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The State of the Arab State: Stocktaking and Reorientation

Bahgat Korany

Director, AUC Forum
Professor, Department of Political Science
American University in Cairo

As an alienated, and alienating, besieged structure, the Arab State is in crisis. This crisis is not, however, Lowi’s “fiscal crisis,” but a deep and chronic one. It predates the Arab Spring rather than – as occasionally claimed – being caused by it. Why has this crisis arisen and is there a way out?

To try to answer these two basic questions, this article is backed by three indexes and divided into four sections. Section I identifies some main characteristics of the Arab State. Section II traces and reviews some influential pioneering research on the Arab State, undertaken by both international analysts and well-established Arab scholars. Section III focuses more closely on the basic deficiency of the State, its ‘credibility’ or legitimacy crisis due to its ‘fakeness’ and a widening gap between what is said and done. Finally, Section IV suggests a reorientation in dealing with the State’s ‘deep determinants’ of (mis)performance. It is proposed that, analytically, instead of mainly focusing on state institutions – which are often too formal and diverge from practice – efforts should be directed towards decoding the States’ functioning/effectiveness. The concept of governance is introduced and measured through six indicators used by the World Bank. The different Arab states are then ranked in terms of governance or lack thereof. The conclusion brings the paper’s threads together, linking governance to legitimacy, mainly as this legitimacy theory is developed by Max Weber. The paper suggests, however, a complement: a legitimacy of achievement/performance based on state-society partnership.  

Beyond Overgeneralisation: Dissecting Patterns of the Arab State

Three features characterise the Arab State:

  1. The State is central, both in its legal privileges and in people’s collective psychology.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Algerians, for instance, fought for eight bloody years in a savage war and paid “one million martyrs.” The objective was to change their status from a DOM – départment d’outre-mer, part of France – to an independent state. They won and became independent in 1962. Similarly, the Palestinians have been fighting for over 60 years to free their state from an occupying power, Israel. The Israelis themselves say they have fought for centuries to get a Hebrew state as home to all Jews. In short, people go to war and are ready to pay with their lives to get their state (Spruyt 2009).

This state centrality dominates even in pan-organisations that purport to go beyond it. The main regional organisation, the League of Arab States (LAS) – established in 1945, actually before the establishment of the UN – aimed to embody the Arabs’ aspiration for unity and the (re)creation of “one nation from the (Arab) Gulf to the (Pacific) Ocean.” Yet a content analysis of its 48-article charter shows that the territorial Arab State and its national sovereignty are central in just less than 50% of the articles, 22 articles to be precise. In order to respect state sovereignty, LAS resolutions are taken unanimously, i.e. each state from tiny Djibouti to founding-member and influential Saudi Arabia has the power to veto.

  • Though we tend to overgeneralise in talking about the Arab State, the 22 Arab states are diverse. For instance, they are distinct in their daily living and in their capacity to meet their people’s economic demands, e.g. as ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-Nots,’ oil-producing and oil-less countries. The per capita income of the Qatari is about 50 times that of his neighbour the Yemeni – with all that this huge income gap entails. Demographically, Qatar’s native population is less than the inhabitants of one of Cairo’s medium-size districts. Egypt itself is about 25% of the whole Arab population, more than the combined population of its four immediate North-African neighbours: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. All the population combined of such oil-powers as Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE are approximately 70% of Cairo. Income and demographic gaps do not only have economic effects but socio-political ones as well.
  • The Arab State is fierce; repressive rather than strong. Its basic regime is extremely intolerant. Any form of political opposition is generally assimilated in most of these states to hostility (Porter 2013). Sadam’s Iraq was notable for the physical liquidation of its opponents and was accused of using poisonous gas against its Kurdish citizens. Gaddafi solemnly declared that he would pursue his Libyan opponents and assassinate them wherever they were in the world; and if he were accused of being a terrorist, he would readily accept the honour! There are now over 220,000 victims of civil war in Assad’s Syria, after four years of a bloody civil war, with hundreds of thousands more maimed; more than four million refugees and probably an equal number of IDPs – internally displaced persons. And the war goes on. As we will see in discussing the Arab State’s pattern of governance, in less infamous cases widespread arbitrariness still replaces the basic rule of Law.

Research on the Arab State Comes of Age

The Arab world has inherited state centrality which had been prevalent across time and space (Tilly 1975). The recent Oxford Handbook of Political Science qualifies the discipline as “the discipline of the State” (Goodin 2009-3-61). But despite its centrality, the Arab State has been under-researched and scientifically under-analysed. Most Arab theorising focused on ‘bigger entities’: the Umma/caliphate in Islamic political thought, or the ‘anti-colonial Arab nation’ in pan-Arab analysis. We do come across some aspects of elite theory applied to the State, or Pluralism theory in approaching Lebanon or a form of Marxist analysis in dealing with the anti-colonial State as in the case of the short-lived South Yemen and especially Nasserist Egypt. These, however, did not lead to a systematic and accumulative research programme around a consensual definition of the State. About 30 years ago, I surveyed the widespread use of the term “State” to find about 27 definitions (Korany 1987). But the most quoted and dominant are variations of either the Weberian or the Marxist standard definitions. The Weberian definition emphasises the State’s legal sovereign aspect and its monopoly of the use of force. The Marxist one, however, linked the State to the general theory of modes of production; class structure and the State as the exploiting superstructure or a proxy for the bourgeois capitalist class and thus a reflection of the economic infrastructure.

It was in fact about 30 years ago that two big transnational projects focused on the Arab State, or some basic aspects of it. Not only did each assemble a huge and effective research team but they were also based on an explicit research programme. The result is a noticeable jump in the research design and findings regarding the Arab State in a relatively short time. Essentially one of these two projects is worldwide and the other was confined to Arab scholars as part of a general futurology project exploring scenarios for the ‘Arab nation.’

The first, under the leadership of the Instituto Affari Internazionali (G. Luciani et al.), resulted in four volumes in English, dealing with major issues such as the foundations of different Arab states; the rentier State; the durability of the Arab State and its relations with the opposition; and finally problems of regional integration. The project was truly international in two respects: a) in terms of its contributors from Europe, North America and of course the Arab World; and b) in its collective leadership: four non-European contributors joined as editors: from Adeed Dawisha and Ghassan Salamé to Hazem Beblawi and William Zartman.

As for the purely Arab collective project, it was initiated by the Centre of Arab Unity Studies in Beirut – certainly the most respected and well-established pan-Arab institution then and at present. The project – generously financed as the most collective project regrouping Arab researchers – dealt with four areas of research: the Arabs and the World; the Future of the Arab State and Society; the trajectories and challenges of Economic Development; and a fourth mainly methodological research area focused on the problems of modelling. In addition to the synthesis volume of each of the first two research areas and an overall volume on the Future of the Arab Nation (entitled Challenges and Choices), at least eight volumes were duly published by individual contributors. What linked all these contributions together was the main focus: scenarios of the future of the Arab world. These are three, the first is the most desired but a bit utopian: achievement of complete integrative Arab unity. The third is the present one of Arab ‘national’ fragmentation among various territorial states jealous of their sovereignty. In between is a second, rather reformist scenario of regional grouping around a geographical area, e.g. the Nile Valley or the Gulf; or an issue: e.g. food security or military industries. For our topic, the synthesis volume on the “Future of State and Society in the Arab Homeland” by Saad El-Din Ibrahim is basic to the analysis of the Arab State then and – in many respects – even now. For the English-speaking reader, the volume by a member of this research group, the late Nazih Ayubi (1995) gives a taste of the range of this sub-group on state and society.

These two transnational research projects represented a huge advance in dissecting the Arab State according to standard and worldwide scientific practices. Thirty years after, where are we?

The Arab State is increasingly on the research agenda, either published or in solid PhD dissertations, or both (e.g. A.Saouli 2014). There is now confirmation of the pitfalls of the Arab State, as laid out in “Alien, Besieged yet Here to Stay” (Korany 1987). The teasing out of quantitative data about the Arab State from world databanks further confirms two aspects: 1) The diverse trajectories of different Arab states away from the dream of a unified Arab state, (an objective that is becoming, despite rhetoric, increasingly illusory); and b) overall stagnation in the political field that provoked continuous mass protests until they became the 2011 Tsunami known as the Arab Spring (Kamrava, 2015). Two indexes on Human development (2009-2014) and the Fragile/Failed State are eloquent in this respect.

TABLE 1 Human Development Index (HDI) Value*

HDI RankCountry20092010201120122013
..Very high human development0.880.8850.8870.8890.89
..High human development0.7150.7230.7290.7330.735
..Medium human development0.5930.6010.6090.6120.614
..Low human development0.4780.4790.4860.490.493
107Palestine, State of0.6790.6710.6790.6830.686
34Saudi Arabia0.8020.8150.8250.8330.836
118Syrian Arab Republic0.6620.6620.6620.6620.658
40United Arab Emirates0.8260.8240.8240.8250.827
75Iran (Islamic Republic of)0.7180.7250.7330.7490.749

* The Human Development Index is a composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development – a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living. See Technical note 1 ( for details on how the HDI is calculated. Data in the tables are those available about 195 countries to the Human Development Report Office as of 15 November, 2013, unless otherwise specified.

