American Studies, Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Weak States in the Greater Middle East Working Group I

Weak States in the Greater Middle East Working Group I

On December 8–9, 2012, CIRS convened its first Working Group meeting under the research initiative “Weak States in the Greater Middle East.” Participants employed a multi-disciplinary approach to critically analyze the terminology of weak and failing states, and the political implications associated with states being characterized as such. In addition to exploring cross-cutting themes on the global weak states discourse, individual case studies of Middle Eastern countries were discussed to highlight the range of domestic, regional, and global causes and consequences of state fragility.

The Working Group began with a discussion on the notions and terminology of state failure and weakness. Through the lens of standardized classifications of states and their capacity, weak states are defined as those that are considered to lack certain distinct qualities and the ability to provide adequate social, economic, and political goods to their citizenry. Indexes crafted by different organizations label strong, weak, and failed states based on indicators that measure state institutional capacity, political goods provided by the state, and security and stability within the state. These rankings are utilized by policy makers to assess the status of a state and to accordingly develop policies that promote economic development, provide humanitarian assistance, and support political stability. During the working group, the various methodologies used to construct indexes, and the ability to meaningfully interpret the rankings were questioned. The aggregation of a diverse set of states, based on indicators that highlight certain symptoms without taking into account the causes and dynamisms of certain conditions on the ground, offers a monolithic conception of states’ success and failure.

This classification of states has directed the focus of donor countries and multilateral organizations to those states that are ranked at the bottom end of the state strength continuum. When assessing the effectiveness of aid allocation in weak states, the participants debated the various routes of aid delivery, the strategic interests of donor states, and the different types of aid provided. In some cases aid allocation fulfills the mere purpose of paying off elites for the strategic interest of the donor countries, while in other cases development institutions are created outside of the recipient state in order to achieve short term results, consequently undermining the state and exacerbating the original problem of capacity weakness.

The politicization of aid converges with the securitization of the weak state discourse. It is assumed that state weakness creates a permissive environment for non-state actors to thrive, thereby posing a non-traditional threat to global security. Policymakers believe that there is a positive quadratic relationship between non-traditional threat production and state failure or collapse. However, more recent scholarly work suggests that a collapsed state does not have adequate financial and logistical resources that criminal or terrorist networks need to function, while weak states do. It was suggested by some Working Group participants that the monolithic designation of weak states does not enable policy makers to understand the particular threat posed or to tailor an effective solution.

The Arab Spring has unmasked the fragility of states ruled by strongmen. The Working Group provided illumination on several states in the Middle East post Arab Spring, both in terms of their domestic functioning and their regional interaction. Libya’s Qaddafi was characterized by his personalistic and idiosyncratic rule of a state that lacked institutions. In the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall, some have argued that this lack of institutions is a blessing in disguise, since the Libyan state is not weighed down by the previous regime’s judiciary and military-industry complex. Participants also discussed the security status of the post-revolutionary Libyan state with regards to militias, and the consequent spillover effect of arms going into neighboring countries. In the context of external intervention and its impact on state weakness, the case of Iraq was examined. Urban politics and post-war reconstruction in Iraq demonstrated that cities function as both the main loci of armed conflict and the main sites of state-building.

Indexes that quantify the state’s policies and institutional performance and grade them against weakness and strength, do not offer us a tool to understand the nuances of regime adaptability in the state. A monolithic conception of states, fails to understand countries such as Sudan where there are dynamic actors who bargain in a political marketplace. Over the last decade Sudanese political life has degenerated from one with an institutionalized core, to a regionalized political market place driven by an auction of allegiance. Characterized as an oligarchy, the ruling elite have been able to contend with competing local and regional centers of patronage in order to maintain central power and keep the periphery of the state from seriously threatening the regime. An increased focus on specific relationships, namely the disconnect between state and society is necessary in examining the question of center and margin in weak states.

Working Group participants debated whether states that are in the process of formation rather than political consolidation should be considered weak states. The Yemeni state, which is consistently labeled as weak or collapsing, is still in a state-building process where political negotiation continues to unfold. Characterized as a state with diffuse systems of localized authority, legal pluralism, and rife with weaponry, the Yemeni state falls short of the Weberian ideal of statehood. On the issue of weaponry, it was discussed that in Yemen, violence is a symbolic resource and not one that is utilized in ruthless fashion. Moreover, some argue that it is an innate cultural preference of Yemenis to refuse central authority, thereby negotiating a different model of statehood that does not necessarily converge with the Western model. Yemen’s constant state of semi-instability was attributed to the significant role of external actors. The neighboring Saudi Arabia for instance, is keen on preventing Yemen from having a strong centralized stable state. In order to prevent the state from imploding and for the sake of regional stability however, it is also keen on having the Yemeni state maintain certain institutional functions. By funding both the state and actors that challenge the central state, Saudi Arabia is able to maintain the constant semi-stability of its neighbor.

The participants also discussed the particular dynamics that shape institution building in Palestine. Palestine as a rentier and extractive state has built its institutions in the context of colonial domination where major institutions are developed to serve both the interests of the Palestinian state and the Israeli state. Moreover, Palestine is dictated by the “politics of antithesis” where outside leadership focuses on consolidating its own power by opposing the politics of the intifada elite at the expense of institution building.

Throughout the discussion on the weak states in the greater Middle East, the participants probed into the political economy that underlies the state classification system. More recently there have been country-led initiatives that monitor and report on issues facing troubled states, as seen by the G7+ initiative which creates a paradigm for countries to do their own fragility assessment. As new conceptions of statehood arise, the articulation of the development and security interests of global hierarchies of power may alter.



Participants and Discussants:

Rogaia M. Abusharaf, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarZahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarBridget L. Coggins, Dartmouth CollegeJohn T. Crist, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarAlex de Waal, Tufts UniversityDaniel Esser, American UniversityManata Hashemi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMark McGillivray, Deakin UniversitySuzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarDwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarSarah Phillips, University of SydneyGlenn E. Robinson, Naval Postgraduate SchoolRobert I. Rotberg, Carleton UniversityCharles Schmitz, Towson UniversityNadia Talpur, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarFrederic Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International PeaceMahjoob Zweiri, Qatar University 

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS