Statehood in the Middle East and North Africa: Approaches from Historical Sociology, Part I, the Rationale

Overlook of Middle Eastern city by Anonymous artist_ CERI MENA States

Weak Statehood in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)?

The Middle East states system has endured for nearly a century, as have its constituent state units. In principle a state denotes a government in control of a territory and enjoying external recognition of its sovereignty by others. But, in actuality, degrees of statehood—how far states perform the functions expected of them—vary considerably. Scholars have, for some time, characterised the MENA region’s states as weak or fragile, in spite of the resilience of ruling regimes (Kamrava 2014). Jackson (1993) famously referred decades ago to “quasi-states” in the developing world that, lacking the domestic features of stateness, survived chiefly owing to external support and recognition. Clapham (1998) made the more nuanced argument that there are varying “degrees of statehood” in the developing world, and Polesi and Santini (2018) found what Risse (2013) called “limited statehood” to be quite widespread in the MENA region. Finally, Newman (2009) charted a global proliferation of “failing” states: indeed, since the Arab Uprising starting in 2010, the spread of an exceptional number of such states in the Arab world has inspired claims of an unprecedented crisis of the Arab state (Ahram and Lust 2016). Arguably, therefore, variations in statehood, and more specifically statehood “deficits”, are one of the most important factors shaping politics in the MENA region and the developing world.

Such arguments presuppose standards by which we can measure statehood, its deficits, and its change over time, and a first step toward this would have to be identifying statehood’s dimensions and the forces that drive the trajectories of state formation. This paper makes a preliminary effort to consider the advantages of such an approach and argues that historical sociology (HS) gives us the tools to do so.

First, HS identifies the key dimensions of state strength: for example, Mann’s analysis of the “despotic” and “infrastructural” dimensions of power. Second, HS has a sophisticated understanding of how state strength is built, notably in Weber’s depiction of the trajectories of three ideal-typical historical authority types—charismatic, patrimonial, and legal-rational—with the most robust actually existing states typically being hybrids of the three authority types. Third, as regards change in state formation, rather than the teleological approaches of, for example, modernisation theory and its recent incarnation, democratisation theory, which expect a linear path of development toward some functionally superior endpoint—and attributes the MENA region’s failure to replicate this as evidence of cultural exceptionalism—HS adheres to explanations from “path dependency”. In this view, trajectories are driven by the choices of agents in the past that create structures constraining those of their successors: structure and agency interact to shape different trajectories. Fourth, in one key concrete instance of this, states and the states system are seen in HS to co-constitute each other, as in Tilly’s famous dictum “war makes the state and the state makes war”. In the following discussion, some of these advantages are illustrated and objections to HS addressed.

Debates over Historical Sociology Approaches to State Formation

Instead of embarking on a comparative effort to understand the dynamics that explain variations in states and state formation pathways, why not, as historians might argue, accept that every state is a unique specimen in the political aquarium and be content with understanding its properties? While it is undoubtedly so that each state has unique qualities, the first step toward a minimum standard of science is classification according to similarities and differences, the point of the discipline of comparative politics. Moreover, in order to study comparative state formation over long-term historical trajectories, one needs criteria for judging change over time and variation among states, specifically in terms of how well they do what is expected of them. This is what Weberian historical sociology provides.

Nevertheless, Weberian approaches applied to the MENA region have been contested on several grounds. First, their tendency to treat the state or regime as a unitary actor could be said to obscure the actual dynamics of politics inside states. This stems from attempts to restore the state as an actor in political studies, which were made in reaction to overly society-centric approaches that saw states as mere arenas for warring interest groups (in liberal pluralist accounts of US politics, for example) or for the struggle of classes (in some forms of Marxism). Reactions against society-centric approaches were mounted in mainstream political science—“bringing the state back in” (Skocpol 1985)—and also in the theories of state officials’ “relative autonomy” from class forces advanced by neo-Marxism (Kennedy 2006). Historical sociology also takes seriously the state as an actor.

Internal politics approaches are, however, not necessarily incompatible with historical sociology. They would be appropriate when one needs to open the “black box” of the state to take short-term “snapshots” of its internal political dynamics. Moreover, where the state is too weak or captured/colonized by social forces for its officials to have much agency, society-centric approaches could be more appropriate. Such approaches could range from Marxist depiction of how class struggles for control of the state matters for policy outcomes to those focusing on the struggle of identity groups over state power.

Where then does HS come in? It is most appropriate at a more macro level of analysis where the research problem is the long-term trajectory of the state as it shapes and is shaped by its environment. For example, political economy variants of HS look at how the interaction between state power and markets matters for development while international historical sociology examines how states and the international system co-construct each other. Whether such macro-level analysis or more micro-level consideration is appropriate depends on the research problem. Moreover, the different approaches can be combined, with micro-level snapshots taken at various points over the longitudinal analysis of state trajectories, for example.

