Introduction: Social Policy in the Middle East and North Africa

*This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 31, Social Policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

This spring, major protests swept through Jordan over economic grievances and subsidy reforms. In July, protestors took to the streets in the south of Iraq, demanding that the government address persistent unemployment, underdevelopment, and corruption. Meanwhile, earlier in 2018, Tunisians launched a wave of protests to oppose tax hikes on basic goods and increased cost of living. Such highly politicized responses to social policy concerns are the norm rather than the exception across the Middle East and North Africa. Social policy is where most citizens actually encounter the state and where policy most impacts peoples’ lives. As such, social policy and, more generally, welfare regimes, deserve a more central place in political science research on the region, as they have in the broader discipline.

Social policy refers to policies shaping life concerns such as education, health, housing, and employment. It concerns the ways that polities and societies meet the basic needs of their citizens and residents for human security and well-being, broadly defined, and face the challenges of poverty, unemployment, demographic and socioeconomic change. National and local governments are the main actors in crafting and enforcing social policy, but non-state actors, such as international and domestic organizations, civil society groups, for-profit entities, and families, among others, are also key.

Social issues were arguably at the heart of the political grievances underlying the Arab uprisings of 2011. Young populations frustrated over lack of access to jobs took to the streets, joined by citizens protesting political repression and poor social service provision. In Tunisia and Egypt, two regimes commonly thought to be among the region’s most stable, collapsed. Similar uprisings took place in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, culminating in violent struggles between opposition groups and ruling regimes over political and economic reforms.

A well-established body of scholarship within political science and other disciplines examines variation in social policy and welfare regimes in advanced, industrialized countries. A growing number of scholars have extended this line of research to developing countries, interrogating questions about variation in the degree of social protection and differences in welfare regimes across countries and regions, asking whether democracies have more articulated welfare states than authoritarian regimes, investigating the effects of ethnoreligious diversity on social policies, and other issues. In particular, researchers increasingly probe the motivations for redistributive policies under authoritarian regimes, which arguably have less pressure to cater to the general population than democracies. Given the healthy share of Middle Eastern countries in the universe of authoritarian polities, regional specialists are well positioned to contribute to this burgeoning line of research – and some have already taken up the charge.

On April 20, 2018, POMEPS and the Harvard Middle East Initiative convened a workshop with a dozen scholars from around the world to discuss theoretical and policy issues related to social policy in the Middle East. The diverse, multidisciplinary group of scholars at the workshop addressed these questions from multiple perspectives. Several key themes emerged from the workshop discussions:

Social policy as politics: One of the central issues driving the workshop was simply that social policy must be understood in terms of politics, not just as technocratic challenges. Much discussion of social policy reforms focuses on their potential economic impacts, with political effects or drivers largely an afterthought or an exogenous constraint. Analyses of subsidy reforms, for instance, typically consider the potential of the consequent price hikes to evoke disruptive protests, but treats social mobilization as a problem to be managed rather than as a legitimate expression of interests that need to be addressed or as a reflection of underlying “social contracts” established over decades between rulers and ruled that serve as de facto forms of social protection in lieu of more formal policies and programs.

The memos in this collection emphasize not only the protest and contentious politics around the establishment and maintenance of social policy, but also the deeper coalitional and regime maintenance politics underlying social policy choices. Abadeer, for instance, shows how Algerian educational investment after the 1991 failed democratic transition and military coup prioritized pro-FLN areas over pro-FIS areas. Also focused on coalition politics, Arslanalp demonstrates how the AKP’s massive transformation of Turkish housing policy was carefully designed to manage tensions inside its own ranks at the local level. In her essay, AbdelNaeem turns to the tensions between efficiency and the political logic of energy subsidies in Jordan and Iran, as reforms hurt low-income sectors disproportionately when governments seek to cut costs while still maintaining key alliances. Yom and Khatib contend that the Jordanian government manipulates youth policy in order to co-opt and demobilize potential challengers. Across the contributions to the collection, the political logic underlying social policy comes to the fore.

Is the Middle East different? While every state faces politically difficult choices over social policy, the Middle East presents some distinctive forms and challenges compared with other regions of the world. Oil rents and an especially pronounced legacy of state-led development often led to the creation of large scale, expensive distributive systems across the region. Islamist movements’ activity in the social services sector also acted as a way for states to offload their role in social policy. The region’s highly skewed demographics and, in some countries, the enduring effects of the youth bulge have distinctive implications for labor markets and the demand for housing, putting immense strains on already stressed social policy regimes. Refugee flows place particularly enormous burdens on social sectors and on government capacities to respond to the demands of citizens and non-citizens alike. Independent of old arguments over Middle Eastern cultural or political exceptionalism, such factors point to ways in which social policy in the region might take different political forms than political scientists have observed elsewhere.

