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al-Qaeda, Conflict Prevention; Responsibility to Protect, Terrorism, Weak States

The Weak State Problem in the Middle East


The seemingly Strong states of the Greater Middle East, even some of the monarchies, are intrinsically weak and paradoxically capable of failing (as today’s Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have largely done). That is the policy and epistemological reality of the contemporary Middle East, a reality compounded by the possibility that several of the existing Weak states of the region are also susceptible to failure. Meanwhile, the existing local already Failed states display the depths of their consummate failure as a warning to nearby states, whether Weak or Strong, of what may happen to them if their leaders behave kleptocratically, selfishly, and with a disregard for their local populations. Overall, the Greater Middle East contains polities that are weaker and more physically and governmentally challenged than is usually appreciated.  The perils of absolutism and the difficulties of democracy thus contribute significantly to regional instability and regime volatility.

            In the Greater Middle East there are several examples of states that are Strong, Weak, and Failed.  Some are democracies, some are monarchies, and some are autocracies. Hardly any are nation-states in the full sense of that concept.  These designations also overlap. But how each state fits within its rubric helps to illumine how and why some states deliver better governance to their citizens and inhabitants, some worse.  Better governance means satisfactory citizenry outcomes, greater realizations of stability and prosperity, the meeting or surpassing of social goals, and enhanced generalized feelings of self-worth.

The Middle Eastern states that rank high in governance are Strong and well-led. Failed and Weak states, by contrast, are run largely irresponsibly.  They provide poorly for their people across a range of important variables and criteria.  Much of the point of classifying and scoring these different state characteristics across the Greater Middle East is indeed to suggest how weakness may be transformed over time into strength, and how even failure among states may over time be reduced and at least partially ameliorated.

 In order to understand these classifications and their relevance for policy, and to appreciate the performance of the states of the Greater Middle East as political phenomena, we examine the theory of governance.  Next we examine the theory of state failure. Then we look at what those theoretical frameworks can tell us about enhancing world order in the Greater Middle East.

The Meaning of Governance

            A theory of Governance helps us to understand the state configurations of the greater Middle East.  It further helps us to appreciate the nature of the existing regimes, particularly if we want to learn whether governments are in fact meeting the expectations of their constituents. This is not a question of whether or not states are democratic or quasi-democratic.  But it is a question about how citizens are faring under regime X or regime Y. That is the essence of governance, and of state weakness and failure.  Governance is the concept that enables us to discern exactly whether citizens are progressing in meeting their life goals. Are they better off economically, socially, and politically than they were in an earlier decade? Are their various human causes advancing? Are their governments treating them well, and attempting in many senses to respond to their various needs and aspirations and relieving them of anxiety? Governance tells us far more about actual results in the different developing societies than we could ascertain by examining the varieties of democracy in such places.[1]

            Obtaining democracy in a region like the Middle East is often a stated goal, but what local civil societies and indigenous protest movements seek to acquire or create is not only the bundle of practices and outlooks that constitute democracy but also a whole bundle of political goods that amount to good governance and therefore are capable of strengthening the achievement of stability.  Democracy is at once a narrower and a more abstract notion than governance. It is also harder to measure conclusively.

Nation-states that possess abundantly good governance perform effectively for their citizens. They deliver elevated quantities and high qualities of the essential political goods that comprise governance.  In the Middle East and beyond we can use “governance” to separate the better performers – the states that truly expand the acquisition of political goods — from the poorer performers.

The Components of Governance

            All citizens of all countries desire to be governed well. Hardly anyone opts for bad government or autocracy. Being governed well is what citizens want from and expect of the nation-states in which they live. Thus, nation-states in the modern world are responsible for the delivery of essential political goods to their inhabitants. That is their purpose, and that has been their central legitimate justification since the Peace of Westphalia. These essential political goods are bundled into five categories: Safety and Security, Rule of Law and Transparency; Participation and Respect for Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity, and Human Development. Together, these five categories of political good epitomize the performance of any government, at any level.  No one, whether looking to her village, municipality, province, state, or nation willingly wants to be victimized by crime or to live in a society without regulations and laws; to be denied freedom to express oneself and to influence decisions; to be without a chance to prosper; and to be held back from access to decent schools, well-run hospitals and clinics, and carefully-maintained roads.[2]

            Of the five categories of political goods, the paramount one is security.[3] There can be no economic growth or social elevation, and no societal strength as opposed to weakness and failure, without fundamental security. A nation-state’s prime function everywhere is thus to secure its territory – to prevent cross-border invasions and incursions; to reduce domestic threats to, or attacks upon, the national domain and the national order; to bolster human security or security of person by reducing crime — to make its city streets and rural villages safe; and hence to prevent mayhem by roving gangs, non-state actors, or marauding desperadoes. If a nation-state merely controls its capital city, if it cannot project power to the periphery, if it does not have a Weberian monopoly of the use of force within its borders, and if it cannot repress would-be secessionists and potential rebels, then the nation-state is insecure and verging on failure. Or it is already Failed.

            The delivery of other necessary political goods becomes feasible only when reasonable provisions of security are obtained. Good governance next requires a predictable, recognizable, systematized method of adjudicating disputes and regulating both the norms and the prevailing mores of the societies and nation-states under inspection. This second political good implies codes and procedures that together compose an enforceable body of law, security of property and enforceable contracts, an effective judicial system, and a set of norms that validate what is called the rule of law. The practical impact of a strong rule of law regime is that it enables citizens to resolve their differences with fellow inhabitants or with an overweening state without recourse to arms or physical coercion.

            Each of the globe’s nation-states fashions its own rule of law. The English common law and the Napoleonic Code are but two major jurisprudential methodologies.  There are ethnically traditional methods and Sharia-derived elaborations, too. But without some such formalized body of laws, societal bonds weaken, disputes are settled by violent means rather than peaceful parleys, and commerce (and investment) is much riskier than it would be otherwise.

            A third political good certifies that citizens are participating freely, openly, and fully in a democratic political process – that they have “voice.” (This political good equates with “democracy,” but is insufficient to describe how the larger country is operating.  Moreover, it is possible to have “voice” without complete deliberative democracy.) This third political good further encompasses the essential freedoms: the right to participate in politics and compete for office; respect and support for national and provincial political institutions, legislatures, and courts; tolerance of dissent and difference; an independent media untrammelled by executive branch surveillance and control; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly and unionization, freedom of religion; and minority rights.

            In terms of transparency, and integral to this third bundle of political goods, is a fearless and un-self-censored media.  In many ways, such a free media is even more essential than a fully independent judicial system. Few breakdowns of civil order, few state failures, have occurred in countries with an open and active media – with privately run television channels and radio stations and a vibrant press. Without such methods of criticism, the free political space shrinks, accountability is observed in the breach, and rulers and ruling elites can more easily prey on their citizens. There can be no real democratic practice without such accountability. Nation-state failure can and often does ensue when criticism and accountability are scarce.

            A fourth critical political good and major component of governance is the creation of an enabling environment permissive of, and conducive to, economic growth and prosperity at national and personal levels. This political good thus encompasses a prudently run monetary and banking system usually guided by a central bank and lubricated by a secure and strong national currency; a fiscal and institutional context within which citizens may pursue individual entrepreneurial goals without let or hindrance, and potentially prosper; and a regulatory environment appropriate to the economic aspirations and attributes of the nation-state. Where a ruling family or clan arrogates to itself most of the available sources of economic growth (from petroleum or natural gas discoveries, say) and tightly distributes profit-making opportunities only to a select group of cronies and sycophants, a permissive and positive framework is falsified and political patrimony readily displaces the possibility of widespread prosperity.

            Providing this fourth political good includes the other critical components that help to ensure growth for all: primary are robust arteries of commerce that contribute significantly to the possibility of sustainable economic opportunity. Among these arteries are an extensive road network, preferably paved; railways; working harbors for ocean-going or riverine trade; modern airports; rapid broadband Internet connections to the wider world; and competitive and inexpensive mobile telephone networks.

