The twilight of the Arab state

The traditional Arab State is under increasing pressure from internal and external forces. Will those in power recognise the need for reform before it is too late?
A statue of former Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein as smoke billows from oil trenches in Baghdad. Credit: Karim Sahib / AFP via Getty Images.
A statue of former Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein as smoke billows from oil trenches in Baghdad. Credit: Karim Sahib / AFP via Getty Images.
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There are seventeen Arab States, eighteen if you include Palestine, twenty-two if you include all the members of the Arab League. They vary in their constitutional form, from oil-rich Sheikhdoms, monarchies and military dictatorships to proud, if fragile, democratic republics. They include some of the highest and the lowest GDP per capita countries in the world. Some are mired in tragic civil wars and poverty, others global centres of prosperity and stability. 

As dizzyingly varied as the Arab states are, they have by accident and despite often violent political convulsions evolved a common model of statehood. Revolutions and regime changes intended to forge a new sort of state have often resulted in the replication of a familiar Arab State structure in a new guise. The Arab world has known no other model and, for good or ill, the persistence of the Arab State has been a source of stability in the region. It has defined the political culture of the modern Arab world and become a given in the current international order. 

At least until now. The model Arab State suddenly looks more threatened than at any point in the last seventy years. Parting with it will be traumatic but it may be that the time has come.   

The Arab State is ruled by one man. There has yet to be a woman Arab ruler. The ruler is subject to no effective constitutional checks and balances. Neither the legislature if there is one or the elected representatives can check his power. His image is ubiquitous, his name revered, and the machinery of State preserves the ruler. This is achieved through a large and pervasive security apparatus charged with the identification and removal at home or overseas of the ruler’s opponents. This spawns a Court culture of competing security services and informants and casual but extensive limitations on individual rights and freedoms.   

These limitations include the state’s relationship with the media. At best media in the Arab World is described as ‘directed’, a euphemism suggesting wise guidance but in practice the media in the Arab State is partisan, state-funded and state-controlled. Journalists and commentators who defy the state are often treated brutally. There is no Fourth Estate in the Arab State. It is not the role of either the people or the media to hold the ruler or government to account. Perhaps for that reason the most frequent means by which rulers are held to account is through political violence often directed against them personally.

The Arab State is extractive. It diverts revenues, from mineral wealth through to taxes and contracts, to the ruling elite. That may take a public, consensual form, such as the funding of Royal Families, or be mere corruption, syphoning off wealth or commissions into private accounts. The Arab State redistributes wealth as much through patronage as through legislative arrangements. The apparatus of the Arab State is big, to the point of being outsized, and intrusive. The State extends widely and deeply into the lives of citizens. It provides employment and education in sprawling state enterprises, the military, security services or public services, or in more developed state-related enterprises.

The Arab State prioritises defence spending. The top global spenders on defence per capita are Arab, Gulf countries. If the costs of domestic security agencies were factored in other Arab states might feature equally high. The Arab State also has a distinctive defence culture: it is militarised, rather than martial.  Despite huge expenditure and vast armies (Saddam’s was estimated to be as high as one million in 1990 out of a total population of twenty million) Arab armies have often been out-gunned or out-manoeuvred by adversaries (Israel) or held to a costly draw (by Iran) or depended on outside help to survive (Syria, Kuwait). Defence expenditure and defence capabilities have not been primarily for defence. Defence deals are a political tool intended to purchase the deeper protection of a security guarantor (the Gulf states and the US, Syria and Russia) and weapons are more likely to be used internally or aggressively against a neighbour than as part of a coherent defence strategy. Some Arab states have sought to amend this and instil a more martial culture: notably the UAE which has introduced conscription and fought successfully overseas. Tellingly, perhaps one of the most effective military actors in the region, Hezbollah, while Arab is trained, equipped and inspired by Iran.

Finally, the Arab state is self-consciously Arab. Many Arab countries have enshrined their Arab identity in the Constitution and take an often competitive pride in their Arab heritage (for the purest spoken Arabic or the finest Arab cuisine). The Arab State struggles to accommodate non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities. Despite this strong Arab identity, the Arab State is not inclined to multilateralism.  The Arab League, founded in Cairo in 1945,  has been a talking-shop lacking bite internationally and amongst its members. Attempts to forge a pan-Arab entity have been a failure or ended in acrimony. And in general, multilateralism has not been popular or successful.

Statehood is a recent phenomenon in the Arab World, whose borders have been defined only in the last century. The UAE is just celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and while Egypt has been a political entity for millennia, it has only considered itself a free and independent state since the Revolution of 1952. The birth of the Arab state system was complicated not just by the colonial legacy but by two competing visions: one of a distinct pan-Arab state (as surfaced in the short-lived United Arab Republic of Syria and Egypt in the late 1950s and early 1960s) and the other of individual, European-style states which inherited colonial borders. The debate about statehood was dominated by the tension between these two visions, rather than about the style or quality of governance. There was less concern about what the state would be like to live in than about what shape it was.  

These disputes about the inherited borders of the Arab State system made territory central to questions of identity and statehood. Most prominent and damaging of all was the dispute between the State of Israel on one hand and the Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese on the other, which began in 1948.  When ideological waves washed over the Middle East, they were often driven by nationalist agendas: firstly the eviction of colonial powers, then of their perceived proxies, the constitutional monarchs, then of the military dictators.  Nasser’s Egypt or Ba’thist Syria and Iraq attached themselves to the nationalist agenda of the Palestinians and to the pan-Arab aspirations for unity across inherited borders. 

The seemingly endless contests about borders and flags masked the fact that the nature of the Arab State itself (the business of governance) was quietly but solidly taking shape. There was little time or space for political theory; political practice got to work creating what proved to be a successful if tough model.

