Arab Pathways to Sustainable Development

Jul 15 · 7 min read

-by Adel Abdellatif, Paola Pagliani and Ellen Hsu

July is a time of reflection and debate around the sustainable development goals (SDGs), as UN member states convene for the Economic and Social Council High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) and the UN Secretary General releases his annual report on the progress towards the SDGs. How does a sustainable future look in the Arab region?


Arab states have embraced sustainability in all its dimensions

By adopting Agenda 2030 in 2015, all Arab countries have committed to the principles of sustainable development. As of 2019, fifteen have also submitted Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) detailing their visions and the implications for their national context. Policy commitments captured in those reviews range from shifting to renewable energy sources, to ending gender-based violence, and to creating more affordable and sustainable urban housing, with the understanding that policy transformation needs to happen simultaneously in multiple sectors.

Source: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform

All Arab countries have also signed, and most have ratified, the Paris Agreement to combat climate change by accelerating and intensifying actions towards a low carbon future. Addressing climate change challenges is critical in a region that has been heavily relying on production and consumption of fossil fuels, yet is significantly exposed to consequences of global warming such as the intensification of desertification and water scarcity.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization, AQUASTAT

There have been fault lines in the evolution of the social contract in Arab countries

The recently launched UNDP policy paper ‘Leaving No One Behind Towards Inclusive Citizenship in Arab Countries’ identifies progress in education, health, and living standards accompanied by forces of exclusion that have systematically left certain societal groups behind.

Women have partaken in development gains in terms of substantial increases in literacy and education, but their access to economic opportunities is still limited and gender-based violence is still spread. Undeniable progress has been made, for example in Tunisia, where the 2014 Constitution states that male and female citizens have equal rights and duties without any discrimination. While equality before the law is gradually being implemented, there is yet no country in the Arab region where it has been achieved. Implementation of non-discriminatory laws and the overall system of gender norms are equally vital to achieve gender equality, but without legal equality many of the SDG targets will be unattainable.

While national aggregates paint a picture of socio-economic improvement, those results have not been well distributed among societal groups as well as geographically. Economic and infrastructure investment have often privileged certain zones, leaving behind entire regions and neglecting rural areas. Rapid urbanisation granted access to better opportunities to many, but alongside informal settlements, which represent the modern features of poverty and frustrated expectations.

For decades, public employment served as a national vehicle of social mobility and economic safety for those who acquired a certain level of education. Yet public sector opportunities have saturated, and an anemic private sector has been unable to create alternative decent jobs. The ensuing unemployment crisis has become one of the main factors of discontent among the youth.

In the absence of a clear competitive advantage beyond extractive industries in certain countries, the region needs to boost its readiness to embrace the fourth industrial revolution as an opportunity out of the economic bottleneck. The rapid expansion of internet penetration in some countries could be a sign of hope, although the poorest Arab countries seem unable yet to tap this potential.

Source: International Telecommunication Union

Exclusion dynamics have an exponentially stronger impact when they overlap, for example when natural disasters disproportionately affect poor people living in underprivileged areas. But it is where societal tensions erupt into conflicts that all forces of exclusion come together, as most evident for people living in areas where infrastructure is destroyed, and services disrupted, as well as for those who become displaced or refugees in other countries.

We should not let the present crisis undermine the future of generations to come

Prior to the escalation of conflict in 2015, Yemen was already strained with extreme poverty, and low life expectancy and educational attainments, which translated into a low human development index despite the low-middle income status. The conflict there has aggravated the situation, and projections suggest that Yemen would be set back 26 years if the conflict were to end in 2022, and nearly four decades if the conflict persists through 2030.

Broken social contracts have caused major conflicts and tensions, in some cases reversing previous development advances and making the attainment of the SDGs by 2030 extremely difficult. Today, across some Arab countries, people’s aspirations to peace and well-being are clouded by daily concerns of turmoil, plunging the most vulnerable deeper into misery. As a result, humanitarian needs often dominate the development discourse about the region, blurring the vision of a better future.

Source: UNDP, Human Development Report Office

What will it take to adjust the focus and zoom in on critical development needs?

Most of the Arab countries, particularly the middle- and high-income ones, have a developed institutional capacity, which can be mobilized and energized to create a space where a new social contract can be negotiated. The starting point is to embrace dynamic forces already at work within the region.

As a shifting fiscal space requires the redefinition of the role of the state, new actors from the civil society and the private sector demand to take part in shaping the societal relations of the future. Those who feel excluded are willing to take responsibility, as demonstrated by the increasing engagement of youth and women in public life, not only through protests but also generating opportunities through innovative start-ups.

On the policy front, the gradual phasing out of fuel subsidies will imply not only a contribution to the reduction of carbon emissions, but also the opportunity to introduce new social safety nets more responsive to those who need them, such as the “Takaful and Karama” (“Solidarity and Dignity”) programme in Egypt, which has provided conditional and unconditional cash transfers to 2.26 million households, 88% of which are headed by women.

Sustainable solutions to water shortage in the region are emerging from the interconnection between the water and energy sectors. Improved water conservation and delivery systems, as well as the reuse of waste water, are essential to better manage risks from climate change and toxic pollution. Increased sustainability is being achieved through investment in renewable energy already undergoing in oil rich and non-oil rich countries alike, such as in Morocco, Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Understanding the impact of natural disasters in fragile countries with scarce capacities for adaptation is critical to prevent the direst consequences. The Somalia framework to address the prolonged drought impacting the Horn of Africa focused on support to agriculture and depleted municipal services. The approach helped to avert a famine in 2016 and 2017, and with sustained investment it has the potential to re-position the country on a more sustainable trajectory.

Despite the continued instability seen and felt in some countries, the region started to witness a de-escalation of conflict intensity, with a decrease by 73% of battle-related deaths between 2014 and 2018, attributable in part to the demise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Casualties from terrorism have also gone down by 41% between 2014 and 2017.

Due to the interlinkages they trace among peace, inclusion, and prosperity, the 17 SDGs offer a valuable framework for post-conflict situations. Crisis response and stabilization efforts in countries like Iraq, Libya, and Yemen can range from livelihood to housing, but also encompass basic services such as water, electricity, sewerage, education and vital infrastructures. It is critical to address the needs for recovery and peacebuilding of people in conflict zones, while fortifying the foundations for longer-term development and peace.

Governments are also incorporating prevention into their strategies to combat violent extremism beyond security measures, also mindful of the crucial role that women and youth play in peace and security efforts.


Agenda 2030 represents the opportunity for a more inclusive and sustainable social contract, based on mutual accountability between people and institutions

In summary, Arab countries can mobilize their potential and resources to generate solutions designed to respond to people’s aspirations and resting on three major pillars for sustainability in the region: i) peace and justice; ii) the creation of new opportunities; and iii) inclusiveness.

The potential of the expanding population in the Arab region cannot be left slipping into more conflict and instability, jeopardizing the perspectives of generations to come. Agenda 2030 offers a blueprint to build consensus towards a more inclusive social contract, grounded on the multiple facets of sustainable development.

Source: UN DESA, Population Division

Adel Abdellatif is Senior Strategic Advisor at the UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States. Paola Pagliani is a Policy Specialist, and Ellen Hsu a Researcher, at the same Bureau.

UNDP Arab States

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UNDP's Regional Bureau for Arab States. Working together for a brighter future across the Arab World. Speak Arabic? Follow @UNDPArabic too!

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