The future of the State in the Middle East
Analysis Conflict and Fragility

The future of the State in the Middle East

27 Aug 2018 - 09:56
Photo: U.S. Air Force
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“Iraq conducts airstrikes in neighboring Syria.” “Saudi Arabia reaffirms offer to deploy troops in Syria.” “Assad regime forces aided by Hezbollah military presence.” These are recent headlines covering the Syrian War. The 2011 revolts and their aftermath have simultaneously blurred the boundaries and the power divisions between state and non-state actors in countries including Libya, Syria and Iraq. Against this background, how do we read the future of the State in the Middle East? Will the nation-state as a political system survive these developments and challenges, or can we detect or even look for potential alternatives that might prove more stable in the long run?

Middle Eastern borders have been rigorously challenged, both in practical terms as well as conceptually. Daesh undoubtedly embodies its most outright rejection. Yet, on the other side of the spectrum we find global and regional powers readily meddling in, if not dictating other states’ affairs. Sometimes even at the request of the sovereign in question. Presence of foreign states and nationals, sometimes military, has become a regular phenomenon. Nevertheless, Sykes-Picot 1  has left its marks on the region, which are not easily undone. Contemporary borders have become entrenched in the minds of the people they encircle. Furthermore, (nation-) states remain the major organizing principle according to international politics. Consequently, looking at Syria and Iraq today, we see quite contradictory processes; while both countries remain internationally recognized entities, this fact denies or at least underestimates their fluidity and the local processes shaping local realities. Similarly, if we take the Kurdish question, local issues transcend national boundaries and become increasingly interconnected. Nevertheless, territorial division of the Kurds is very much reflected in Kurdish politics.

The post-2011 environment in many parts of the MENA region practically challenges the idea that regime change will do the trick

Crisis of the Arab-nation state fueling post-2011 disorder
The 2011 revolts brought to light the crisis of the Arab nation-state. While the people demanded the fall of the regime in countries including Syria, Egypt and Libya; the protests actually revealed dissatisfaction, if not anger with the post-colonial state structures. Where the faltering of regime legitimacy should not be conflated with the challenges posed to the territorial integrity of the nation-state, the post 2011-developments - starting with protests demanding the fall of regimes followed by a localization as well as a regionalization of politics to which I will turn next - do reveal a deep frustration and discomfort that cannot be solved with a mere ‘changing of the guards’. It would be like trying to stop heavy bleeding by putting a band aid. Yes, it may temporarily seem to work and it will buy time, but if the internal damage remains unaddressed, it is likely to get worse. The case of the Syrian Kurds is illuminating in this regard. While the ‘Kurds as a nation’ might convey its desire to gain independence, the realization that statehood may not guarantee inclusive politics has left some to prioritize effective citizen-rights over Kurdish statehood. As Barzoo Eliassi puts it, Kurds “do not necessarily or uncritically embrace the idea of Kurdish statehood when the state cannot guarantee democracy, rule of law and effective citizenship.”2  The lack of trust in the nation-state as a bearer of rights and freedoms has followed the erosion of the meaning of citizenship, whereby not only Syrian citizenship failed them, but so did the Kurdish political parties. What’s more, the current systematic and excessive application of violence by the Syrian state has served to undermine the notion of citizenship even further as it no longer ensures protection.

Current expressions of anger and despair are therefore perhaps best understood as directed towards problematic state foundations that have undermined state-society relations

The social contract is crumbling, whereby restoring the relationship requires more than simply changing the actor with whom the relationship is to be established. It requires a redrafting of the contract itself. This practically entails giving new meaning to the notion of citizenship. Namely, it has to ascertain rights and freedoms. What’s more, it needs to be inclusive. Current expressions of anger and despair are therefore perhaps best understood as directed towards problematic state foundations that have undermined state-society relations. They will continue to plague regimes, new or old, in the years to come. This is perhaps what can be coined the crisis of the Arab nation-state, rooted in a combination of artificially created borders and, following this, exclusionary nation-state building practices.

