Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Inside the Arab State: Re-Envisioning the Arab State Working Group I

Inside the Arab State: Re-Envisioning the Arab State Working Group I

On January 17–18, 2016, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) convened the first Working Group under its new research initiative, “The New Arab State: Actors, Institutions, and Processes.” The working group brought together scholars and experts representing a variety of disciplines including political geography, sociology, history, and political science. The purpose of the meeting was to identify central research questions on the evolving role of the Arab states in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings. Over the course of two days, participants discussed a variety of topics ranging from the definition, conception, and evolution of the Arab state, the state’s functions and institutions, as well as key topics such as state sovereignty, legitimacy, capacity, state-society relations, political engagement, and civil-military relations across the Arab world.

The Working Group began with a discussion of the conception and definition of the “Arab state.” The 2011 revolts as well as the subsequent disintegration of several Arab states have reinvigorated scholarly interest in the most fundamental questions around statehood in the Middle East. Since 2011, several states in the region have experienced social and political turmoil (Egypt and Lebanon) while others have rapidly disintegrated into “failed” or “failing” states (Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya). During the working group, participants debated the validity of the very classification of the “Arab state,” and highlighted the need for further exploring what constitutes a state as being Arab. There is a general assumption that an Arab state is where the majority of the population identifies as being Arab and speaking Arabic.

At the same time, there is something more nuanced when theorizing the validity of the Arab state as a distinct sub-category that needs to move beyond ethno-linguistic conceptions and boundaries. The participants also discussed the issue of legitimacy within the Arab state, and suggested that determining or measuring state legitimacy is also not always clearly defined by scholars of the Middle East. There was discussion over whether it is the state itself that provided legitimacy through its domestic arena, through its society and citizenry, or was it a result of the confirmation of legitimacy provided by the international community and the international order. Participants stressed the role of foreign powers when discussing the Arab state, given the pivotal role played by external actors during processes of state formation in the Middle East in the last century, and because so many outside powers still continue to exert their influence.

At the current juncture, with increasing conflict and war, the political map of the region may potentially be redrawn in ways yet unknown. Boundaries established by the colonial powers have remained remarkably durable since the evolution of the post-colonial arrangements in the Middle East. Notwithstanding this, enthusiastic cartographers and Middle East experts have often taken to producing imaginative re-drawings of the Middle East, seeking to illustrate how the region could look if “properly” demarcated based on history, ethnicity, and linguistic affiliation. Yet these highly creative versions of the territorial construction of the Middle East may not appear so far-fetched or fantastical in the current context. With the rise of ISIS and its incursion onto the territory of two fragile Arab states, understanding the durability of borders and territory, as well as their meaning to the citizens, has once again become important. Working Group participants considered the reconfiguration of borders within the Arab world and the politics around sovereignty and space.

Additionally, the post-2011 environment has exposed the fundamental weakness of institutions within the Arab. The failure of the states to deliver essential public services and good to their citizens has been compounded by limitations on political freedom expression, inadequate economic security, and corrupt and inept state institutions. As a consequence, extremist movements like ISIS have stepped into the picture with promises of providing order, stability, peace, and security to the people. Members of the Working Group noted that most Islamic oppositional forces arrayed against regimes do not want to abolish the state system; instead, they are seeking to either control the state or present an alternative, Islamic model of political rule.

Following the 2011 uprisings, the Arab world has been plagued by a widening gulf between state and society, and rapid state deformation in countries such as in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. The 2011 protests differed from the earlier ones: whereas the earlier protests had been a demand for the repair of the regimes, the 2011 uprisings grew out of a conviction among the middle classes that the social contract had been broken by the state. Even the states which experienced very modest levels of protests, such as Qatar, felt threatened due to the fear of the contagion effect. The Working Group examined “Arab political thought” to the topic of the Arab Spring, examining whether Arab intellectuals were organically tied to the political action on the streets or were aloof in relation to what was happening. The 2011 protests represented populous movements that sought to resist Arab authoritarianism by demanding justice, democracy, equality, and rights for all citizens. Contemporary Arab political thought addresses these issues and calls for a new social pact between state and society. However, the social movements gradually fizzled out despite their intensity, and the possibility of a reoccurrence is yet to be determined.

The participants debated over the presence or absence of a viable political “center” in the Arab region. Michael Hudson, one of the participants at the Working Group, sees the political center as something between extremist Islamic movements on the one hand and authoritarian states on the other. While some scholars believed that there has never been a political center in the Arab world, others argued that it was shrinking rapidly due to authoritarianism and the outlawing of political parties. They considered the reasons that in the immediate aftermath of 2011 uprisings, an Arab center not materialize out of something that offered more than the two extremes. Moreover, the participants explored the transformations that are taking place in the political economy of the Arab state and repeated economic shocks since the 2011 uprisings. Citizens in different kinds of Arab rentier states have responded in their own ways to cracks in prevailing ruling bargains. For example, citizens in the Gulf states have looked to the state to protect their economic interests in difficult times, whereas in weak states such as Algeria and Iran, they blame the state for their failures. However, given the currently changing nature of the rentier states, it is difficult to say whether the citizens will continue to look to the state for protection.

Historically, Arab states have had a troubled relationship with citizenship, and minority groups especially, who by and large have not been considered as equal citizens. The Arab states have therefore devised citizenship policies that give ruling states the power to decide who will be included in or excluded from the state. The Gulf states have frequently used the act of withdrawing citizenship for political purposes and have recently aligned their citizenship policies with anti-terror laws—a phenomenon leading to statelessness and not unique to this region as illustrated by the anti-terror laws in Canada and Australia. Added to this is the refugee problem in the Middle East region: a significantly large number of people have either been displaced or have become stateless due to political turmoil or the disintegration of central authority in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Since there is not much scholarship on citizenship in this region, the group agreed that the topic should be further explored as part of a broader re-envisioning the Arab state.

Another topic of discussion revolved around the evolving nature of civil-military relations in the region. Generally, armies are designed to provide national defense. Yet the purpose of the Middle Eastern armies is unclear. In the rentier states, armies are normally financed by oil revenues, with major foreign powers providing military assistance to the state. Moreover, some political systems in the Arab world have dual militaries—ideologically armed forces alongside professional security forces—that provide a visible manifestation of the powers of the state or the ruling elite. Many of these security forces had to be called in order to quell the 2011 uprisings. However, the character of the military involvement varied from state to state. In Tunisia the police was much stronger than the military, whereas in Egypt the army continued to play an important role because of its long history of intimate involvement in politics.

Participants also compared current transnational Islamist movements to the Pan-Arabist movements of the 1960s and the 1970s, both of which challenge the conception, functions, and legitimacy of the Arab states. As these states continue to face threats to their sovereignty and legitimacy, they have tried to consolidate their powers and security by forming state-based alliances with outside patrons.

While the participants in the Working Group addressed a multitude of topics ranging from the conception, functions, and institutions of the Arab state to the basic challenges to its legitimacy and sovereignty after the 2011 uprisings, they all acknowledged that there are gaps in the existing literature where more research is required. Hence, the Working Group concluded by identifying areas of research where further analysis is needed. These included the conception and terminology surrounding the very notion of the Arab state, the position and application of political boundaries, ideologies and discourses of the state, engagement between state and the citizens, and the perseverance or change of prevailing ruling bargains particularly in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings. 


Participants and Discussants:

  • Fateh Azzam, American University of Beirut
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Michaelle Browers, Wake Forest University
  • Juan Cole, University of Michigan
  • Stephanie Cronin, University of Oxford
  • Ahmad Dallal, American University of Beirut
  • Alasdair Drysdalem, University of New Hampshire
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Steven Heydemann, Smith College
  • Michael C. Hudson, Georgetown University
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Rami G. Khouri, American University of Beirut
  • Beverley Milton-Edwards, Queen’s University
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Adham Saouli, University of St. Andrews
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Umber Latafat (SFS ’16), Research Intern at CIRS