Fluid and Failing, Yet Static: The Afterlife of Arab States

Die Maschine, by Karl Wiener. Image in the Public Domain

Dr. Nasser Baum, Minister of Health of the Republic of Yemen, gave a televised speech on 29 May 2020 assuring viewers that his country was ready to confront the coronavirus pandemic. The statement would have been risible if not so tragic. Yemen’s healthcare system had no capacity for mass testing and disease surveillance, much less mass treatment. Within months Yemen’s COVID-19 mortality rate would be five times greater than the global average. The country’s profound political paralysis amidst civil war worsened already grim conditions. The government in which Baum served operated mostly from exile and ruled only isolated pockets within the country. It fell to provincial governors and local warlords to guard hospitals and enforce lockdowns on qat markets. Houthi forces, dominant in the capital and the far north, used the pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on political opposition. Separatists hijacked medical equipment from the Aden docks, trying to compel the international community to acknowledge their bid for independence (see BBC 2021). The Yemen state, by some measures among the most ancient and venerable of the Arab world, was reduced to a phantom.

Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and other states in the Middle East have abandoned the pretence of having a monopoly on violence over the last two to three decades. New modes of hybrid security have come to involve a fluid mix of state and non-state armed actors, centralised and decentralised modes of control over coercion, and an economy that seamlessly links licit and illicit domains (Sayigh 2018). Foreign actors, once bulwarks maintaining both states and regimes, have become more equivocal in their commitments to sovereignty. Statehood has not been abandoned, but it has been denatured. States have receded functionally but endure as normative lodestones, the fixed addresses for social and political claim-making. The inability of states to answer most of these claims paradoxically both undercuts and strengthens their position at the same time.

The Life and Death of Arab States

The Weberian model of statehood has always been a work in progress in the Arab world. Rationalised, violence-monopolising states have long been touted as requisites for political and social development. Indigenous actors have strived to fashion state institutions of their own, or wrest control of them from colonial powers. Much of the period of colonialism in the Arab world was premised on the idea that European powers could impart such institutions to populations ready for self-rule, especially in the post–World War I era. Yet the colonial inheritance was insufficient, if not injurious. Outside powers contrived to limit the capacities of indigenous elites to rule effectively. Those elites willing to work with European powers compromised their own legitimacy (Anderson 2018).

The abstract idea of statehood remained compelling, however. Throughout the period of decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s, recently empowered elites put state institutional apparatuses to new purposes. Schools, labour unions, and the armed forces served to inculcate new notions of state citizenship. States also gained more coercive heft, with overlapping security agencies that could deter or defeat lingering opposition. Life expectancy, literacy, and GDP all improved dramatically. A rough authoritarian bargain emerged. Citizens begrudgingly relinquished political voice for economic security. By the late 1970s, however, if not earlier, the bargain seemed to be breaking. Sclerotic public sectors could no longer provide the economic bounties of decades past. More and more of the population were shunted into the unregulated informal economy and states themselves seemed hollow (Heydemann 2020).

Lebanon seemed for a time to be a regional outlier in this context, with a free-wheeling private sector and more open political system premised on sectarian powersharing. The civil war that ran through the 1970s and 1980, however, turned Lebanon into a harbinger of state-breakdown. The Lebanese Armed Forces stood aside as militias, invariably aided by foreign actors, carved out their control over national territory (Schulhofer-Wohl 2020). The formal end of the war could not reverse the devolution of violence. Militias became firmly embedded, doubling as economic agents and organised crime syndicates in discrete enclaves, even as the Lebanese state purported to resume its sovereign functions. Security, like everything else in the republic of merchants, was tied to the market. Iraq took a similar path following the Gulf War of 1990-1991 and the Intifada of 1991. Kurdish rebels, backed by the United States, unilaterally established an autonomous statelet in the north. Areas still ruled by Saddam Hussein saw the proliferation of tribal militias and mafias that operated independently from the once formidable Iraqi army. The invasion of 2003 and civil war in Iraq led to further fragmentation and embedding of militias into the fabric of both the state and economy. The trend toward hybrid security accelerated and broadened with the civil wars of the 2010s in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq (again).

