The Arab Spring

This decade started with unprecedented massive anti-government protests and uprisings in the Arab world, known as the Arab Spring, which quickly spread from Tunisia in December 2010 to six other countries in MENA within two years. Suicide by self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Muhamed Bouazizi in January 2011, after police officers shut down his small stand, sparked mass protests in his country against government corruption and the entrenched leader, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was in power for 23 years.

The Tunisian demonstrations had a cascading effect throughout the MENA region, and revolutions were born in the Arab world. Inspired by the protests in Tunisia, citizens of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Syria rose up for wholesale political change and dignified living of the masses. However, the dream of democracy, freedom, and improved living standards has been elusive, and sometimes impossible, for all these countries since 2011. 

Protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen managed to topple their leaders. But Libya, Yemen, and Syria have plunged into civil conflicts since 2011.

Faced with unprecedented political protests, the longstanding regimes in these countries resorted to the use of force to bring an end to the unrest for fear of losing their power. While all demonstrations were met with violence and killings at the hands of the regimes in these countries, protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen managed to topple their leaders. But Libya, Yemen, and Syria have plunged into civil conflicts since 2011, which show no indication of ending any time soon. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in Syria, Yemen, and Libya since the beginning of the wars in these countries. 

Since 2014, authoritarianism has roared back to Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He brought back the same methods of suppression of dissent that former President Hosni Mubarak used, while the Egyptian economy has been barely muddling through since the revolution of 2011. The Bahraini ruling family of Al Khalifa has violently put down anti-government protests in 2011 with the help of more than a thousand troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since then, it has strengthened its power through repression and violence. 

Kuwait has not changed much after thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in 2011 and demanded political reforms. But recent mass demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon have inspired hundreds of Kuwaitis to gather in front of the parliament and protest corruption and economic inequality in their country. 

Although Jordan has been largely unscathed by the turmoil of neighboring countries, economic problems galvanized protests in 2011 and 2018. As economic austerity policies continue to hurt the country, the Jordanian government began cracking down on protests in 2019 by arresting activists and protest leaders. 

Tunisia has made more democratic progress than other countries, where Arab Spring protesters sought a meaningful political change. However, greater democracy has not improved its weak economy, which may be a source of more social discontent.

So far, Tunisia has made more democratic progress than other countries, where Arab Spring protesters sought a meaningful political change. With a multi-party democracy, Tunisia has had relatively transparent democratic elections since 2011. However, greater democracy has not improved its weak economy, which may be a source of more social discontent.

Social Media and Revolutions

Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and mobile telephones played a major role in spreading information and serving as a mobilizing tool for spontaneous and organic gathering of protesters across the MENA region in the early 2010s. Images of Tunisian protests against social and economic inequities and the regime’s oppression of people, which were widely shared on social media and through mobile telephone devices, inspired and created anti-government protesters in other countries in the region. Authoritarian regimes have often cut off access to the Internet to quell the protests; though they have failed to stop them.

Thanks to the Internet, social media, and mobile phones, images and conversations of protests quickly reached the world, erasing global information borders. 

Tweets, texts, videos, blogs, and Facebook pages became the most effective communication and mobilizing tools for young Arab demonstrators. In fact, social media was key to shaping the political debate of the Arab Spring. Political discussions and calls for change happened not only inside individual Arab states, but also across borders of the MENA region. Social media conversations of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, for example, were continued in other countries. And thanks to the Internet, social media, and mobile phones, images and conversations of protests quickly reached the world, erasing global information borders. 

If prior to 2011 the authoritarian governments in MENA have not fully understood how to use social media, by the end of the decade they have skillfully weaponized digital media to spread misinformation and propaganda to maintain control and smear and discredit dissidents.

Although digital technology has been a powerful tool for political and social mobilization, this tumultuous and chaotic decade in the Arab world showed that no real change will happen if repressive regimes are more bent on killing their own citizens than making any compromise. If prior to 2011 the authoritarian governments in MENA have not fully understood how to use social media, by the end of the decade they have skillfully weaponized digital media to spread misinformation and propaganda to maintain control and smear and discredit dissidents, shut down the Internet when it suits them, and intimidate and jail online activists in hopes to curb dissent. Social media became a double-edged sword for forces seeking positive change and maintaining the status quo. 

Climate Change

MENA is one of the most vulnerable regions of the world to climate change. Shortages of freshwater, drought, desertification, extreme heat, and dust storms have already shown the region’s climate trajectory during this decade. Climate change was a contributing factor to the Arab Spring. Crop failures, food shortages, and higher food prices worsened the living conditions of the masses, forcing many of them to move within and beyond the borders of their countries in pursuit of a better life. 

According to a study published in the Global Environmental Change journal, there was a strong connection between climate change and conflicts in MENA between 2010 and 2012. For example, severe droughts in Syria between 2006 and 2011 decimated agriculture and caused a major migration of farmers to cities. Competition over scarce resources worsened the living conditions of Syrians, who began demanding change from their government.

Subsequent protests against corruption, poverty, and the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad started one of the most brutal civil wars of the 21st century, which continues to this day. Over the past four years, power shortages under extreme heat have triggered mass unrests in Iraq and Egypt. 

Instability and conflict in MENA will be closely tied to climate change in coming years.

Instability and conflict in MENA will be closely tied to climate change in coming years. German research organization, the Max Planck Institute, predicts that daytime temperatures may reach and stay at 50 degrees Celsius throughout each year in MENA by the end of the century. According to its findings, large areas of MENA may become unlivable by then, if global emissions of greenhouse gases are not reduced. 

Mass Migration

The most prominent feature of the past decade was the start of an enormous global refugee crisis. By the end of the decade, there were more refugees than after the end of World War II. The Syrian war created some of the worst refugees crises in the world. Almost 6 million Syrians fled their country since 2011, and more than 6 million remain internally displaced. 

Despite the spike in the number of asylum seekers in Europe, the biggest burden of helping refugees has fallen on developing countries with weak economies and fragile social stability.

Televised aerial footage of throngs of refugees with children from across the world, including Syria, trekking through European countries to find asylum and dramatic videos and pictures of people trying to reach the shores of Greece, Italy, and Spain from North Africa will be some of the most dramatic and searing images of this century. The largest number of refugees in Europe have come from Syria. However, despite the spike in the number of asylum seekers in Europe, the biggest burden of helping refugees has fallen on developing countries with weak economies and fragile social stability. 

More developed and rich Arabian Gulf countries could do more to help refugees in and from MENA than they have done so far.  

Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan received the highest numbers of refugees from Syria in proportion to their own populations. In addition, Lebanon and Jordan host more than 2 million Palestinian refugees. Refugees continue to put stress on the social and economic stability of these three countries. More developed and rich Arabian Gulf countries could do more to help refugees in and from MENA than they have done so far.  

Sectarian Divisions

One of the most defining events in MENA this decade was the deepening Sunni-Shia schism, intensified by ideological competition between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. During this decade, Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of Sunni Muslims, has stepped up its efforts to contain the growing influence of Iran in MENA. 

The competition between these two countries over spheres of influence has exacerbated regional hostilities. Saudi Arabia and Iran turned the civil conflicts in Syria and Yemen into protracted bloody proxy wars with no end in sight. Iran’s disproportionate influence on Iraq and the powerful Shiite militia group Hezbollah in Lebanon has also inflamed internal tensions in these countries. 

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain cut diplomatic and commercial ties with Qatar in 2017 and imposed a complete blockade on it for its alleged close ties with Iran and for “support of terrorism.” The blockade is still in place. Partly because of these events, Qatar withdrew from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on January 1, 2019 after a sixty-year membership. 

As the world’s major exporters of oil and gas and members of the OPEC, Saudi Arabia and Iran have also clashed over the direction of OPEC’s energy policy.

Being the world’s major exporters of oil and gas and members of the OPEC, Saudi Arabia and Iran have also clashed over the direction of OPEC’s energy policy. Iran often opposed Saudi Arabia-dominated OPEC oil prices and the decision to coordinate prices with non-OPEC countries, such as Russia, which now commands a major influence on the oil cartel. 

While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue their bitter regional rivalry through proxy wars, exchange accusations about attacks on strategic objects – such as oil tankers and oil facilities, and supply arms to various militia groups in the region, they have avoided having a direct confrontation so far. With no signs of abating, the Saudi-Iranian cold war is likely to exacerbate the sectarian divisions in MENA for years to come.