The social contract as a tool of analysis for MENA countries

By Markus Loewe
Submitted to Session P4746 (A new social contract for the MENA countries: Concepts, challenges and opportunities, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
All Middle East;
Political Economy;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Since long, political analysts are using the concept of the social contract to explain why most MENA countries have been rather stable for many decades but have then be hit by the so-called Arab spring. Their argument tends to be that the “old social contracts” of MENA countries do not work anymore because government revenues have diminished and populations have grown so that the average per-capita amounts that governments redistribute to citizens have shrinked substantially while political participation has not improved either.

The question to be discussed is if the concept of a social contract adds any value to other concepts in explaining the ‘Arab spring’, the current situation in the MENA and possible future scenarios of development.
For this purpose, the term ‘social contract’ must, first, be properly defined to make it applicable to MENA countries. I particular, it should be non-normative. Second, it should be clarified what the format, the contracting parties and the contents of social contracts can be. Third, it should be exemplified that all countries have a social contract at almost every point in time but that these social contracts differ substantially. Finally, the question will be how social contracts in MENA countries have changed over time – especially before and during the Arab spring - and how they might develop in the future.

The thesis of the paper is that the concept of the social contract is mainly good to take a specific perspective on these developments: in order to understand, for example, that the state and societal groups can renegotiate the social contracts in MENA countries in different ways. Of course, they have very different negotiating power. But if governments continue to reject better conditions for society (better governance, social justice and human development), they incur a high risk that a ‘new Arab spring’ breaks out leading potentially to the implosion of additional MENA countries. The challenge is thus to identify a solution that is pareto-superior to the status quo: improving the conditions for societies while at least not deteriorating the situation of the regimes (who would otherwise refuse the new social contract).

At the same time, the concept of the social contract help to identify policy fields that will be crucial for the future stability of MENA countries and analyse the potential of different reform options in these fields – including e.g. industrial policies, subsidy and cash transfer policies, administration reforms and water allocation.