The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent rise of the ‘nation-state’ required the active quest for legitimacy on the part of the newly constructed states. Yet these states were assigned the perhaps impossible tasks of state building without a unified nation. They did try, however. Legitimization techniques ranged from social protection and redistribution programs in oil rich states, to the rhetoric of national liberation from Western domination. Yet, neither of the two proved very successful. Social services were either absent or thwarted by economic liberalization. Moreover, the discourse of national liberation began to show cracks as people realized the Arab state imitated the very structures it supposedly fought. That is, it never transcended the imported nation-state paradigm. The Arab state has largely failed to uphold its side of the bargain and provide for effective citizenship rights. Instead, we witnessed a growing security apparatus to make up for the legitimacy gap. Consequently, a dichotomy unraveled. While many countries in the Middle East can be coined ‘hard states’; they are not necessarily strong. 3  In fact, the lack of social services accompanied by the rise of the security apparatus has left the Arab state fierce, but weak. The balance between human security and state security has been tilted towards the latter, with disastrous results for state-citizen relations. In the eyes of the people in countries including Syria, the systematic application of violence by the state has the obvious effect of delegitimising the very state. Non-state actors respond in the language that has gained prominence and seems most effective: the language of violence.

Tanks tijdens een militaire oefening
Tanks during a military exercise. Source: U.S. Department of Defense

Yet, it is one thing to challenge and defy what we know; it is quite another to break it up completely, let alone put forward an alternative. In fact, one could even question the extent to which Daesh has reinvented the wheel. While denouncing state sovereignty, and the Westphalian system on which it was based, hierarchical structures prevailed. Less outright rejectionists, however, generally seem to assert and affirm statehood. Think of secessionist movement who generally pursue the exact thing they resist against: a state. In the process, they often seek support from the international community of states. Catalans sought European support while stressing their pro-EU outlook. Meanwhile, the PYD in northern Syria has shown pragmatism in working with state-actors including the US, and even to a certain extent Russia and the Syrian regime. This is not to say that all ‘nations’ necessarily seek a state of their own. There are other options, including autonomy and federalism. Yet, perhaps it has become unimaginable to separate the nation from the state. Thinking in terms of borders and the states they encircle is deeply ingrained in our way of practicing politics. At the very least, we see a general tendency to work with the international community, rather than against it. Those that were left behind following ‘the drawing of the map’ know very well that a rejection of international borders would prove detrimental to their cause. Simply put, non-state actors remain dependent on internationally recognized state-actors. Fiction or not, states are a reality in our contemporary world. Yet, perhaps the outer shell has turned out to be more persistent than its internal fabric. Where governments have, and continue to hold on to their international standing as sovereign entities, internal legitimacy has proven much harder to retain.

The rise of non-state actors and the localization-regionalization of politics
The vacuum left by the 2011 uprisings -turned civil-war- allowed for relatively weak national identities to be overshadowed by sectarian, sub-national and ideological identities. This is not to say that national identities are currently absent. Being Kurdish does not have to contradict one’s Syrian nationality. Yet, the space left by the war is happily taken up by ‘identity brokers’; actors that help to consolidate a certain identity at the expense of another. The crisis of the nation-state thereby coincides with the rise of non-state actors and the localization of politics. While identities may have been sharpened, boundaries between state and non-state actors have been blurred. These local realities existed before 2011. Palestinian ‘states within a state’ existed in Jordan and Lebanon. Hezbollah happily influenced regional agendas. Yet, wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria have eroded the states’ monopoly on violence to an unprecedented extent. This has amounted to a situation whereby both states and non-state actors function -sometimes willingly, sometimes not- side by side.4

While identities may have been sharpened, boundaries between state and non-state actors have been blurred

At the same time, fragmentation and disintegration are counterbalanced by regional, sometimes even global interconnectedness. In fact, the local and the regional increasingly coincide. The quest for autonomy and the formation of smaller organisational units goes hand in hand with the internationalisation of politics and business. Take the issue of violent extremism, or migration. These are cross-border issues. The Kurdish issue is perhaps another striking example. Rather ‘arbitrary’ borders have not been effective in dismantling cross-border loyalties and ties.