Hybrid security arrangements replaced the ideal of the state’s monopoly on force with a fluid constellation of violent oligarchs, alternatively colluding and competing with each other. Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Syria’s National Defense Battalions, for example, operated as pro-government militias with strong sectarian inflections. These militias, both under Iranian tutelage, sometimes supplemented and sometimes replaced national armies that had suffered from desertion and poor combat performance. As Iraq and Syria transition to post-conflict reconstruction, these militias have extended into business and social welfare, buying up real estate and offering services to their fighters and supporting constituencies. In other areas, the more ambitious and disciplined rebels have taken over taxation, schooling, public health, and policing. People and goods circulate constantly across lines of control.

Actual governance, especially in the periphery, carries on with little input from national authorities bunkered in ministry compounds. The result can be local alliances and relationships that belie national-level competitive dynamics. Iraqi politics, for example, is typically seen as pitting a Shi’i-dominated central government against the Sunni Arab minority, with separatist-minded Kurds backing the Shi’a in return for autonomy. But Sunnis in Mosul have joined the PMF to counter perceived Kurdish encroachment. Shi’i militias in Basra, meanwhile, vie against one another for the spoils of the oil industry. Even with the formation of Libya’s so-called unity government in March 2021, Tripoli and the eastern government controlled by Khalifa Haftar each maintained an army, parliament, central bank, and national oil company. Their military campaigns relied on local tribes, mercenaries, Islamist and Salafi factions, separatists, mercantile syndicates, and organised crime. Consequently, the battle for supremacy in the Fezzan, for instance, related tangentially to the fighting in Sirte. In such a context, hybrid security arrangements yield unequal and varied experiences of security and insecurity for citizens themselves. A survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Center in 2019 showed that respondents in Houthi-ruled Sana’a perceived Saudi airstrikes and the continuation of the war as the gravest threats they faced. Respondents in Aden, by contrast, listed militias and armed groups followed by thefts and weak state authorities as primary concerns (Yemen Polling Center 2020).

Foreign interventions, while hardly new to the Middle East, have become more impactful and destabilising as states themselves have become more precarious. Much of the progress of state-building in the region that occurred throughout the 1950s and 1960s came as outside powers accepted—and indeed seemed to buttress—the sovereignty of regional powers. But these commitments became tenuous both normatively and geopolitically when the Cold War ended. Why preserve the sovereignty of such politically repressive and economically regressive states? This ambivalence became apparent in the aftermath of the first Iraq war. Partitioning Iraq, as the Kurdish nationalists had hoped, was unconscionable. Nevertheless, the United States established a no-fly zone to protect the self-proclaimed Kurdish government and, with UN backing, imposed draconian economic sanctions. Sovereignty had to be preserved, even in breach (Ahram and Lust 2016).

The favoured prescription for weak and failed states is generally to build states and eliminate non-state actors. But militias and warlords are often essential interlocutors for outside powers, more useful than states themselves when it comes to counterterrorism and stabilisation. Armed non-state actors further demonstrate the dispensability of sovereignty by seeming to be more reliant and responsive to the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, or other patrons than to the titular central government (Alaaldin et al. 2019).

The Afterlife of Sovereignty

States can endure profound dysfunction in the contemporary international system without formally dying off or suffering elimination (Fazal 2011). Even as many Arab states are on the verge of functional obsolescence, statehood retains symbolic salience (Kienle 2016). In some cases, this has resulted in the rejuvenation of nationalist movements whose demands for sovereignty went unmet during the colonial era. Kurds, for instance, pointed to the promises of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) to justify their claims to political autonomy. After 2011, movements to reinstate lost sovereignty arose in southern Yemen, eastern Libya, and northwestern Syria (Rojava). Even the Islamic State, in its own way, claimed to correct the flaws of the post–World War I era. Separatist projects thus rejected particular states while confirming statehood as an abstract ideal (Ahram 2019).

