Historical context of state formation in the Middle East

Structure and agency

Authored by: Raymond Hinnebusch

The Routledge Handbook to the Middle East and North African State and States System

Print publication date:  November  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9780367358877
eBook ISBN: 9780429342486
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter departs from the historical sociology concept of path dependency to trace how MENA’s historical inheritance constituted the structure of constraints and opportunities in which state-builders had to operate. The pre-modern heritage of small group (tribal, sectarian) politics, patrimonial rule, clientalism and universalistic Islamic identity; and the imposition of a Westphalian state system with bureaucratic apparatuses and territorial boundaries, often incongruent with pre-existing identities, foreclosed on many state-building options and made neo-patrimonialism, which exploited both sub- and supra-state identities, the natural power building practice. The agency of state-builders made a difference for the subsequent trajectory of state-building, which, starting from a low point, reached a certain level of consolidation in the 1970–80s before again declining to the post-2010 period of failing states. In parallel to the changes in the consolidation levels of states, the character of the regional states system also altered over time, from a period of trans-state ideological wars of subversion to a period of realist balancing and inter-state war, to the current period of proxy wars.

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