Events surrounding the 'Arab Spring' have been subject to interpretive debates, particularly about their revolutionary potential. However, there are deeply embedded structural and behavioural characteristics in Arab states and societies which could obstruct any momentum that would result in fundamental and enduring change. Of particular interest is how these events can be informed by the state of the literature on transitions and impediments to democracy. As such, this article provides an empirical, conceptual and theoretical prism through which the changing landscape of the Middle East and North Africa can be viewed and understood. It considers those factors that militate against revolutionary change and this, in turn, invites a reflection on the relevant conceptual and theoretical concerns that underpin democratic transitions and the challenges that arise from these, especially the practice of patrimonialism. The empirical core of the article focuses on the resilience of authoritarianism and highlights problematic themes which persist in defining the reproduction and upgrading of authoritarian tendencies across the Arab world.