            The fifth political good is one often demanded overwhelmingly by the peoples of the developing world: educational opportunity, including the provision of sufficient places in secondary schools and universities for both women and men and the offering of readily available medical care in clinics and hospitals, also for women and men. The first assumes sufficient classrooms, teachers, and textbooks, plus perhaps computers. The second encompasses such essential health elements as clean water and sanitation, an adequate number of physicians and nurses, abundant sutures and medicines in medical facilities, and some advanced technical equipment.

Measuring Performance

By specifying what governance is and by spelling out the five categories of modern governance precisely, governments (and internal and external observers) can hold themselves fully to account. Even monarchs can ascertain if they are fulfilling their responsibilities as completely as they would ideally prefer. They can decide whether they themselves, their operatives, and their bureaucracies are governing successfully. In all cases, civil societies can scrutinize the regimes under which they exist, and so can the United Nations, international lending institutions, and bilateral donors examine the merits of one or more regimes. The overriding purpose of the exercise is not merely to rank countries against other countries in order to show which are the well-governed and which are poorly governed. That would be invidious.  But benchmarks provide helpful heuristics, often leading to important and timely reforms.

Diagnosis is possible only when such a framework is available and generally regarded as legitimate. Displaying governance results is thus always helpful, but even more insightful and informative is the use of this conceptual approach for tough-minded assessment purposes. By such means not only can we discover which are indeed the better governed places in the Middle East but we can also discern which sections of a national governmental apparatus are doing well and which need improvement. On which parts of the nation’s government, in other words, should most attention and scarce funding – either from inside or from outside — be focused?

            In order to undertake such an examination thoroughly and carefully, the five categories of political good already discussed must be further refined so that governance can properly be measured.  To do so we can break down the five major categories of political goods into fifty-seven sub-categories or variables, twenty-two under Human Development (the fifth political good), five under Safety and Security (the first), and so on.[4] Another crucial methodological breakthrough, already demonstrated by the three published annual additions of Strengthening Governance: the Index of African Governance, Results and Indicators, is to measure governance attainments objectively rather than subjectively. That is, it is critical to avoid amassing quantitative scores that are derived from opinions (the Freedom House, World Bank, and Transparency International method) even if those persons rendering opinions and passing judgment are experts or other close observers of a national or local scene. The danger of selection bias is palpable and to be avoided.  Outputs, not inputs, matter – another key consideration. That is, in evaluating a national or local medical system, a country’s health budget matters far less than how that money has been used (or siphoned off) to improve health results. Good ministerial attitudes and fine words matter far less than results. No amount of jawboning can obscure a lack of discernible outcomes.

For the most part, as proxies for several of the otherwise hard to measure five major components of governance, it is possible to employ for outcomes in the health arena such internationally standard variables as life expectancy and maternal mortality rates. To help calibrate Sustainable Economic Opportunity it is possible to calculate, say, a nation’s kilometres of paved roads and its GINI coefficient standing (an indication of equality). For Safety we can count homicides, or other heinous crimes. For Security we can rank order the number each year of casualties in civil warfare. Most of these data are assembled internationally by such estimable establishments as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Development Program (UNDP), and the UN International Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Yet, because nearly all of these resultant numbers ultimately are derived from national statistical offices, and because many of those offices are underfunded and understaffed, the development of reliable data is sometimes compromised. For that reason, it is better to validate the internationally-collected quantitative sources by verifying international statistics locally.  (It may even be essential to gather such statistics in national capitals when international organizations are still using long-outdated numbers or when national statistical offices are understaffed and underfunded.)

            The result of this arduous and exacting process permits the assessment of the state of governance within the Middle East, country by country, and not against arbitrary global standards.[5] (The same could and should be done for all countries on all continents.) Countries can be scored on each of the fifty-seven variables, and across several years for each variable. For example, within the Sustainable Economic Opportunity category, countries are rated not only on the basis of their annual GDP per capita attainments, but on their levels of inflation, the extent to which their inhabitants were equal or unequal in wealth (the GINI coefficient), the integrity of their banking systems (“contract intensive money”), and the length and availability of robust arteries of commerce – such as mobile telephones, roads, and rails.

