American Studies, Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Weak States in the Greater Middle East Working Group II

Weak States in the Greater Middle East Working Group II

On May 18–19 2013, CIRS held a second working group to conclude its research initiative on “Weak States in the Greater Middle East.” Participants met in Washington D.C. to discuss individual paper submissions that collectively scrutinize the prevailing weak states discourse in the region. Through thematic topics and specific case studies, scholars employed a multi-disciplinary approach to assess historical, political, economic, and social causes and consequences of state “fragility” within the broader Middle East.

The participants began by discussing the typology and characterization of governance indexes that construct a continuum of state strength based on a state’s ability to deliver baskets of political goods to its citizenry. These indicators seek to diagnose governance outcomes that are theoretically based on the Westphalian concept of the nation-state. However, while examining the dynamic domestic and regional conditions of the Middle East, participants questioned the normative premise of indices that disregard statehood and state-building as ongoing processes. During the discussion on defining “hollow-strong” states, the limitations of monolithic conceptions of governance as compared to the significance of power struggles that lead to weak governance structures was highlighted.

While indicators of grievances are undoubtedly evident in certain countries in the Middle East, infusing these signs of governance weakness with a sense of history gives a much more nuanced understanding of current political predicaments facing the state. The categorization of states by donor agencies and foreign policy makers often elides the historical rootedness of contemporary governance structures.

Understanding how leaders in the region maintained power for decades in the post-independence period provides greater insight to conceptualizing the relationship between regime type and governance outcomes. For instance, while the Sudanese nation-state has increasingly disintegrated in the recent decades, President Bashir and members of the local and regional ruling elite have maintained cohesion and allegiance via a modernized patronage system within the political market place. However, this political oligarchy is constantly evolving and may become increasingly unstable as the ruling elite’s “political budget” dwindles in the face of a failed Islamist national project and diminishing financial revenues. Libya’s Qaddafi was also plagued by divisive patronage politics that inadvertently marginalized certain tribes, ethnicities, and geographical areas. In the post-Qaddafi period, Libyans are grappling with issues of exclusion and reconciliation of groups that were affiliated with the regime as they move through a transitional period that seeks to create a new political order. Following the uprisings and fall of dictators, the transitional period and ensuing instability in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia also highlights how the democratization process may endanger effective governance outcomes.

While historical context and colonial legacy provide a more nuanced understanding of how certain regimes have attained and sustained power, it also highlights how these power struggles have accordingly created weak governance structures. Institution building in the case of Palestine has largely been dictated by a constellation of factors: building institutions that serve Israel’s colonial interests as well as Palestinian interests; being a rentier-type state; and the consolidation of personalistic politics of the ruling elite at the expense of institution building in Palestine.

Much like Sudan, Libya, and Palestine’s historically rooted political trajectory, participants highlighted the significance of understanding the political foundations of Yemen’s institutions. The Yemeni civil war (1962–1970) and the fall of the Imamate granted Yemen’s tribal sheikhdoms unprecedented power. While the political field was also dominated by the military and merchants connected to the military and the state, the prominence of the tribal sheikhs has remained a persistent factor in determining the stability of the Yemeni state. Additionally, Yemen’s domestic political landscape has been intruded upon by Saudi Arabia in order to secure its own strategic interests. The recent GCC agreement pushed forth by regional and international powers such as Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in the aftermath of the uprisings in Yemen, has reinforced Yemen’s prevailing governance style, and has therefore undermined state building efforts. Thus, external actors are also directly implicated in structuring the governance of the Yemeni state, where their level of support for state-building efforts is determined by their own geopolitical interests.

The role of external elements in determining domestic stability is not unique to the case of Yemen. In the Levant, the Syrian crisis has illuminated Lebanon’s vulnerabilities to geopolitical currents. Sectarian elites and parties, and specifically Hezbollah, have emerged as strong political actors within Lebanon that have formulated their own foreign policy strategies. This has essentially opened up Lebanon as a political battlefield of geopolitical agendas.

In addition regional political dynamics, interactions and contributions of diasporas to their home states also have implications on state building or rebuilding. While it is not possible to generalize how diasporas may impact developments back home, scholars discussed the role of remittances and voting from abroad and how these relate to the security, capacity, and legitimacy of the home state in specific cases.

The significant role of donor agencies in development further highlights that state-formation is impacted by global agendas. The absorptive capacity and relationship between quantity of aid and aid effectiveness in states with weak institutions was also addressed by working group members. Gaps in state capacity and state willingness to provide for marginalized areas or groups have created pockets of NGO intervention in states within the broader Middle East. The marginalization and social exclusion of women in Sudan and Pakistan have led both local and international NGOs alike to deliver development projects, such as micro-finance initiatives, towards the economic empowerment of women. While these interventions specifically target the economic sphere, their implementation may hinder or propel women’s political and social inclusion depending on the local context.

Beyond absolute development needs, it is evident that geopolitical dynamics determine both the quantity and quality of aid a country receives. For instance, the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula within Yemen’s borders and the consequent perpetual politicization of Yemen’s classification as a weak or failing state, has dictated USAID’s strategy towards Yemen. USAID’s state-centric development approach for resolving conflict, elides local nuances and perceptions of the Yemeni central government, existing traditional legal norms, and embedded blockages to reform within the government. These faulty stabilization intervention efforts may result in un-intended consequences—including increasing anti-western sentiments within Yemen.

Parallel to Yemen, interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have sought to narrow the subnational space of governance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cities of the global South have increasingly been framed in a securitized manner, as loci for political violence and contestation. Thus, at the expense of fomenting democratic pluralism at the subnational level, intervening powers have prioritized elections at the national level in an attempt to attain and maintain political stability that is conducive to their military intervention interests.

These individual chapters that seek to challenge and critically analyze the causes and consequences of state “fragility” will be compiled into an edited volume on Weak States in the Greater Middle East (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2016).


Participants and Discussants:

Rogaia M. Abusharaf, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarZahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarLaurie Brand, University of Southern CaliforniaMatt Buehler, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarAlex de Waal, Tufts UniversityDaniel Esser, American UniversityMehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarMark McGillivray, Deakin UniversityShoghig Mikaelian, Concordia UniversityDwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarSarah Phillips, University of SydneyGlenn E. Robinson, Naval Postgraduate SchoolRobert I. Rotberg, University of WaterlooBassel Salloukh, Lebanese American UniversityCharles Schmitz, Towson UniversityNadia Talpur, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in QatarFrederic Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS