Dalia Mortada writes for PBS in Did Food Prices Spur the Arab Spring?:

One of the driving forces behind the Arab Spring, some contend, is the high cost of food. A combination of shrinking farmlands, weather and poor water allocation is helping contribute to higher prices and, in turn, anti-government sentiment, according to analysts.

Peter Thiel said in an interview:

I think the Arab Spring, I think the fundamental driver for that was the food prices went up 50 percent and people were going to starve and I think it’s smug and complacent to pretend that it was anything other than that.

Was the Arab Spring caused by rising food prices?

  • How would we turn this from opinion into empirically based? – Oddthinking Feb 21 '16 at 0:14
  • @Oddthinking The question is basically about causation. I don't think we have closed questions about claims of causation in the past. If you have ideas about how to make the question more empirically based feel free to go ahead. – Christian Feb 21 '16 at 10:02
  • I agree it is about causation, but it is someone's opinion about causation. I can't see how to turn that into something with empirical evidence; there's no way to run a randomised control trial. The accepted answer demonstrates correlation with a reference, and then shrugs and says "maybe/maybe not" for causation. – Oddthinking Feb 22 '16 at 11:03
  • @Oddthinking I think the accepted answer does provide better evidence than being found in the quoted source in the question. It's not a perfect situation but I think the improved amount of empirical evidence is valuable. – Christian Feb 22 '16 at 12:09

On one hand, slogans of the Arab Spring included chants about access to bread, and there is a strong correlation between the FAO Food Price Index and two waves of protests. The dotted blue line here shows the date of a warning from the authors of the cited paper that protests would occur: (source)

Correlation in 2008 and 2011

On the other hand, one source denies any correlation between the Tunisian food price index and the start of protests, and points out that a public announcement that food prices would be lowered did not stop the protests. (source) Furthermore, in other countries like Morocco, Jordan, and Algeria, people spend 40% of their budget on food, compared to 6% in America, but despite protests and riots those governments were not overthrown. (source)

From this we can gather that the Arab Spring was different from the 2007-8 food riots in its political motivations and desire for regime change, as well as the weakness of the governments being protested against. Food prices may have been a "spur" but people's motivations were more multifaceted than that, as evidenced by the state of the Arab world today.

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