            Already the examination of all of these components of governance, proxies though many purposefully are, has permitted the painting of a full portrait of the countries of Africa in the pioneering Index of African Governance. Thanks to the successive iterations of that Index, as well as from ratings supplied by the World Bank and individual non-governmental organizations, we now know with some significant precision how well and how poorly each part of the African sub-continent (including such North African and, for this chapter Middle Eastern, countries as the Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) is governed. We also know which aspects of governance in each country need urgent attention and which are in lesser need of remedial action.  Further, through this diagnostic capability we can gather a precise list of a region’s outstanding governance issues. With them in hand, the political leaders, dissident factions, corporate moguls, donor agencies, and civil societies can at the very least come to appreciate what they must do to strengthen their individual national governances.

Governance, and its careful measurement using objective criteria and a focus on inputs provides the essential tools with which first to assess and then, second to improve the  performance of governments in the Middle East collectively. Doing so will also assist the nations of the Greater Middle East as they individually confront the next decades’ four consummate challenges: whether Sunni elites can continue effectively to govern Shia majorities; whether the toppled autocracies (Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen) can become functioning democracies and/or countries with a growing aptitude for good governance; whether the Failed states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, the Sudan, and Iraq can slowly better their governance sufficiently to enter the ranks of  weakness; and whether the monarchies, especially the least populated ones, can deliver more and more essential political goods to their inhabitants and in that way become better governed.

Other Methods

            The Index of African Governance methodology (and its concomitant applicability to other geographical regions) is hardly the only governance assessment scheme. Much older and very highly regarded are those developed by Freedom House (Freedom in the World) and the World Bank (Worldwide Governance Indicators).  Freedom in the World annually declares almost every global polity (a total of 195) free, partly free, or not free. It does so by enlisting the opinions of experts who rate the countries with which each is familiar according to a variety of relevant criteria. But the scoring and the ultimate results are inherently subjective, with abundant opportunities for selection bias.[6]

            Likewise, Worldwide Governance Indicators is also subjective, based on a compilation of forty or more relevant, but still opinion-based, surveys and other indices. Selection bias possibilities are multiplied.  Its six categories of analysis are: Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and Lack of Violence, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, and Control of Corruption. Based on the perceptions of an array of a disparate mélange of respondents, the Indicators are derived from cross-country largely anecdotal  assessments of governance. The views of businesses, public officials, NGOs, aid donors, and individuals are thereby captured, albeit sometimes arbitrarily and randomly.[7]

Another 102 or so indexes ranging from the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index contribute in a variety of ways to the full understanding of “governance,” especially in the developing world.  The very well-regarded Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International provides a gold standard in its field.  But it, and nearly all of the others, is based on subjective assessments, either expert or not. Selection bias is inherent in each.[8]

            Because the Index of African Governance and any similarly to-be-constructed index for the Middle East employs and would employ  objective  (not subjective)  methods and numbers, and because such an index would be comprehensive in its coverage and approach, it  has an undeniable heuristic advantage over the older, better known, and many of the newer measurement schemes.  It would also be free from the taint of selection bias.  By emphasizing outputs rather than inputs, it would also focus on telling results rather than budgetary expenditures (which usually prove meaningless).

 State Failure and State Weakness

            A full elaboration of the notion of governance permits states in the world and states in the Greater Middle East to be assigned, using quantitative criteria, to one of the four categories of state capability, as outlined in a number of my own publications and summarized recently in the Failed States entry in both The Oxford Companion to Comparative Politics and   The Oxford Companion to International Relations. As explained there, Strong states rank highly using governance scores, Weak states come next, Failed states exhibit low numbers, and Collapsed states show ratings at the very bottom of all measurements of governance.[9]  This is a tighter and more quantitatively-driven method of determining state weakness and state failure than that contained in the annual Foreign Policy and Fund for Peace Failed States Index.

