Without drastic efforts to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate globalized stressors, tropical coral reefs are in jeopardy. Strategic conservation and management requires identification of the environmental and socioeconomic factors driving the persistence of scleractinian coral assemblages—the foundation species of coral reef ecosystems. Here, we compiled coral abundance data from 2,584 Indo-Pacific reefs to evaluate the influence of 21 climate, social and environmental drivers on the ecology of reef coral assemblages. Higher abundances of framework-building corals were typically associated with: weaker thermal disturbances and longer intervals for potential recovery; slower human population growth; reduced access by human settlements and markets; and less nearby agriculture. We therefore propose a framework of three management strategies (protect, recover or transform) by considering: (1) if reefs were above or below a proposed threshold of >10% cover of the coral taxa important for structural complexity and carbonate production; and (2) reef exposure to severe thermal stress during the 2014–2017 global coral bleaching event. Our findings can guide urgent management efforts for coral reefs, by identifying key threats across multiple scales and strategic policy priorities that might sustain a network of functioning reefs in the Indo-Pacific to avoid ecosystem collapse.