led by Hedi Larbi, the 2015-2016 Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative. Larbi served from January 2014 to February 2015 as Minister of Economic Infrastructure and Sustainable Development and Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister in Tunisia.

More than 50 students, faculty members and fellows attended each of the seven sessions of “Rewriting the Arab Social Contract,” which featured distinguished experts with direct operational and academic experience in Arab countries. Guest speakers included senior officials from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and International Labour Organization.

By moving from the historical and political context, to the economic and social fundamentals, and finally to the social and political means to reframe political economies into a new social contract, Larbi’s vision for the study group was to establish guiding frameworks for understanding and implementing the shifts in Arab societies needed for accelerated and inclusive development. The study group leveraged insights from a comprehensive analysis of the region’s historical political economy and drew on lessons learned from the experiences of other transition cases to allow for each country to fit this knowledge to its unique situation.

Continuing its focus on the Syrian refugee crisis, in November 2015 the Middle East Initiative formed the Harvard Coalition for Syrian Refugees, a group that has already made significant contributions to developing actionable responses to the ongoing civil war in Syria that has left over 250,000 dead and 12 million displaced. With its diverse membership of students, fellows, and faculty from nine Harvard schools, the Coalition seeks to leverage the resources across the University to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis through collaborative local, national, and international efforts.

Learn more about the study group's findings by reading the report and listening to the podcasts at belfercenter.org/ArabSocialContract

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Larbi, Hedi. Exploring Social Contracts in the Arab World.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Spring 2016).