State capacity is key. Variation in social policy outcomes is often associated with variation in state capacity. At the same time, variation in state capacity is often best observed through variation in the effective delivery of social policy. Disentangling observations of state capacity and of social policy is methodologically important, theoretically challenging, and analytically essential. History may matter, in terms of how states formed. So too might geography, and the ability of the state to reach into different areas. Two pieces in the collection tackle these issues. Drawing on historical evidence from Egypt, Eibl highlights how governments that lack capacity but have incentives to resort to “cheap social policies,” using windfall revenues to finance popular social programs and avoid meaningful reforms. Hartnett also takes a historical approach, showing how colonial legacies of state formation in Iraq and Jordan led to variation in state capacity that then shaped social policy outcomes.

Regime type matters. The relationship between the ability to deliver effective social policy and the level of democracy may be important for some aspects of social policy but is not clear cut. Even highly autocratic regimes that do not worry about elections have typically been concerned with at least some elements of social policy – if for no other reason than to prevent the eruption of street protests, which are often triggered by cuts to social benefits (such as increased prices on basic commodities or efforts to raise taxes or improve tax compliance). The more responsive a government feels it must be to public opinion, the less likely it is to make painful reforms that might lead to short-term discomfort but improved longer-term social policy outcomes. As a result, more open or accountable governments, including in hybrid or soft authoritarian regimes, may be more likely to preserve expensive but popular social policies that provide a safety net for citizens. Conversely, more heavy-handed authoritarian regimes may be better positioned to implement painful reforms. Lowe illustrates these points by showing how Sisi has been able to accomplish subsidy reforms that were largely out of reach for Mubarak. El-Meehy finds a similar pattern across the two Egyptian regimes when it comes to pension reform.

How citizens feel. We often make assumptions regarding how citizens feel about social policy that are not backed by rigorous evidence. New survey research as well as qualitative and focus group research can shed light on how citizens actually perceive state delivery of social services and how these perceptions may both reflect and shape the social contract. A number of essays in the collection break ground new ground on the question of citizen attitudes vis-à-vis different aspects of social policy. For example, in a survey on prison policies and drugs in Tunisia, Blackman finds little popular support for decriminalizing drug offenses as a way to alleviate prison overcrowding. Based on an original survey experiment, Getmansky, Sinmazdemir, and Zeitzoff explore which Turkish citizens favor social policies in support of Syrian refugees. Taking a qualitative approach, Bishara shows how the nature of student political organization affects mobilization around issues such as unemployment and educational policy in Egypt and Tunisa, while Thompson uses focus groups to examine how young Saudi men feel about housing and employment problems in their country.

Directions for new research:

The contributions to this collection raise important issues for further research – both on the Middle East and for the broader research agenda on welfare regimes in developing countries. First, they generate insights for the increasing body of work on social policy under authoritarian rule. In particular, by highlighting the ways in which different authoritarian regimes were more or less successful in pushing through politically risky and socially painful reforms, they invite us to theorize how varieties of authoritarian regimes may be more or less equipped to introduce new or modify existing social policies. Second, these papers call our attention to dimensions of social policy that do not receive much attention, such as prison policies and legal frameworks around regulating drug use, among others. Third, the collection invites questions about the relationship among attitudes, preferences, and policies. A number of the contributors highlight the ways in which public attitudes undergird social policies. In this way, their findings directly and indirectly speak to the broader social science literature on policy feedbacks, or the ways in which social and economic policies themselves create constituencies that then shape further policy initiatives and reform.

These papers, therefore, point to the need for more research in the Middle East and in other developing regions on how public opinion informs and is informed by social policies – even under authoritarian rule. Finally, many long-time students of the Middle East contend that protracted economic crises, unemployment, poverty, and inequality highlight the urgent need for a new “social contract” in the region. As many of these contributions show, however, this is easier said than done. In probing the conditions under which reform occurs or may occur, the essays in this collection emphasize both possibilities for and persistent obstacles to change and underscore the deeply political nature of social policy reform.

—Marc Lynch, POMEPS

— Melani Cammett, Harvard University

—Kristin Fabbe, Harvard University

July 2018