Divided sectarian societies with traditional tribal culture, Arab uprisings, non-state actors such as Islamic State and al-Qaida, social media and even world powers, are contributing to the weakening of states in the Middle East. All this is increasingly significant as they struggle to build fences, put down uprisings and maintain their territorial integrity.
The definition of a state is “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” according to Max Weber, in his 1918 lecture “Politics as a Vocation.”
How many Middle Eastern states can claim to meet such criteria? Not many. Perhaps Israel, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and some others can say that they monopolize the use of force in their states.
Others such as Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Egypt are wracked with internal divisions and violence from opposing groups, and it seems to have gotten worse since the “Arab Spring” began.
However, even within the states that are deemed stable for the most part, controlling the use of force in their territories, violence and disputes are still on the fringes.
For example, even Israel persistently deals with controlling its territory, building a fence on its southern border with Egypt to stem the tide of illegal immigrants and other terrorist infiltrations.
Egypt is dealing with a similar problem on its side of the border, and its battle against an Islamist insurgency in Sinai that has spread into other cities perpetually tests the state.
Saudi Arabia has increased its forces on its northern border with Iraq and is strengthening its fence system there. In addition, tensions are emanating from its Shi’ite population and Islamist groups.
Islamic State’s control of swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, the growing independence of Iraqi Kurdistan and porous borders between Syria and all its neighbors, are just some of the recent evidence of the weakening of the Middle Eastern states.
Israel continues to consider building hi-tech guarded fences along its other borders, though it still seems vulnerable to tunnels penetrating from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in the North.
Attacks and rockets by terrorist groups as well as riots by Israeli Arabs test Israel’s hold on absolute power, but do not threaten it.
Turkey is another example of a state that is largely controlling force within its territory with some exceptions in Kurdish areas and along its border with Syria, where rebels consistently cross back and forth, though perhaps with some kind of government coordination or approval.
Elijah J. Magnier, the chief international correspondent for the Kuwaiti-based Al-Rai newspaper, told The Jerusalem Post that regional players are faced with the necessity to unite their forces and put their struggles on the side to face Islamist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaida.
Even “enemies like Iran and Saudi Arabia are united today” to defeat Islamic State, he said.
“Therefore, the war on Islamic State is strengthening rather than weakening the regional relationships,” said Magnier, pointing out that Saudi Arabia is sending an ambassador back to Baghdad after 11 years.
Middle East Quarterly editor Prof. Efraim Karsh, a Middle East scholar at King’s College in London and at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan, told the Post, “The main impetus for Middle East developments is indigenous rather than external, including the delineation of the post- World War I borders, where the Hashemites played a crucial role – Jordan and Iraq were established on their behalf.”
Asked if Western policy in the region is promoting the breakdown of state borders, Karsh responded, “The West’s ability to shape the region is limited, but still there,” adding that it served as a catalyst for the disintegration of Iraq by toppling former leader Saddam Hussein.
The West’s failure in establishing a new government after the 2003 invasion of Iraq is more evidence of the West’s limitations, he said.
World powers cannot “control the scope and nature of resurgent Islam, are too timid to go all the way with Iran, restrain Turkey’s resurgent neo-Islamism or even to force the Palestinians to accept Israel’s existence.”
“So, in the final account,” according to Karsh, “the staying and/or disintegration of certain states will depend on how well these states handle their formidable challenges, not what the West does or does not do.”
As for the importance of social media in mobilizing society, Karsh commented, “I believe the impact of the social media, Internet and latest technological gadgets on the recent upheavals in the Middle East has been grossly overrated.”
“The nation-state in the Middle East is an idea that bristles with difficulties. Not only is the idea of a nation itself by no means simple and straightforward... but also the very notion of a state is quite difficult to fit into the political thought that is traditional to the Middle East, namely, Muslim political thought,” wrote the Middle East historian Elie Kedourie in an article, “The Nation-State in the Middle East,” published in 1987.
“The European state is an importation, at variance with Middle Eastern traditions,” he wrote.
And so Kedourie raises the dilemma that the region’s states have been struggling with since their creation – their own legitimacy.
It was the Sykes-Picot Agreement reached during World War I that first charted out how to partition the Ottoman Empire. The British and French carved up the region according to their interests, not paying adequate attention to ethnic groups. But it was local parties, that shaped how the modern map of the Middle East turned out.
“As I argued on numerous occasions, the contemporary Arab state system has been predicated on shaky foundations from the outset, going directly from a traditional imperial order – Ottoman – to a neo-imperial mode – pan-Arabism – without passing through the necessary stage of nation and state building, as Europe, for example, did.”
Such a process would allow Middle Eastern societies “to transcend their parochial loyalties and develop modern-day state nationalisms and civil societies.”
Instead, these societies have maintained a deeply devout existence until this very day, “refusing to substitute their millenarian supremacist identity for the imagined ‘Arab Nation.’” “The deadly combination of local patriotism and religious zeal may well lead to the disintegration of certain states,” said Karsh.
“Confronted with the first major opportunity to go ‘back to the future’ and reestablish the region’s core religious underpinnings, they did so, hence the sweeping Islamic resurgence.”
Karsh countered, “As a matter of fact, the Sykes-Picot Agreement did not shape the form of the contemporary Middle East, as even a casual glance at the map would reveal.”
“The vast Arab empire it envisaged never materialized, its designated territory being divided between the present-day states of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Transjordan [later Jordan], Israel, as well as the Palestinian Authority,” he argued. “Conversely, Turkey emerged from the war a significantly larger country than the truncated state it was intended to be.”
“That the Sykes-Picot Agreement has come to be associated with the much maligned borders of the post-World War I Middle East, is a direct result of propaganda by the Hashemites and their Western champions, articulated most forcefully in George Antonius’s 1938 The Arab Awakening – unquestioningly adopted by generations of academics, politicians and pundits.”
And consequently the weakening of Middle Eastern states continues to be driven by local dynamics as the traditional states seek to fend off challenges from non-state actors such as Islamic State while keeping their own populations at bay