The Relevance of Nation-States to the Study of the Middle East

Written by Julie Geng


The concept of the territorial state is not native to the Middle East, and most states have only gained independence in the last century. In addition, Islam and its vision of the umma, a population state, seem to be in direct conflict with the Westphalian territorial states. Certain scholars have thus argued from a cultural relativist perspective that the region is simply inherently incompatible with the nation-state system. Others have attributed the prolonged instability in the region to the Sykes-Picot borders that were drawn without consulting the local people.

Nonetheless, nation-states in the territorial sense remain relevant to the studies of the Middle East today and to effective policymaking. Although the idea of the nation-state may be brought to the region by colonizers, it has been deeply entrenched in the lives of the people. From the analysis below, I will examine how this process of national consciousness formation has developed and why there is no viable alternative that can restructure the region and abandon the nation-states. In order to increase regime stability and to improve the well-being of the people, the most essential changes will be most appropriately implemented at the level of the nation-states.

The paper proceeds as follows. Section 2 addresses the artificiality of the states in the Middle East in response to the critics of Sykes-Picot and the actions of ISIS. Section 3 demonstrates how the people of the region have been shaped by the borders “imposed upon” them and formed their own national imagination. Section 4 uses a political economy perspective to analyze how the neoliberal world economy has further reinforced the relevance of states in the Middle East.

Artificial States = States

First negotiated in 1916 between Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Georges Picot of France, the Sykes-Picot agreement was a secret document drafted to determine the future of the Middle East and its relationship with the colonizing powers following World War I. Critics of the agreement point at how the Sykes-Picot agreement imposed artificial borders on the region, ignoring ethnic and religious compositions and denying most local people any input. Nevertheless, the critics still adopt a “top-down outlook” towards the region by proposing solutions such as renegotiating the borders with the intervention of major powers (Bilgin 2016, 3). On the other hand, ISIS, the most recent fervent challenger of the nation-state order of the Middle East, has made an unwavering effort to declare “the end of Sykes-Picot”. In 2014, ISIS posted a video showing the group breaking down the physical boundaries between Syria and Iraq, making the symbolic declaration that all have united as “one people” under the new rule of ISIS and that any call to uphold national frontiers is obsolete and sacrilegious (Tinsley 2015, cited in Bilgin 2016).

What both the critics of Sykes-Picot and ISIS overstate is the artificiality of borders and how artificiality renders the borders illegitimate. In fact, most borders are drawn by political leaders in a top-down fashion after extended periods of conflicts and instability. Danforth wittingly wrote:

Winston Churchill may have drawn the border between Iraq and Jordan with a pen, but he was just as central in delineating the border between France and Germany when he led the allies to victory in World War II (2013).

Also, the borders determined in Sykes-Picot were not entirely arbitrary and did obey some of the local borders during the Ottoman period. For instance, the provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were already functioning as an integrated economic and military body, so there is arguably no better borders than grouping them under the new state of Iraq (Danforth 2013). Ironically, the only country with entirely arbitrary borders is Jordan, which consists of mostly arid land gifted to Britain’s ally, King Abdullah (Ibid.). In spite of the constant turmoil experienced by its neighbors, Jordan has remained relatively peaceful — most likely thanks to its lack of coveted resources rather than “good borders.”

Moreover, it is wishful-thinking that natural borders perfectly separate different ethnic groups, thus avoiding any serious internal conflicts. Natural borders typically refer to geographic features that separate a continuous stretch of land such as mountains, rivers, sea, etc. However, the movement of people is rarely bound by geographic barriers anymore, especially with the emergence of modern transportation means. Even though Turkey and Greece are naturally divided by the river Meriç, transfers of populations were deemed necessary by the League of Nations to achieve more homogeneity (Özsu 2011, cited in Bilgin 2016). More importantly, the notion that separating different ethnic groups is obligatory to avoid conflict is problematic and dangerous. Historically, the pursuit of ethnic purity has led to many abhorrent crimes against humanity. What is worth examining is rather why some “artificially drawn” borders turn out to be more peaceful than the ones in the Middle East. 