TABLE 2 Fragile Failed State Index

Saudi Arabia77.577.575.273.472.773.1
United Arab Emirates51.852.450.448.947.347.6

Definition: The Fragile States Index is an annual ranking of 178 nations based on their levels of stability and the pressures they face. The Index is based on The Fund for Peace’s proprietary Conflict Assessment Software Tool (CAST) analytical platform. Based on comprehensive social science methodology, data from three primary sources is triangulated and subjected to critical review to obtain final scores for the Fragile States Index. Millions of documents are analysed every year, and by applying highly specialised search parameters, scores are apportioned for every country based on twelve key political, social and economic indicators and over 100 sub-indicators that are the result of years of painstaking expert social science research. The Fragile States Index scores should be interpreted with the understanding that the lower the score, the better. Therefore, a reduced score indicates an improvement, just as a higher score indicates greater instability.

The two indexes show either stagnation or even deterioration in almost all cases. In fact, the Arab State is, on the whole, incapable of evolving and delivering. It suffers from a credibility crisis. We will come to this issue in more detail in section IV below when we discuss the third index on governance.

The Present Arab State: Its Credibility Crisis

State legitimacy crisis is another designation, as I will show in the next section. Legitimacy and capacity to govern go together.

Contrary to expectations, there has been – following the Arab Spring – a regain of interest in, and need for, the State – both at the mass level and even among sceptics. Recently published research (Hilal et al. 2015) about the Return of the State in Egypt has been welcomed by the media and is becoming almost an immediate bestseller.

This regain of interest in the primacy/centrality of the State is motivated by the fluidity of the political situation following uncontrolled street politics and the collapse of law and order, even in established authoritative and authoritarian states such as Egypt or Tunisia. This law and order collapse takes much more stark form in cases such as Libya or Yemen where other actors – militias, warlords, organised crime – are taking over at the expense of any state authority. Mass nostalgia for a minimum of stability is also on the rise.

But did not these masses revolt against this state and its conception of law and order? Has (fickle) mass public opinion changed its mood so fast and so starkly? Is there a puzzle in this sharp volte-face?

This regain of interest in the primacy/ centrality of the State is motivated by the fluidity of the political situation following uncontrolled street politics and the collapse of law and order, even in established authoritative and authoritarian states such as Egypt or Tunisia

Though the State is still central in people’s collective psychology, they usually revolt – violently or not – against its “fakeness” (Cammet et Diwan2014). Contrary to the European experience in state-formation (Tilly 1975), the Arab State has been reduced to its regime, not the other way around. The regime and its clients have hijacked the State. Though this State presented itself – according to the accepted definition of the State – as a set of ‘legal-national’ set of institutions, in reality and actual practice it was not (Brand 2014). It was not even Hobbs’ Leviathan, this monster acting above conflicting social or ethnic groups. It is not only corruption at the highest level, but also and primarily, this façade of standard modern institutions flagrantly negated by actual functioning based on very particularistic affiliations, e.g. tribal, shilla or old-boy networks, or simply financial profit (Hertog et al., 2013). It is what I called elsewhere the neo-patrimonial State, where the distinction between private and public property is blurred (Korany, 2014).To clarify this wide discrepancy between the professional, impersonal and institutional façade and personalised, corrupt day-to-day functioning, we will take the example of ‘tribalism’[1].

Despite official refutation, it is not true that tribalism has disappeared. A country such as Saudi Arabia is explicitly tribal, indeed the official name indicates its origins and official frame of reference of its founder the Al-Saud tribe. Other countries might not be so explicit, but Bahrain is Al-Khalifa, Kuwait is Al-Sabbah; Qatar is Al-Hamad…This tribal basis and frame of reference – as opposed to the modern, legal-rational façade – is a pure continuation of early practices in Arab-Islamic history in its different facets: from Al-Omayyad and Al-Abbasid empires to the Al-Othman or Ottoman empire. The 14th century sociologist, Ibn Khaldun – the Weber or Marx of the Arab World – based his concept of the rise/demise of governing political authority on ‘Asabiyya, i.e. tribal kinship/esprit de core.’ Asabiyya continues to characterise many governing regimes at present. Raison d’état becomes raison de famille/tribe.

One cannot account for the maintenance of Jordan’s monarchy without taking into consideration its tribal support system or Morocco’s without the top authority coordination and even inter-marriage with the Berbers

Even in times of successful coups/revolutions, the tribal element is present and kicking. Thus Yemen’s 1962 revolution that established the republican regime could not do without the tribes. It is now documented that the fate of the emerging republic hung on the role of principal tribes. These were involved by proxy in the Saudi-Egyptian fight, and would rally troupes in return for money from both sides (Dergham 2015). Once the war was over in the 1960s, tribal Sheikhs participated as such in Parliament and have created a tribal confederation as a means of co-management and interaction with the State.

