Despite progress with economic and social development over several decades, life satisfaction was relatively low and declining in many developing Arab countries in the second half of the 2000s—a situation described in this paper as the “unhappy development” paradox. The paper empirically tests the direction and strength of association of a range of objective and subjective factors with subjective well‐being in the Middle East and North Africa in the years immediately preceding the Arab Spring uprisings (2009–10). The findings suggest a significant, negative association between life satisfaction levels and each of the main perceived grievances voiced during the 2011 uprisings—dissatisfaction with the standard of living, poor labor market conditions, and corruption in the form of nepotism or cronyism. The increased prevalence of dissatisfaction with the standard of living contributed the most to the decline in subjective well‐being during this period, followed by worsening labor market conditions manifested in increased unemployment and decline in self‐reported earnings. In addition, perceptions about corruption became more important for people’s life satisfaction, particularly in the Arab Spring countries where the uprisings were most intense.