What both the critics and ISIS overlook is the structural problems plaguing the region, which are still perpetuated by imperialist practices. Sykes-Picot does not merely refer to the literal drawing of borders by colonial powers, but also the fact that the Middle East was considered undeserving of de facto sovereignty and incapable of self-rule. By depriving the nascent nation-states of any agency, the western powers forced these states to be dependent for legitimacy and protection. Zartman (2017, 941) distinguishes between two categories of states when analyzing sovereignty and boundaries in the Middle East: hard states and strong states. Although both typess of state function with a social contract, the one for strong states is characterized by “participation and accountability” while hard states seek “self-protection in exchange for support” (Ibid.). The legacy of colonialism does not end with destroying the physical borders, as what cripples the states today is a vicious cycle of dependence and legitimacy loss purposefully engineered and maintained by imperialist powers including, most prominently, the U.S. and Russia. Without the ability to derive legitimacy from exercising agency, these hard states resort to a heavily militarized security governance that is state-centric with cosmetic de jure sovereignty.

Therefore, questioning the suitability or legitimacy of the borders drawn a century ago is unhelpful, and we should instead challenge the persisting structure set up by colonial powers that has prevented the Middle East states from taking charge of its own fate. This structure and some proposals for change will be further discussed in Section 4.

Imagined Nation-States

After affirming that states in the Middle East are no less prone to dysfunction and political crises, I will move on to demonstrate that people of the region already perceive themselves in state-national terms. When discussing Anderson’s seminal concept of “imagined communities,” Zubaida (1993, 118) responds to the objection that participants in the political fields only represent their corresponding pre-existing, factional subgroups. The political field described by Zubaida can be understood as a political order oriented by certain principles  — nationalism being one of them. He points out that the political field shapes the interests and sentiments of communalist and ethnic subgroups, and their internal struggles are confined by the rules set forth by the political field (Zubaida 1993, 118). Islamic communalism is frequently cited as an example that speaks to the threat to the nation-state system in the Middle East. However, we can still draw many parallels between Islamic movements and nationalist movements. While Islamic doctrines may serve to derive legitimacy for the Islamist groups, there is no use of Islamic doctrines as organizing principles for political purposes aside from the notion of Islamic superiority. Thus, Islam is invoked as an identity marker in the same way that national identity is used to differentiate those who belong to the nation and those who are not. Therefore, even though Islamic communalists intend to steer away from the political field of nation-states, nationalist discourses have been so ingrained in the people that it remains the most effective way to mobilize political support. Rather than staging a religious revival movement, the communalist groups carry clear political agenda against the existing government and order. The Muslim Brotherhood is a salient example that has its origin in protesting against fiscal oppressions, i.e. rising prices of bread and other commodities (Zubaida 1993, 120).

Not only are nationalist sentiments familiar to the people of the Middle East, but administrative elements, conducive to nation-state formation, are unavoidable given the demand for modern conveniences. Political Islamic groups have no choice but to adopt the form of the territorial state, explaining that physical borders are merely for “administrative convenience” (Zartman 2017, 939). However, according to Foucault and Anderson, the administration process and the respective institutions are the very entities that give birth to nation-states. For administrative convenience, a single language must be adopted and public information needs to be circulated amongst the population. The emergence of print capitalism facilitates the standardization of a common language, uniting people who read the same material (Anderson 1991, 224). Therefore, a nation-state does not require the existence of hard borders but instead discourses that are widely understood and accepted by a sizeable population. Moreover, Foucault’s concept of disciplinary methods of power, as discussed by Mitchell (1991, 92-3), explains how powers are generated internally from the organized institutions of a modern state, such as schools, the military, and factories. As a result, the political subjects develop a mechanism of self-discipline through rules that have been gradually instilled in them during their participation in such institutions. The power relations the people have with the state becomes part of their individuality and instinct, turning them into “isolated, disciplined, receptive, and industrious” political subjects (Mitchell 1991, 93). Therefore, any institutions that organize the people according to a unique set of rules inherently exude state-national characteristics and give rise to the imagined nation. ISIS is the most prominent effort to undermine the Westphalian system with its well-known propaganda video destroying the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, ISIS cannot escape functioning as a proto-state in the territory it controlled, including providing security measures and social services.