Though less explicit, one cannot account for the maintenance of Jordan’s monarchy without taking into consideration its tribal support system or Morocco’s without the top authority coordination and even inter-marriage with the Berbers. Even in revolutionary regimes such as Gaddafi’s Libya, tribalism was part and parcel of the new regime. Gaddafi went on to condemn at the beginning of his new regime tribal culture/behaviour as a negation of the revolutionary ethos and spirit, only to replace members of his own tribe- the Qadhaffiyya- at the helm of the different sinews of power. As recently as May 2015, and to control Libya’s civil war and avoid complete institutional collapse, Egypt continued this tribally-based ethos and engineered a meeting of “Libyan tribes”- so officially announced.

Even the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime from Dara’a was based on tribal coordination. Indeed the ‘Friday of Tribes’ capitalized on the networks of Al-Zaki and Al-Masalmeh tribes (Dirgham 2015). Similarly, in Iraq the Al-Asha’ar tribe is attempting to shape post-Saddam-Iraq. In the fight against ISIL, states are now collaborating with tribes in delivering aid. Jordan’s Minister of Information was very explicit. He stated that Jordan plans to train fighters from Arab tribes in both Syria and Iraq to defeat ISIL. This is indicative of state subordination in its prime responsibility: maintenance of basic security. It denotes a lack of effectiveness compared to tribes and the increasing failure of governance.

Governance is not a function solely, or even primarily, of the use of force but rather of legitimacy, of acceptance of political authority by its people, or at least their majority. This is where the present state deficit and deficiency are glaring

Governance is not a function solely, or even primarily, of the use of force but rather of legitimacy, of acceptance of political authority by its people, or at least their majority. This is where the present state deficit and deficiency are glaring.

From State (Façade) Institutions to their Process and Effectiveness: Measuring Governance

The proliferation of this relatively new concept of governance is due to the increasing challenges to authority and the need forcoordination and management at all levels.

Consequently, the issue of governance complexity can be expressed in the form of a straightforward equation, inspired by the work of M.Weber


(G)overnance equals and is a function of the presence of (L)egitimacy and the use of (F)orce in combination. Legitimacy or voluntary acceptance by the majority of the population is the basis and principle of governance. The use of force against recalcitrants, usually a minority of the population, is the exception and last resort. In other words, there is a basic inference in this L and F ratio, an inverse relationship. The more legitimate political authority is, the less need there is for the use of force, and vice versa. Indeed, repeated use of force reflects not governance but rather its failure.

In the present context, the Arab State is force-dependent as shown by various indicators: rising budget of police and army; low status on the freedom of the Press Index; low credibility of election results; even when these are not widely rigged; fragility and ineffectiveness of legislatures; scepticism about juridical independence; and widespread discrepancy between what the constitution says and usual practice at the different levels of authority. The result is a prevalence of the state of emergency: Palestine 2007-present, Sudan 2005-present, Iraq 2004-present, Algeria 1992-2011, Egypt 1981-2012 and Syria 1963-April 2011 or until the regime went into a civil war.

The more legitimate political authority is, the less need there is for the use of force, and vice versa. Indeed, repeated use of force reflects not governance but rather its failure.

The World Bank has produced the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI). These six indicators summarise the views on the quality of governance provided by a large number of enterprises, citizens and firms. How do the Arab countries fare in this respect? I.e. How do they rank compared to the 215 countries included in the dataset?

TABLE 3 World Governance Indicators Ranking

Source: Worldwide Governance Indicators,


This article on the state of the Arab State opened by surveying some state characteristics and assessing world and ‘native’ research on this state’s origins and evolution. Our main thesis is that the Arab State is in crisis because it is imported (Badie 1985), alienated and fake in what it says/presents in its mimicry of so-called institutions. The two indexes of Human Development and Fragile/Failed State confirm this state’s crisis. To go beyond the façade, it is suggested that analysis focuses not on structure but on process through the dissecting governance challenges and dynamics. Six indicators of governance are then applied and the table shows where the Arab State stands compared to some of its peers. One of the main findings is that in its mode of governance, the different types of the Arab State count mainly on force and emergency laws rather than legitimacy or voluntary acceptance by its people.

Max Weber is the name most associated with the concept of legitimacy. According to Weber, the main types of legitimacy are: traditional (e.g. tribal), charismatic (of leadership) and national-legal (e.g. modern institutions). While the Arab State claims to be the State of institution, its real basis is either pseudo-charismatic (the claimed ‘Baraka’ of the great man at the top) and/or traditional/tribal. The immediate wayout for such a state is a two-fold strategy: a) reduce this discrepancy and credibility crisis; and b) work for a new type of legitimacy, one based on achievement, i.e. cumulative problem-solving in partnership with all its people, with whatever elements such a partnership entails.


[1] The problem is not this tribal phenomenon as such, but rather its repeated official negation compared to its dominant and routine practice at the State’s highest level. The problem is this credibility gap of stakeholders and their basis of legitimacy.


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