          According to the tested criteria, Strong states are those which deliver a broad range of high-quality political goods and show up well on all of the standard indices of economic, political, and social performance.[10] All Strong states are secure and comparatively safe (South Africa being an exception because of high rates of crime). Weak states, however, may be inherently weak for structural reasons or fundamentally strong but situationally or temporarily compromised. Weakness, moreover, need not be derived from weakness, but rather from performance or delivery inadequacies that are quantifiable. They are rarely artifacts of exogenous variables. Often such Weak states display ethnic or other inter-communal tensions that are incipient rather than already overtly violent.  Weak states are often viable, often unstable, and, at the lower edge of the category, capable of sliding into failure.

 Some very Weak states, the dictatorships, appear strong. They mask their weaknesses through systematic repression and therefore display a fake strength.  In 2013 those special states included North Korea; Turkmenistan; Iran; the monarchical states of the Gulf; Equatorial Guinea; Uzbekistan; and Belarus. Before 2011 this category also encompassed Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was another such autocracy that managed by terror to control dissent and provide security of borders, project power throughout its territory, curtail insurgency, and curb crime. These kinds of states, however, provide almost no effective political goods, and North Korea (and Cambodia earlier) has savaged and starved its own people. When the glue of security within these mock states dissolves as their legitimacy falters, so they regularly fail, just as Saddam’s Iraq did after the United States invasion of 2003.

             Most Weak states – and the globe at any one time contains about seventy Weak states – are badly led and poorly governed. Even the Weak nominal democracies may be run by tyrants, as in Egypt before the tumult of 2011. Thus, such states have a diminished ability (not a diminished capacity) to supply some or many of the basic political goods, and they signally often honor rule of law in the breach. Such Weak states show declining economic and social attainments; their physical infrastructures betray neglect. Weakness in such states may persist for decades. Or, precipitated by the misadventure of rulers or unexpected natural disasters, an enduringly Weak state might plunge (as Lebanon has done periodically since its escape from failure in 1980) into overt internal conflict and a renewed teetering on the edge of failure.  Because so many of the Middle East’s states are “weak” (or “fragile” as some donor agencies prefer), because they underperform, because they frequently disappoint their citizens or, at worst, foster ethnic or linguistic-derived discrimination, the Middle East region’s several Weak states (including a handful of monarchies) not infrequently lie at the cusp of failure, and conflict.[11]

           The final descent into outright failure comes when a nation-state loses legitimacy – when it forfeits the “mandate of heaven.” When citizens finally realize that their rulers are running the state as a criminal enterprise for themselves as the sole beneficiaries – when citizens become persuaded that the state no longer cares for or about the fate of most of its inhabitants – then nearly everyone appreciates that the social contract binding rulers to ruled, and vice versa, has been sundered irreparably. At this point citizens frequently transfer allegiances to non-state actors, and resort to arms, as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

            The Failed states of the world are those that are replete with insurgencies, civil unrest, and heady mixtures of discontent and dissent. Those kinds of states are incessantly violent, but it is not the absolute intensity of violence that identifies a Failed state. Rather, it is the enduring character of that violence and the crescendos of antagonism that are directed ceaselessly at the regime in power that identify the Failed state. These civil wars are rooted in religious, ethnic, linguistic, or other intercommunal enmities, but are almost always propelled, as in Afghanistan, Syria, the Sudan, and Yemen, by power and avarice, by discrimination and resentment, and somewhat by ideology. Pools of petroleum, mineral, or similar easy wealth opportunities entice poor scramblers and rich entrepreneurs alike, with the latter almost always unrelenting in their quest for zero-sum gains. Crowds in cities within Failed states may riot against the state, but civil war itself is pursued by purposeful non-state entities anxious to gain advantage (or to equal another’s advantage) and ensure access to wealth.