Furthermore, the failure of pan-Arabism speaks to the strength of the existing nation-states in the Middle East. Nasser’s success of uniting Egypt and Syria by establishing the UAR was short-lived. There were practical reasons that explain the lack of viability of pan-Arabism such as the difficulty of establishing united inter-Arab markets as well as other institutional structure to support a huge, dispersed population (Ayubi 1995). These concerns once again affirm that administrative issues are most effectively organized at the level of the nation-states. Pan-Arabism as an ideology was also questioned for its legitimacy since Nasser prioritized the expansionist agenda of Egypt itself as a nation-state. Essentially, pan-Arabism had been misused as a pretext for interventionist policies that breach other states’ sovereignty. Therefore, in his analysis of the competing institutions of pan-Arabism and sovereignty, Barnett (1993) identifies pan-Arabism as culpable for undermining the institution of sovereignty, acting as a destabilizing force in Middle Eastern politics. Pan-Arabism, rather than proposing a viable alternative to the Westphalian system, accounts for regime instability by eroding the legitimacy of state leaders.

Neoliberalism and Dependency

So far, I have shown that nation-states as units of analysis are relevant to the study of the Middle East because national imagination has taken root in spite of failed states, pan-Arabism, and ISIS. However, the persistence of nation-states has not only been supported by the collective consciousness but further entrenched by a global system of neoliberalism.

Neoliberal globalization refers to the increased interrelationship between places and people along with the pursuit of policies such as privatization, liberalization, and deregulation (Guazzone and Pioppi 2009, 4). These policies have shaped a “discursive economy”, a term coined by Bilgin (2016) to describe an international order that perpetuates the existing unbalanced center-periphery relationship. This center-periphery relationship, with its origin in Marxism, allows wealthy nations in the center to extract resources and profits from developing nations in the periphery. In the Middle East, for example, the US uses its allyship with Saudi Arabia to enrich its oil reserve while at the same time justifying its heavy military intervention with security and counterterrorism concerns. Domestically, neoliberal globalization gradually results in the “retreat of the state” with the rising influence of the market and other transnational institutions (Guazzone and Pioppi 2009, 4-5). Therefore, the state actors become increasingly more distanced from social groups, eventually resorting to patronage networks that co-opt opposition forces. Politically, such patronage networks induce serious existential crises for the leaders, leading to policies that further repress any autonomous recalcitrant actors who challenge the corrupt status quo. Economically, there is an absence of a strong state that can execute effective development strategies without depending on imported foreign technologies and cheap primary goods exports. Meanwhile, the elites take advantage of liberalization policies for personal gains.

The hypocrisy of the neoliberal world order is further evidenced by its false promise of the transition paradigm. The transition paradigm suggests that the transition from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies follows a linear trajectory if certain structural needs are fulfilled (Guazzone and Pioppi 2009, 2). Ironically, this paradigm ignores the fact that the structural preconditions themselves are resistant to changes and prevent successful transition. The neoliberal globalization has given an illusion that these relatively new nation-states have tools at their disposal to progress economically and to secure regime stability. In reality, it installed an insidious mechanism and has created an enduring political-economic structure that will not easily adopt democratic changes and relies on the West to avoid crises (Hinnebusch 2017). Instead, democratic transitions must be conditioned upon sustaining economic growth, building faith in the government and institutions, as well as increasing the engagement of the public in political affairs. 

Given these structural problems, the fundamental problems facing the political subjects of the Middle East today will be most effectively addressed as nation-states. Saying that the Middle East is at its core unfit for being functional nation-states is a conspiracy that helps the major power further exploit the people of the region while blaming the victims for their hardship. The neoliberal world order will unlikely crumble in the near future, but what needs to occur right away is the development of new economic relations that allow Middle Eastern states to form a self-sufficient, sustainable economy (domestic and inter-Arab) that will create jobs for young people and provide social security network for the vulnerable populations. Legitimacy will be thus derived from such a healthy economy, and the leaders will naturally abandon the current system of crony capitalism to undergo democratic transitions.


Nation-states are the most appropriate and useful units of analysis for the studying of international relations of the Middle East. Although the borders were legacy of colonialism conferred upon the people, they have led the local people to perceive of themselves in state-national terms. Those who are skeptical about the system of nation-states are mostly concerned by failed states and lack of legitimacy in others. However, these failures are not the fault of nation-states as political units but are results of how major powers have engineered a neoliberal world order that leads to dependency. In order to make fundamental changes and to address the problem of “hard states” described by Zartman, the states in the Middle East must first reclaim their agency and find self-sustaining sources of legitimacy. But these will not be possible without the end of the current international order that disproportionately benefits the most powerful through exploiting the vulnerable. Regardless, the most promising changes are likely going to take place from the level of nation-states given the existing national consciousness that gives people their expectation of their leaders.


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