There is an argument that political philosophy in the Arab world ended with the death of Ibn Khaldoun in 1406. There was no subsequent intellectual break with Medieval traditions of kingship, as there was in Europe, which might have permitted the development of accountability and democracy. It wasn’t so much that the Arab World never had a Reformation. But it never had a Hobbes-figure who could theorise modern sovereignty and bring questions about popular representation into the mainstream.

This gap in Arab political philosophy – the virtual absence of theories of state power – has offered an opportunity for the resurgence of radical Islamic ‘solutions’ to the challenges of modern statehood. These began first with the Muslim Brotherhood and now, notably, through the violent resurfacing of an archaic concept of the state via Da’esh (ISIS).  Da’esh is an Arabic acronym which includes both the word for a modern state (Dawla) and a definition of its territory (Iraq and al Sham).  It claims to solve both the governance and the territorial challenge. Although it failed in both, it showed that the centre of gravity of the debate around statehood in the Arab world had now shifted from territory to governance. 

Any discussion of how the Arab State should be governed threatens to unravel the whole system.  So far, it has resisted both great wealth and widespread poverty, socialism and capitalism, secularisation and radical Islam, and frequently confounded predictions of its demise. But the central features of the Arab State are being tested as never before: the coincidence of international pressures and the mood of the Arab world may be about to pose a fundamental challenge to its viability.

For the past decade millions of Arabs have been protesting across the region against what they call the Nizam: the system. These are unusual political protests for the Arab World. They are not against an external adversary (Israel, the US, Iran) or the incumbent government, but a rejection, in frustration, of the whole political culture of the Arab world. In Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon there is a secular exhaustion with the failure of the Nizam to deliver to their people the basics of good governance.

The true significance of these protests is that unspoken deals and power balances on which the Arab State has relied are breaking down: critically those which trade popular participation for security and delivery. The most fundamental demand of the demonstrators, made merely by being on the streets, is that the people have a material say in how the state is run.  Rule won’t any longer be by one unaccountable figure or clique. The demonstrators are not a political party or even a movement, but a broader representation of the desire for the reform of how power is exercised. 

While the protests of the Arab Spring did not deliver the political change hoped for either by demonstrators or international partners, they did demonstrate the possibility of mass mobilisation and mass publicity enabled by the smart phone. This momentum is continuing. Its impact on the political culture of the Middle East has probably been underestimated; levels of penetration for the populations of Arab Countries are high (very high in the Gulf) and have transformed the ability of Arab populations to see alternatives to their own governments, to connect with other causes and above all to mobilise on and off-line. They are media which the Arab State cannot direct. Palestinians have described the iPhone as their weapon.

Political pressures from within are joined by two international threats to the Arab state. The first is the global energy transition. The extractive and patronal nature of the Arab State relies on demand for the prodigious reserves of hydrocarbons with which the region is blessed and cursed. Even those countries which do not own the reserves access their revenues either through remittances or from state-level subsidies from the oil-rich or gas-rich states. The transition from carbon fuels is gathering pace as pressure both on consumers and exporters of carbon fuels is now being transmitted through markets and regulators. Whereas carbon economies were once magnets for global capital, their attraction is declining as environmental considerations become a reality for investors. The Arab State has always been an expensive model. For it to survive the carbon transition it will need to generate new and equivalent revenue streams but the scale of the economic transformation required will be vast and the timeline unkind. It will require an investment climate, an entrepreneurial culture and a socio-economic liberalisation which the Arab State, in its prioritisation of security and stability, has suppressed.

Furthermore, global defence priorities are shifting from scale and fire-power to data and smartness. ‘Intelligent defence’ requires capabilities which do not necessarily align with traditional international partnerships (China can provide drones which the US will not) and does not need large armed forces.  The rationale for large defence sectors which soak up the workforce, unite the nation and tie in powerful external partners, as they do in the Arab State, is weakening.

Moreover, If it is no longer able to rely on extraction or defence then the critical pillar of the Arab State, the size of the state apparatus, becomes unworkable. This threatens to undermine the societal ecosystem on which the state rests.

The most problematic challenge for the Arab State is that it has been a static rather than dynamic model, geared towards stability and continuity to the point of fetishizing both. That was tenable during decades in which external threats were salient: the Cold War, the and the enduring threat of Israel and Iran lent themselves to continuity. But in a world where only the dynamic prosper both economically and politically, the Arab State risks being  less of a fortress protecting its citizens and more of a prison denying them the opportunities of an unprecedentedly dynamic age.  

The Arab world has considered many visions of how to improve the lot of its citizens through socialism, nationalism, pan-Arabism and most recently, and brutally, Islamic fundamentalism. Benign visions, too, of economic regeneration continue to proliferate across the region. But they have  either ignored or not yet broached the structural limitations imposed by the traditional Arab State.  

This may change.  There are the beginnings of the structural reform which will be required.  There have been forays into new taxation such as VAT in the Gulf, the lifting of subsidies in Egypt, representational democracy in particular in Tunisia, and  a flurry of constitutional reforms which have seen in the past decade well over half the Arab countries issue or amend their constitutions. 

Consolidating these first steps and incorporating these into wider Arab political culture will require a bold, imaginative leap by those who have power.

There must come a point, however, when the rulers themselves realise that the challenge is not to preserve the Arab State but to supersede it. Both top-down reform programmes in the Gulf and bottom-up movements across the region are manifestations of the same realisation: the problem is not just of governance or economics, but of the Arab State itself. 

John Raine

John Raine is Senior Advisor for Geopolitical Due Diligence at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) specialising in the Middle East. He served for 33 years as a British diplomat which included postings in Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

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