A second objection to HS is that it is inapplicable to the MENA region, given how seldom the Weberian state is even approximated in the area; as such, measuring the Middle East against what it lacks risks obfuscating existing politics or, worse yet, could amount to a version of Orientalism. However, the MENA region’s state formation deficits do not mean HS is of little use in analysis because the Weberian state is merely an ideal type of the modern state that allows us to measure reality and to expose its variations and complexities. Weber also provides ideal types of pre-modern states, such as feudalism and patrimonialism, where authority is personalised and clientalist ties constitute the fabric of political loyalty, and these are seen as universal political formations of the pre-modern world, not features specific to the Middle East. Thus, for example, Tilly (1990) acknowledges the primitive governance practices in the West’s early state formation phases, likening them to protection rackets, with the widespread purchase of government offices, spoils systems, and so on. A HS approach would also acknowledge that the stateness of the Ottoman Empire, at its height, was superior in many ways to its Western contemporaries, including its merit recruitment to high offices (which was much more reserved for the so-called nobility in the West). Dysfunctional governance practices in the West were only superseded under extreme pressure, notably from the international system (specifically from war). A very similar dynamic was later operative in the MENA region, starting with Ottoman defensive modernisation: under pressure to survive in an unforgiving international system, MENA state builders adopted what seemed to make their Western enemies powerful in order to defend themselves—Weberian stateness. Thus, far from this ideal being simply imposed from without, it was embraced as the solution by indigenous state-builders. This does not mean the features of such state building efforts approximated Weber’s legal-rational authority. On the contrary, Weber is explicit that most actually existing political formations arehybrids of his ideal types: thus, what neo-Weberians identify as neo-patrimonialism is a widespread form of authority, particularly in so-called transitional societies, in which practices of personal rule and clientalism are interwoven with bureaucratic institutions. This formation suffers from various dysfunctions and yet is extremely durable and robust.

Nor does Weber’s identification of a long-term tendency toward rationalisation mean that HS promotes a teleological view that assumes there is only a single path of state development, that of the West. HS is sensitive to the fact that the West is not the only model adopted by MENA state builders: indeed, these state builders rapidly came to embrace models of governance that seemed appropriate to late developers seeking to quickly catch up. In the Cold War, MENA populist republics imitated the Soviet Union, which appeared to be a successful model of the rapid industrialisation and military power that they wanted; the Leninist single party and statist development were widely adapted to MENA conditions, resulting in significant advances in stateness. Later the East Asian developmental state was given at least lip service, and most recently the neo-liberal state (Western originated, to be sure, but prescribing contraction of the Weberian state’s reach) was embraced as being needed to adapt to the age of economic globalisation.

This phenomenon of “borrowing” can be explained theoretically through reference to literature such as the Global Polity approach (Meyer et al. 1977), which identifies mechanisms of diffusion of “best practice”, as well as Waltz’s (1978) concept of socialisation, in which states are forced to converge toward similar pathways by the costs of failing to adapt to and upgrade in an anarchic global system (Sørensen 2001). However, it is not just state-builders imitating others’ success that drives change but also demands from below; where the state fails the test of stateness, publics pay a high cost and widely demand that their states provide law and order and public goods, as seen in recent protests in some of the weakest of the MENA region’s states, notably Lebanon and Iraq. Indeed, indicative of how much statehood matters for public goods is how the state’s destruction in Iraq during the US occupation led to dramatic and—so far—irreversible decline in public services and security.


In summary, variations in statehood afford us one of the most important windows into understanding MENA politics and the tools of historical sociology allow us to measure and explain these variations. The test, however, is what HS actually delivers in conceptual advances that illuminate state formation in the region. A later follow-on contribution will sample and illustrate HS thinking in action as it exposes the properties and trajectories of the MENA state.


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Polese, Abel, and Ruth Hanau Santini. 2018. “Limited Statehood and Its Security Implications on the Fragmentation Political Order in the Middle East and North Africa”. Small Wars and Insurgencies 29 (3): 379-390.

Risse, Thomas, ed. 2013. Governance without a State? Policies and Politics in Areas of Limited Statehood . New York: Columbia University Press.

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Raymond Hinnebusch is professor of IR and Middle East politics and Director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. Recent publications include “Identity and State Formation in multi-sectarian societies: Between nationalism and sectarianism and the case of Syria,” Nations and Nationalism (2020); “The Rise and Fall of the Populist Social Contract in the Arab World,” World Development (2019); “Historical context of state formation in the Middle East: structure and agency,” in R.A. Hinnebusch & J.K. Gani (eds.) Routledge Handbook to the Middle East and North African State and States System (2020); “From Westphalian Failure to Heterarchic Governance in MENA: The Case of Syria,” Small Wars and Insurgencies (2018).

Cover: Overlook of Middle Eastern City (1870), by anonymous artist. Public Domain image.

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