Yet, where the post-2011 environment has changed the playing field in favor of non-state actors; the space gained is quickly being taken away in both Iraq as well as Syria. As the crisis of the Arab nation-state followed the flawed society -state relations and the shrinking of space for citizens, we should be warry of this development, particularly as the shrinking of space for citizens runs parallel to international and regional ‘interventions’. All, paradoxically, in the name of the international state system. It seems as if we are not as much alarmed by international and regional powers meddling in other states’ affairs as we are by the rise of non-state actors. Clearly, secession could foster chaos. But perhaps we are misinterpreting their goals. Should we not carefully listen to people’s wishes to see if we can reconcile our fears and their desires? Rather than preserving sovereign states for the sake of preserving them, we should try to grasp the root causes behind their dysfunctionality. State partition might not be the answer. Current, flawed state structures will however continue to undermine state-society relations if unaddressed. The challenge ahead may therefore lie in our ability to think beyond the nation-state paradigm without necessarily defying it, (re)building the internal fabric rather than the outer shell.

Francisco Anzola - Night market in Omman
Night market in Omman, Jordan. Source: Francisco Anzola

The road ahead: challenges and opportunities
Globalisation processes undermine the rigidity of borders. Perhaps as a consequence, the desire to defend them has multiplied. Nevertheless, the localisation-regionalisation of politics cannot be denied, with the nation-state caught in the middle. Most likely, the state will not become abundant. Paradoxically enough, while the underlying state structures are crumbling, borders remain tenacious. Nevertheless, the current, very complex and quickly changing playing field requires a flexible, and most importantly, inclusive outlook. Not in the least if we are to strengthen, not securitise the very foundations of the nation-state.

It is important to recall the crisis of legitimacy that fostered the 2011 protests. The underlying issues have been overshadowed by the post-2011 disorder. Yet, the fractured state-citizen relations need to be addressed. While the focus on human security is currently undermined by hard states seeking to strengthen their power, it has become increasingly clear that the weakness of the Arab nation-state cannot be restored by force. In the end, state-citizen relations will dictate the future of the state in the Middle East. The problem is and remains the weak nation-state system in the Middle East, which has been weakened even further since 2011. Though the leaders might be regaining territory, it has so far, and it is not likely to address the underlying crisis of legitimacy.

There is a need for flexible and pragmatic solutions to quickly changing local realities. Citizenship has become an empty shell in dire need of practical content. We cannot reverse history. What we can do, however, is to try and understand the historical foundations of current-day problems in an attempt to fix them to the best of our ability. This requires working with non-state actors, as well as taking the local and the regional dynamics seriously. Develop connections, engage and interact, and take a bet on those who know the region best; its very people. If we are serious about preserving sovereignty as the basis for international politics, we need to shift from a state-centric approach to a people-oriented approach. Crucial in this regard is the promotion of sincere partnerships between communities, governments and other stakeholders, including NGO’s. This implies that we should (explicitly) take grievances and frustrations into account. Any approach that does not take these issues as a starting point is bound to fail. Of great importance in this regard is for governments to regain trust and enhance feelings of security through a genuine ‘service delivery’ attitude. There must be a guarantee that, in those ‘services’, the elements of justice and security are included.


  • 1 The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement between the UK and France, dividing the Ottoman Empire into areas of French and British influence and control. Effectively, this led to the creation of the states as we know them today.
  • 2 “Statelessness in a world of nation-states: the cases of Kurdish diasporas in Sweden and the UK,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 42, no.9 (2016): 1415
  • 3 Nazih N. Ayubi, Over-Stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1996)
  • 4 Ariel I. Ahram and Ellen Lust, “The Decline and Fall of the Arab State,” Survival 58, no.2 (2016): 22


Saré Knoope
Project assistant research at the Clingendael Institute