[The Essential Readings series is sponsored by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings Modules by submitting or suggesting an “Essential Readings” topic pertinent to the Middle East. Articles such as this will appear permanently on both www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org]

The high watermark of studies of the state in the Arab world coincided with the period of greatest state authority in the region, sandwiched between the heyday of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 60s and the rise of political Islam in the 1990s.  Just as Arab nationalism presented an alternative to the state system in the region—in both theory and, briefly, fact (see, for example, the short-lived United Arab Republic)—so, too, has political Islam focused both scholarly and popular attention on alternative sectarian identities and communities, from Hamas to Hezbollah, al-Qaida to the Islamic State (ISIS), that appear to be rivals of the contemporary states.

We have not completely given up on the state, however; its analytical (and perhaps actual) centrality in the Arab world is eloquently, if inadvertently, conveyed in the widespread characterization of the alternatives as “non-state actors.”  The state still defines the terrain, supported by an international system of international organizations and neo-liberal markets that continue to need “recognized and responsible parties”—that is, sovereign governments—for signing treaties and contracts.  

The development of literature on the state in the Arab world also reflects the reappearance (and subsequent eclipse) of “the state” in American political science, announced by the well-known Bringing the State Back In, published in 1985.[1]  Although this volume—like nearly all general comparative politics texts—did not include any discussion of the Middle East or North Africa, it did both reflect and spur important research agendas in the study of the region.

The state of the art at that time is summarized in my survey article, “The State in the Middle East and North Africa” (Comparative Politics October 1987).  This essay examines how scholars addressed the history of modern state formation in the region, the nature of the state bureaucracies (including the military), the state’s role in the economy, from extraction to distribution, and the variability of state capacity in the region. Each of these issues would represent robust research directions for the next several decades.

Among the most influential—and still worthwhile—of that era’s books focused on the state itself were a series of volumes on “State, Nation and Integration in the Arab World”(Croom Helm, 1987). Of particular interest were The Foundations of the Arab Stateedited by Ghassan Salame, which examined the origins and contradictions of state formation driven by European imperial pressures, and The Rentier State, edited by Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani, which spawned an apparently limitless debate on whether mineral resources and other sources of rents are a blessing or a curse, a literature that deserves a post of its own.

Joel Migdal’s contemporaneous Strong Societies and Weak States (Princeton University Press, 1988) examined British imperial policy to argue that variations in imperial approaches defined which post-colonial states were, or were not, effective at managing their citizens and delivering services; its case studies—Sierra Leone, Israel and Egypt—ensured a wide audience although the argument reflects the idiosyncrasies of the cases.  A similar historical approach was reflected in my own The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya (Princeton University Press 1986) but I focused on how both precolonial and colonial state formation shaped the social formations of post-independence North Africa through comparison of Ottoman, Italian and French imperial policy towards the region’s pastoralists and peasants.

Nazih N. Ayubi’s magisterial Over-stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (IB Tauris, 1995) assessed much of this research and looked at how the overdevelopment of the state in the region in the post-World War II period actually weakened it. This remains the best single work on the Arab state, among its many merits is its contribution of the notion of the “fierce state”—one reliant on coercion rather than provision to secure acquiescence.

Taking seriously the European experience of political conflict as a prod to state formation, War, Institutions and Social Change in the Middle East, edited by Steven Heydemann, (University of California Press, 2000) treated the role of conflict, particularly the World Wars, in shaping the states of the region, seeming to enhance their fierceness while weakening their capabilities.  Beatrice Hibou’s The Force of Obedience: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia (Polity 2011) is a brilliant, if underappreciated, dissection of just how an apparently benevolent but really quite fierce state actually works.

By the turn of the century, and particularly after the attacks of September 11th drew attention to the dangers of “ungoverned spaces,” concern turned to the fragility of the fierce states of the region.  My “Antiquated Before They Can Ossify: States That Fail Before They Form”(Journal of International Affairs 58:1 Fall 2004) argued that modern state formation in the region was historically specific, regionally varied—and hardly inevitable.  This shortly became a truism, not least because of the failure to reconstitute Iraq after the US invasion of 2003, but it proved to be a useful starting point to examination of the surprising feebleness that many of the Arab states exhibited in the uprisings of 2011.

And indeed, within a decade, two new literatures had been spawned, shaped if not prompted by those uprisings: that on “failed states”—Ariel I. Ahram & Ellen Lust (2016) “The Decline and Fall of the Arab State,” (Survival, 58:2, 2016) provides a useful review—and on various kinds of “non-state actors,” most of which is beyond the scope of this review.  Nonetheless, the provocative volume edited by Roel Meijer and Nils Butenschon, The Crisis of Citizenship in the Arab world (Brill 2017) provides an illuminating examination of the relationships among the great variety of state and non-state identities.    

Finally, the role of the changing international system in the growing differentiation of the states of the Arab world began to draw more attention as globalization became more intrusive and more divisive around the world.  The ensuing dilemmas in the region are well illustrated in The Arab State and Neo-Liberal Globalization, edited by Laura Guazzone and Daniela Pioppi ( Ithaca Press, 2009) and the growing  disentanglement of international sovereignty and domestic “stateness” is instructively examined in two useful books: Ahmed Kanna’s Dubai: The City as Corporation (University of Minnesota, 2011) and miriam cooke’s Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf (University of California Press 2014).  Taken together, they suggest that after centuries of intimate association, sovereignty is becoming unglued from statehood, perhaps to be reattached to monarchs, princely families, perhaps even firms.  That may be a disconcerting prospect politically but it is certainly a fruitful research agenda.

[1] Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpoleds. Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge University Press, 1985)

[This article was originally posted on Jadaliyya.com]