While some analysts emphasize that the state and state formation are essential to understanding Middle East and North Africa politics, others argue that social variables such as nationalism, identity, ethnicity, sectarian, and class as the major players. At the same time, another group of analysts considers the Middle East and North African states and societies in their ongoing interaction whereby states shape societies and societal actors also influence states. This essay will discuss which of these frameworks is most productive and helpful in the understanding of politics in the Middle East and North Africa and give reasons why it is the most productive framework.
Kamrava opines that state formation is essential in understanding the politics of the Middle East and North African countries. According to him, the essence of politics is all about state-society relations but these relations are not mechanical but are ideological, cultural, and normative. According to Kamrava (2018), for state leaders to rule over society, they craft institutions and institutional arrangements that are best suited to achieve that. In the Middle East and North African countries, the states develop organically from society with family clans and tribes linking the rulers and the ruled (Kamrava, 2018). Arabs states and the society became established over time with the oil revenue funding and enhancing the state capacity (Kamrava, 2018). After the Second World War, Arab states began to impose a social contract on society, a system referred to as corporatist populism. However, in the 1970s it became authoritarian with the state using police forces and fear to stay in power (Kamrava, 2018). In the 1980s, exclusionary authoritarianism became personified whereby presidents refused to vacate their seats even after their terms ended (Kamrava, 2018).
Colombo (2011) argues that politics in the Middle Eastern and North African region are influenced by societal variables such as nationalism, identity, ethnicity, sectarian, and class. She begins her analysis by talking about the emergence of Islam and its spread in the MENA region after the death of Muhammad. After Islam became incorporated in the region, more and more people converted on their own volition primarily because they wanted to belong to the same faith as the rulers or the elites. The Islamic laws and networks were of great significance at that time because they facilitated trade and the sense of shared culture and society created a sense of belonging. Ayoob (2006) emphasizes the interactions between the state and Islam by alleging that Islam’s influence on the state became immense when prophetic traditions and Quranic injunctions formed part of the civil society. According to Ayoob, the study and elaboration of law as a religious activity slowly gave birth to sharia law which progressively became a tool of restraining both individual and state behavior. Therefore, Islam and state became intertwined thus influencing the politics of the MENA region whose states were predominantly Islam.
The most productive framework is that the state and state formation are essential to understanding the Middle East and North Africa politics. It is difficult to understand the politics of a particular state or region without carefully analyzing how the state or the politics of the region have evolved. As Kamrava argues, the essence of politics is all about state-society relations and therefore it is impossible to understand one without being aware of the other one. The authoritarian rule that dominates the MENA region can be understood to stem from a long time ago when institutions were formed by state leaders from family clans and tribes. At first, the state capacity was managed by the oil revenue so leaders did not perceive any threat from the ruled. However, after World War II, Arab leaders felt under threat and therefore imposed an authoritarian rule to protect their wealth and status. This is the best analysis of politics in MENA countries because a common factor among all of them is oil richness and their interests revolved around that.
Ayoob, Mohammed. “The many faces of political Islam.” (2006).
Colombo, Silvia. “Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East.” (2011): 464-466.
Kamrava, Mehran. Inside the Arab State. Oxford University Press, 2018.