The protests that have swept the Middle East in the past two months share a number of underlying causes: Oil prices are soft. Unemployment is high. Citizens have had their fill of corruption and dictatorship. The demonstrators in Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran and Algiers can add complaints that are distinctive to their nations, too. In Iraq, citizens object to the power of Iran and its proxy militias; in Algeria, citizens complain that the ruling gerontocracy has failed to deliver promised reforms.

Yet there’s a deeper sociological phenomenon that underpins all of this unrest: Individualism is accelerating in the Middle East, upending societies that had relied on people to know their place and respect authority. Arab societies have long depended on hierarchical networks of trust that encompass families, villages, tribes and other associations — networks that ultimately reach up to the national leadership. Young people, though, increasingly complain that these networks don’t serve them, and growing urbanization and the spread of technology make it far easier for them to opt out. In some cases, voluntary friendships and connections that people embrace in lieu of tribe and family provide their own sources of strength. But in a region with such a strong tradition of hierarchy and mutual obligation, it is hard to overstate how destabilizing the rise of individualism can be.

These countries are Westernizing socially, even as they maintain distinctive cultural and political identities. They are shifting toward the more atomistic social organization that has long characterized Europe and the United States. People are more mobile, families are more scattered, and economic rewards come as a result of what you do, not who you are. Yet partly because of the rapidity of the change, and partly because it is occurring in much more traditional societies, the decline in “social capital” that the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam identified as a problem in the United States two decades ago, in his book “Bowling Alone,” is arriving even more abruptly in the Arab world. Loneliness and detachment are breeding social volatility.

Last year, colleagues and I at the Center for Strategic and International Studies explored the rise of individualism in the region, including through in-person interviews with more than 100 Arabs in four countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Tunisia. We interviewed rich and poor, young and old. We spoke with people in monarchies and republics, in cities and rural areas — in English, Arabic and French. The stories we heard were remarkably consistent, and they go a long way toward explaining the protests today.

Scholars and policymakers have often suggested that smartphones and social media drive activism; they are certainly useful tools for networking and organization. But the stories we heard had less to do with that and more to do with young people’s belief that occasional group messages and social media connections could fulfill their family obligations without the demands of repeated face-to-face meetings.

Besides technology, another force driving the trend is urbanization. When people live in villages, they rely on the people directly around them for basic social needs. Neighbors may have known each other for generations. Yet reciprocal obligations are more tenuous in cities, which are booming in the Arab world. Jordan, for example, was 51 percent urban in 1960; by 2017, the figure had risen to 91 percent. Urbanization in Tunisia likewise climbed over the same period, from 38 percent to 69 percent. Many city-dwellers we spoke to lamented that they didn’t know their neighbors at all — learning about departures from the arrival of moving trucks and about weddings from lines of honking cars in the streets.

One Saudi man in his early 30s captured the change for us — admittedly describing an extreme case. His grandfather, he said, grew up in a compound with 120 family members in Hail, on the northwestern border with Jordan. When an uncle moved across town years ago, the whole compound pulled up stakes and moved with him. The man we spoke with has no compound; instead, he and his wife live alone in Riyadh. Twice a month, they travel to Hail, about 400 miles away, to see their families. In rural Jordan, one middle-aged man lamented to us that his children — and those of his neighbors — worked in Amman, the capital, and did not want to return to the countryside to visit, complaining about the time and expense and suggesting that the parents should make the trip. 

For many families, the change has affected the rhythm of the week. Multigenerational marathons of cooking and socializing that once dominated weekend life have been condensed into two- or three-hour visits a few times a month. Young men now often absent themselves from these gatherings, according to our research, spending the day at malls with friends, saying they are available by phone if they are needed.

It’s well known that jobs for young people are scarce across the Arab world, contributing to dissatisfaction. Less noticed is the disorientation caused by a shift in job markets. It used to be that when young people needed jobs, their families (and sometimes their tribes) could help them. That’s much less true today. In part, that’s because — as countries introduce market-oriented reforms — more dispassionate and meritocratic hiring processes are supplanting nepotism. Tighter profit margins make it harder for managers to make spaces for people as “favors.” People with jobs often praise the efficiency and fairness of the newer systems, but young people resent being left to their own devices.

Also, whereas work, family time and leisure once blended, more people now strive to keep these areas of life separate — and to maintain the “proper” balance of each. Young parents said they wanted to spend more time alone with their children, and less time with their adult parents and siblings. When it comes to discretionary time, what we often call primordial ties (based on a person’s situation at birth) are giving way to ties of affection, ties of interest and ties of circumstance.

Is it a good thing that people can make such choices? In many ways, yes. But it comes at a cost. The United States has political and social institutions shaped in part by a long tradition of rugged individualism. Democratic politics, constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and dynamic labor markets (among other features of U.S. society) allow people to change not only their fortunes but often their very identities based on personal preference. As tribal and kinship groups wither and individualism rises, Arab societies will need to develop comparable institutions — and concomitant resilience — against a background that often includes political turmoil, and stagnant or falling incomes.

Looking forward, three things seem likely. First, Arab governments will strive to develop new ways to engage with their citizens. Partly, that will mean embracing a form of politics in which people who are disconnected from traditional patronage groups feel they have a voice. Governments will also need to back away from the “responsibilities” that such patronage groups have thrown into their laps: awarding government jobs based on favoritism, mediating intergroup disputes and using group welfare payments to maintain stability. In addition, they should work to provide services more effectively, whether it’s policing, running fair and efficient courts, or educating young people — preparing them for real jobs that create value. (The inescapable irony is that the more the population relies on governments rather than on traditional groups, and the better governments get at providing services, the higher public expectations rise.)

Second, young people especially will continue to prioritize ties of choice rather than of birth. On the positive side, this will pave the way for new groups built on shared talents and interests — boosting creativity and perhaps even economic productivity. Yet alienated young people will continue to drift into jihadi movements and other extremist groups, which essentially replace a natural family with a more ideologically appealing one.

Finally, we are likely to see intergroup conflict rise as leaders of traditional groups struggle to maintain their foothold, as newer affinity groups grasp at their own share of power and as governments navigate these difficult societal transitions. The upshot of the rise of individualism is that the Middle East is likelier to find itself on shakier ground in the 2020s than at any time in the past half-century.

Twitter: @CSISMidEast