Most claims to political and social rights, however, are still addressed to existing, albeit decrepit, states. Mansour Hadi’s government and the rival Houthi-appointed Revolutionary Council both claim, with seemingly equal degrees of plausibility, to be the “real” Yemeni government, for example. Libya’s rival Tripoli and Tobruk parliaments made similar claims. For a period in the mid-2010s, the opposition-led Syrian National Council claimed Syria’s seat in the Arab League. The focus on the state is evident in mass politics, too. Lebanese citizens are accustomed to relying on sectarian connections to access welfare institutions and to ensuring personal security through militias. Yet public opinion surveys show that they still overwhelmingly identify themselves as “Lebanese first”. Demonstrators protesting the catastrophic explosion in Beirut wrapped themselves in the Lebanese flag to demand better of their effectively moribund government. In Iraq, the 2019 election and mass protests showed a pronounced shift toward post-sectarian identities, rebuffing the overtly sectarian and alarmingly nepotistic ruling elite. Public opinion surveys revealed low esteem for the Iraqi military, the militias, and most politicians. Yet this cynicism was tempered by strong sentiments of patriotism and attachment to state-based identity as an abstract principle. Similarly, in Yemen, the militias that do much of the actual governing are generally unpopular. According to the 2019 Yemen Polling Center, 46% of respondents opined that the Yemeni state alone should handle security provisions. Again, this confidence in the state was more general than specific. Only 36% wanted the state as the sole security provider in their specific region. Yemeni citizens, like many others in the area, are increasingly undertaking self-help and self-protection as if the political disposition of the state did not matter.


Few Arab states have provided their citizens much prosperity or political representation over the last few decades. In those countries unlucky enough to suffer civil wars, states have also abandoned the basic tasks of ensuring security. Fluid coalitions of militias, warlords, soldiers, and criminals now cohabitate in a hybrid environment. International actors abet this transition, no longer interested in buttressing the sovereignty of states that seem to have passed their prime. Even in abject failure, however, citizens’ imaginations and aspirations have remained fixated on statehood as an ideal. National emblems, such as anthems and flags, continue to be tools of protest and rebuke, a reminder of loyalties unrequited and promises unmet. States may be moribund, but their afterlife is still unfolding.


Ahram, Ariel I. 2019. Break All the Borders: Separatism and the Reshaping of the Middle East . New York: Oxford University Press.

Ahram, Ariel I., and Ellen Lust. 2016. “The Decline and Fall of the Arab State”. Survival 58 (2): 7-34.

Alaaldin, Ranj, Federica Saini Fasanotti, Arturo Varvelli, and Tarik M. Yousef, eds. 2019. “The Rise and Future of Militias in the MENA Region,” ISPI and Brookings Doha Center, available online.

Anderson, Lisa. 2018. “The State and Its Competitors”. International Journal of Middle East Studies 50 (2): 317.

BBC. 2021. “Yemen, Coronavirus in a War Zone”. BBC, 18 January 2021, available online.

Fazal, Tanisha M. 2011. State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Heydemann, Steven. 2020. “Rethinking Social Contracts in the MENA Region: Economic Governance, Contingent Citizenship, and State-Society Relations after the Arab Uprisings”. World Development 135: 105019.

Kienle, Eberhard. 2016. “Syrie-Irak. Ni redécoupage des frontières ni restauration de l’État”. Orient XXI, 26 October, available online.

Mansour, Renad. 2021. “Networks of Power: The Popular Mobilization Forces and the State in Iraq”, Chatham House Research Paper, February 2021, available online.

Sayigh, Yezid. 2018. “Hybridizing Security: Armies, Militias and Constrained Sovereignty”, Carnegie Middle East Center, October 2018, available online.

Schulhofer-Wohl, Jonah. 2020. Quagmire in civil war. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yemen Polling Center. 2020. “Perceptions of the Yemeni Public on Living Conditions and Security Related Issues”, available online.

Ariel I. Ahram is a professor at the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs in Arlington. His most recent book is War and Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (Polity Books, 2020). Other publications include Break All the Borders: Separatism and the Reshaping of the Middle East (Oxford UP, 2019), and Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias (Stanford UP, 2011).

Cover image: Die Maschine (1923), by Karl Wiener. Image in the public domain.

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