Citizenship, Nation-Building, and Inclusion in the MENA Region

Marwan Muasher

If the Arab region is to transition to stable and prosperous societies, it has to successfully adopt a new model of citizenship for its people, one that endorses equality for all,  one that celebrates the diversity of all its components. 

The Arab world is a mosaic of ethnic and religious communities. While the Arab world prides itself on its diversity, its politics, and culture often do not match the rhetoric. The rights of minorities—and often majorities—have been systematically subordinated to the power of the ruling elites.

Diversity of views and perspectives is a prerequisite to problem-solving, scientific, and economic innovation, and artistic creativity. Respect for diversity should be not only enshrined in Arab constitutions but codified in law and taught in educational institutions so that legal and cultural norms can harness the full potential of the different constituencies that form any Arab state. 

Five major crises have hit the region in little over a decade.  If the first three—the 2011 Arab uprisings and the 2014 decline in oil prices shook the foundations of the Arab order, followed by the 2019 uprisings in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon, the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of the Russia-Ukraine war are serving as another nail in the coffin. All these crises have brought into focus the structural inequalities afflicting the various rentier economies of MENA countries, particularly in terms of access to health, education, income and opportunity for citizens, gender inequality, refugees, and migrants.

The old Arab order is dead. The economic, political, and societal conditions that produced the Arab uprisings have only worsened in recent years. Political freedoms have eroded and development gains lost. COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war did not disrupt a functioning Arab order. Rather, they further accentuated its fundamental weaknesses.

The only path forward requires a fundamental mindset change; one where Arab governments decide to invest in their people before it is too late, recognize that social peace can no longer be achieved either by force or through financial incentives, and realize that the cost of reform is much lower than trying to maintain the status quo.

An inclusive approach to governance must be adopted in the region. Arab states must provide venues for citizens to voice their concerns and for their meaningful participation in the decision-making process.  Any plans, as well thought of as they may be, will only be a formula for civil unrest if citizens are asked to sacrifice more without being real partners in the future. 

The concept of equal citizenship for all regardless of gender, political orientation, religion, or ethnic origin must be enshrined in any new social contracts and translated through Arab constitutions and laws. 

The status of women has not been particularly affected in a positive way by the Arab uprisings, except perhaps in Tunisia, at least until recently.  The time has come for the Arab world to enshrine gender equality both constitutionally and through practice.  Without such full political and legal rights, and without fighting the battle for women’s rights to its only logical end, there can be no path towards sustainable and prosperous societies.

Preparing active and critical citizens able to function in the twenty-first century is fundamental for the long-term prosperity of Arab states. Arab states will need to fundamentally change their educational systems from narrowly focusing “on the acquisition of defined and approved bodies of knowledge” to a broader focus on fostering democratic and engaged citizenship, acquiring higher level skills of analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and critical thinking.

Arab reformers should also shed the fears of some that any revision of current educational systems is an attack on Arab culture or religious beliefs, and accept that change is about equipping people to deal with life. This transformation is crucial at a time when knowledge and critical thinking define the line between power and impotence and between success and failure. 

The end of the oil era in the Arab world means that oil-producing states can no longer sustain a welfare state model while oil-importing countries can no longer rely on Gulf largesse to sustain their inefficient economic systems. Oil killed the values of productivity and merit in favor of patronage and clientelism. It also hindered a much-needed process of political and economic reforms. Oil also resulted in oversized governments, with its proceeds used to employ inflated percentages of the workforce in the public sector, often for reasons of patronage. 

Inclusive economies also require inclusive societies. In the twenty-first century, the wealth of nations will be measured through its human capital and Arab citizens are a vital component of the region’s transformation.

The real battle in the Arab world today is one for pluralism, diversity, and equal and inclusive citizenship. It is a battle against outdated myths, beliefs,  authoritarianism,  patriarchalism, and closed minds.  


Marwan Muasher, AUB Trustee, Vice President for Studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan.

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