Police detain a protester in Amman, Jordan, June 2018
Ammar Awad / REUTERS

Two perfect storms have struck the Arab world in the past decade. In 2011, in what was at first optimistically called “the Arab Spring,” popular uprisings unseated autocrats across the region. Hopes ran high that these peaceful protest movements would usher in a new era of democracy in the Middle East. But except in Tunisia, they ended in turmoil or deadly civil wars. Then, in 2014, the region’s leaders were dealt another blow when the price of oil plummeted, threatening the basic model of governance on which their power rested. Low oil prices since have made it difficult for regimes to fund bloated budgets, buy off elites, and hold up long-postponed reforms. This is not a temporary aberration: it is unlikely that the price of oil will ever again rise to its pre-2014 levels. 

On the surface, many Arab states appear to have weathered these two storms—however shakily. But there is more turbulence ahead. The shocks of 2011 and 2014 were just the first symptoms of a deeper transformation under way in the region: the fundamental bargain underpinning stability in Middle Eastern states is coming undone, and unless regional leaders move quickly to strike new bargains with their citizens, even larger storms

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  • MARWAN MUASHER is Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was Foreign Minister of Jordan from 2002 to 2004 and Deputy Prime Minister from 2004 to 2005. 
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