Equitable socio-economic public policies are one of the most pressing needs in the Middle East ever since the Arab Spring.
Several studies have shown that rising and profound socio-economic inequalities have been one of the crucial reasons behind the massive uprisings that swept through the Middle East about six years ago. If judged solely according to economic data, the Arab Spring should not have happened, since average growth rates in MENA since the 1980s and until 2010 have been relatively high.
Unfortunately, the rising economic growth-rates during the last three decades did not translate into equitable social distribution of the overall wealth. However, wealth and income disparities have increased. This contributed to the intensification of the struggle of the middle-class, in addition to the rise of a more frustrated low-income strata unable to climb the socioeconomic ladder.
The reality of socioeconomic inequalities varies among MENA countries. In my home country, Egypt, it has been one of the most challenging and influencing public policy issues. Sadat’s promotion for neoliberal trade and investment policies during the 1980s has given rise to a new business elite that became increasingly powerful and eventually created monopolies.
Instead of regulating and balancing its dominance, and fairly distributing generated wealth, the political elite colluded with the business elite through an illegitimate ‘marriage,’ without regard to the long-term dire consequences that ordinary people will suffer from.
The revolution was only a pressure-cook that the elite naively imagined would never explode if they let some steam out every now and then. They were wrong. The elite thought that the people could be tamed and calmed down by some food or fuel subsidies. They were also wrong. The regimes of the Middle East should not bet on the people’s patience, for it is a failed bet.
In 2015, the World Bank published an insightful report attempting to answer the ‘Arab inequality puzzle.’ The report concluded that rising and widely shared dissatisfaction with the quality of life among ordinary people were the main reasons for the uprisings. While objective data could not reflect the quality-of-life results, perception data of value surveys was able to reflect those results.
Prominent authors such as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provided abundant evidence showing that socioeconomic inequalities have severe negative impacts on people’s everyday life, which can then contribute to a general social dysfunction.
Middle East regimes primarily address the symptoms rather than the causes of poverty. Social policies for the poor such as food and fuel subsidies, unconditional cash transfers, and social assistance, might be viable options for mitigating the needs of the poor in the short-term, yet they fall short on addressing the causes of poverty.
If the current poverty-relief approach to socioeconomic policies is not altered to address the core reasons of poverty rather than its symptoms, the Arab Spring’s aspiration for social justice will not be realized. This might in turn trigger another wave of massive uprisings.
There are many equitable policies that Middle Eastern regimes can learn from, such as Scandinavian countries’ advancement. The aforementioned happened through fair progressive tax reforms, in addition to regulations and government interventions guided by the principle of social justice.
If they can do it, so can we.