Rewriting the Arab Social Contract

| May 16, 2016

During the fall 2015 semester, former Minister Hedi Larbi convened eight distinguished experts, each with direct operational and academic experience in Arab countries and economies to participate in a study group titled Rewriting the Arab Social Contract: Toward Inclusive Development and Politics in the Arab World. Over the course of seven sessions during the semester, these experts contributed  to an integrated approach to the historical, social, political, and economic dimensions of the Arab uprisings, focusing in particular on the often overlooked economic and social issues at the root of the uprisings.

Contributors addressed various aspects of this topic, beginning with the historical and political processes behind the uprisings including Tunisia's historic success and difficult path forward. The group then shifted to the economic and social policy fundamentals of past and present Arab political economies, as well as new development models for the future. Finally, the contributors turned towards implementation, laying out the contours of and processes for redefining a new social contract for a more free and inclusive Arab society.

Contirbutors include Hedi Larbi (lead author and editor), Paul Salem, Middle East Institute, Ghazi Gherairi, International Academy of Constitutional Law, Bjorn Rother, International Monetary Fund, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, former Central Bank of Tunisia and World Bank, Shantayanan Devarajan, World Bank, Zafiris Tzannatos, former International Labour Organzation and World Bank, Hafez Ghanem, World Bank, and Melani Cammett, Harvard University.

Download the Full Report [PDF]



Key Findings

The report summarizes the discussions and highlights the themes, areas of consensus, and unique insights from each speaker, deemed important by Minister Larbi to advance understanding of these foundational concepts as Arab transitions in politics, economics and societies continue. Below is a brief overview of the key conclusions from the study group:

  • Recent Arab uprisings could be understood as another phase of a longer historical process of modernization and cultural adjustment in the Arab world, begun in the 19th century.
  • Prior to the uprisings, persistent economic underperformance, including the “market” reforms of the 1980s, undermined once robust social welfare protections – a key element of the “old social contract” – especially in non-oil exporting countries. This underperformance led to a breakdown in the old social contract and rising dissatisfaction in Arab publics, eventually triggering the uprisings.
  • During the transitions, many of the political, economic and social problems that triggered the uprisings have deteriorated and many countries’ political economies have not changed in meaningful ways. Key brokers in the old system were left in place and reforms needed to level the playing field and develop institutions never materialized.
  • People in the region want more than political transitions. Narrow-minded – often failed – political reforms pursued by the political elite during the transitions did not and cannot deliver the profound societal transformation needed to realize the political, economic and social ambitions of the uprisings.
  • Institutionalized social dialogue holds great promise to facilitate the public debate and state-citizen communication essential to design and build consensus for the terms of a new and inclusive social contract.
  • The United States and Europe must support successful cases in the Arab world. Just as the Arab uprisings spread by example, the power of success stories, however modest, should be taken seriously as a driver for positive change. Certainly, failed transitions will shape perceptions of what is possible in the region. Even modest successes like Tunisia still have a long ways to go to deliver on the economic and social demands of the uprisings. External support can lend crucial assistance as countries move along the reform process.

For lecture recordings, photos, and more, visit the Rewriting the Arab Social Contract homepage.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Larbi, Hedi. “Rewriting the Arab Social Contract.” , May 16, 2016.

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