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A Broken Social Contract, Not High Inequality, Led to the Arab Spring


  • Shantayanan Devarajan
  • Elena Ianchovichina


During the 2000s, expenditure inequality in Arab countries was low or moderate and, in many cases, declining. Different measures of wealth inequality were also lower than elsewhere. Yet, there were revolutions in four countries and protests in several others. We explain this so‐called “inequality puzzle” by first noting that, despite favorable income inequality measures, subjective well‐being measures in Arab countries were relatively low and falling sharply, especially for the middle class, and in the countries where the uprisings were most intense. The increasing unhappiness, reflected in perceptions of declining standards of living, was associated with dissatisfaction with the quality of public services, the shortage of formal‐sector jobs, and corruption. These sources of dissatisfaction suggest that the old social contract, where government provided jobs, free education and health, and subsidized food and fuel, in return for the subdued voice of the population, was broken. The Arab Spring and its aftermath indicates the need for a new social contract, one where government promotes private‐sector jobs and accountability in service delivery, and citizens are active participants in the economy and society.

Suggested Citation

  • Shantayanan Devarajan & Elena Ianchovichina, 2018. "A Broken Social Contract, Not High Inequality, Led to the Arab Spring," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 64(s1), pages 5-25, October.
  • Handle: RePEc:bla:revinw:v:64:y:2018:i:s1:p:s5-s25
    DOI: 10.1111/roiw.12288

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    Cited by:

    1. Raouf Boucekkine & Rodolphe Desbordes & Paolo Melindi-Ghidi, 2019. "Social Divisiveness and Conflicts: Grievances Matter!," AMSE Working Papers 1906, Aix-Marseille School of Economics, France.
    2. Ahmed Elsayed & Jackline Wahba, 2019. "Political change and informality : Evidence from the Arab Spring," The Economics of Transition, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, vol. 27(1), pages 31-66, January.
    3. Roberta Gatti & Diego F. Angel-Urdinola & Joana Silva & Andras Bodor, 2014. "Striving for Better Jobs : The Challenge of Informality in the Middle East and North Africa," World Bank Publications, The World Bank, number 19905.
    4. Caroline Krafft & Ragui Assaad, 2020. "Employment’s Role in Enabling and Constraining Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 57(6), pages 2297-2325, December.
    5. Caroline Krafft & Elizabeth E. Davis, 2021. "The Arab inequality puzzle: the role of income sources in Egypt and Tunisia," Middle East Development Journal, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 13(1), pages 1-26, January.
    6. Yashodhan Ghorpade & Patricia Justino, 2019. "Winning or buying hearts and minds?: Cash transfers and political attitudes in Pakistan," WIDER Working Paper Series wp-2019-91, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).
    7. Abu-Bader, Suleiman & Ianchovichina, Elena, 2019. "Polarization, foreign military intervention, and civil conflict," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 141(C).
    8. Ali Fakih & Pascal L. Ghazalian, 2019. "Analyzing the Perceptions of Egyptian Youth about the Arab Spring," CIRANO Working Papers 2019s-21, CIRANO.
    9. Gilles Dufrénot, 2018. "The third demographic dividend: measuring the “demographic tax” in the Arab Countries in Transition," Working Papers 2018-15, CEPII research center.
    10. Travers Barclay Child & Elena Nikolova, 2017. "War and Social Attitudes: Revisiting Consensus Views," HiCN Working Papers 258, Households in Conflict Network.
    11. Vladimir Hlasny & Shireen AlAzzawi, 2020. "Return Migration and Earnings Mobility in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia," Working Papers 562, ECINEQ, Society for the Study of Economic Inequality.
    12. Desai, Raj M. & Olofsgård, Anders & Yousef, Tarik, 2018. "Signaling Dissent: Political Behavior in the Arab World," SITE Working Paper Series 45, Stockholm School of Economics, Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics.

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