Jordanian riot police and security forces scuffle with protesters attempting to breach the police lines in June during a demonstration outside the prime minister’s office in Amman, Jordan. (Raad al-Adayleh/AP)

In the spring, major protests swept through Jordan over economic grievances and subsidy reforms. In July, protesters took to the streets in the south of Iraq, demanding that the government address persistent unemployment, underdevelopment and corruption. In January, Tunisians launched a wave of protests to oppose tax hikes on basic goods and on the increased cost of living. Iranians protested in large numbers that month over unemployment and economic hardship. In September, Yemenis in the south protested against economic hardship and alleged corruption.

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 people’s lives. Social issues were arguably at the heart of the political grievances underlying the Arab uprisings of 2011. Young populations frustrated over a lack of access to jobs took to the streets, joined by citizens protesting political repression and poor social service provision. While the 2011 protest wave has long since faded, the underlying economic and social problems have only become more intense.

On April 20, the Project on Middle East Political Science and the Harvard Middle East Initiative led by Tarek Masoud convened a workshop to discuss these issues. The papers are now available as a free open-access collection that can be downloaded here.

What is social policy?

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 nonstate actors such as international and domestic organizations, civil society groups, for-profit entities and families, among others, are also key.

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 technical discussion of social policy reforms focuses exclusively 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 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.

Social policy should better be understood 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. Deeper coalitional and regime maintenance politics frame social policy choices.

These themes run through the collection. Caroline Abadeer and Yuree Noh show how Algerian educational investment after the 1991 failed democratic transition and military coup prioritized pro-FLN areas over pro-FIS areas. Mert 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. Dina Bishara shows how the nature of student political organization affects mobilization around issues such as unemployment and educational policy in Egypt and Tunisia.

Rania Abdelnaeem unpacks the tensions between efficiency and the political logic of energy subsidies in Jordan and Iran, as reforms hurt low-income sectors disproportionately as governments seek to cut costs while still maintaining key alliances. Markus Loewe and Asya el-Meehy each examine the politics of pension and subsidy reforms in Egypt. Sean Yom and Wael Khatib contend that the Jordanian government manipulates youth policy to co-opt and demobilize potential challengers. Mark Thompson details how the expectations of Saudi youth for affordable housing interact with economic reforms within a distributive state.

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 noncitizens alike. Such factors point to ways in which social policy in the region might take different political forms than political scientists have observed elsewhere, even without assumptions of Middle Eastern exceptionalism.

State capacity may matter more than regime type.

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. Even well-conceived reforms can fail in the face of state incapacity, while botched reforms can shed politically dangerous light on existing holes in state capacity.

The relationship between the ability to deliver effective social policy and the level of democracy is not as clear-cut. More heavy-handed authoritarian regimes may be better positioned to implement painful reforms, as Loewe illustrates by comparing the efforts of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and former president Hosni Mubarak to accomplish subsidy reforms in Egypt.

This autocratic advantage may be overstated, however. 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. 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. Such an outcome may not please economists, but may be a more sustainable political outcome.

New empirical evidence can change how we understand social policy.

We often make assumptions regarding how citizens feel about social policy that are not backed by rigorous evidence. New survey research and qualitative, 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-a-vis different aspects of social policy. For example, in a survey on prison policies and drugs in Tunisia, Alex Blackman finds little popular support for decriminalizing drug offenses as a way to alleviate prison overcrowding. Anna Getmansky, Tolga Sinmazdemir and Thomas Zeitzoff find unexpected patterns on whether Turkish citizens favor social policies in support of Syrian refugees. Mark Thompson uses focus groups to examine how young Saudi men feel about housing and employment problems in their country.

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. Many longtime 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. This is easier said than done. In probing the conditions under which reform occurs or may occur, they point to both possibilities for and persistent obstacles to change and underscore the deeply political nature of social policy reform. Download the whole collection or read individual essays here.

Melani Cammett is Clarence Dillon professor of international affairs in the Government Department and chair of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University.

Kristin Fabbe is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School.