                Failed states victimize their own citizens. Rulers (whoever wields the power of a big gun) oppress, extort, and control their own compatriots while privileging favored religious, ethnic, or linguistic cohorts. Failed states rarely can exert themselves beyond capital cities. They cannot readily control their own hinterlands and usually dispute effective suzerainty over whole regions (as in the Yemen, in Syria, and in the Sudan’s Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains provinces and states).

        Maximum leaders and their close cohorts in Failed states subvert democratic norms, restrict participatory processes, coerce civil society, and override such institutional checks and balances as may theoretically exist. They curtail whatever is left of judicial independence, harass remaining media, and suborn or co-opt security forces. Rulers show more and more contempt for their own nationals and surround themselves with family, lineage, or ethnic allies, as in Syria. Many of these arrogant leaders grandly drive down national boulevards in massive motorcades, commandeer national commercial aircraft for foreign excursions, and put their faces prominently on the local currencies. In private and in public they persuade themselves that the state and the riches of the state are theirs personally to dispose. They frequently attack their own citizens lethally, lashing out at protests and protestors.

            In Failed states inflation grows, rampant corruption flourishes, and economic growth shrinks. Social services wither. Officials loot what remains of state supplies. Consumer goods grow scarce. Sometimes, as in North Korea or Cambodia, and in 2012 and 2013 in Syria, segments of the population are deprived of food and go hungry or starve. Criminal violence increases. Lawlessness spreads beyond the cities. Criminality and criminal gangs proliferate. Arms trafficking and narcotics trafficking become common.  For protection, citizens naturally realize that the state can no longer offer them security and safety, or even social services. So they turn for succor to incipient warlords. When civil protest accomplishes little, open combat follows, as in at least six of the states of the Greater Middle East.

          Weak states exhibit flawed communication and transportation infrastructures. In the states that Fail, such as Afghanistan, these inconvenient blemishes and hindrances become catastrophes, with paved roads turning into tracks and highways becoming ribbons of potholes. Outages overtake the reliable supply of electric power. Educational and health systems become dysfunctional because of shortages of cash and foreign exchange. Teachers stop teaching and children eventually stop coming to class. Literacy rates fall. Simultaneously, hospitals run short of medicines and bandages, even sutures. Infant mortality numbers soar and life expectancies plummet from the 60s to the 40s, as they have in the Failed states of the Greater Middle East. Eventually, citizens, especially rural inhabitants, realize that the distant central government has abandoned them to the capricious and harsh forces of nature. To survive, they must align themselves with winners against losers, with non-state actors and other warlords against what is left of the state (and any international support that the Failed state can muster).

           As states Fail, as the downward spiral accelerates, only a concerted, determined effort can slow its momentum. Corrupt autocrats and their equally corrupt associates usually have few incentives to arrest their state’s slide. They themselves discover clever ways to benefit from their state’s impoverishment and misery; the ruling elements are not the ones to suffer as state services rapidly decay and shooting begins — the Iraqi experience. As foreign aid and domestic investment dries up, jobs vanish, and per capita incomes fall, leaders and their venal associates profit from food and fuel shortages, from arbitraging foreign exchange, from skimming state treasuries and from drugs running. They also send money illicitly out of their country into secret hiding places.

Most of all, Failed states are fully violent. By definition, there are no Failed states that do not harbor civil wars, intense conflict, and more than twenty-five combat deaths a year. In other words, a state may supply hardly any political goods and may prey upon its people – and therefore look Failed — but without the presence of a hot ongoing civil conflagration (as in the several civil wars in the Sudan, the myriad battle zones in Afghanistan, the several militant contests in Pakistan, and the al-Qaeda attacks on the state in Yemen, and in many others) a state cannot be considered fully Failed. In those near failures, the state is classified as “failing” and very weak, but not exactly Failed.  In other words, if a state is somehow holding together, especially being made secure by military force supplied by outsiders, like Bahrain, it is not yet Failed. When there are one or more hot insurgencies within the state, and when other criteria are met, we usually have a Failed state.

An extreme case of a failed state is a Collapsed state. That is, a state with borders but no single constituted government, no governance per se (because no government), many conflicts, and no physical safety, is a Collapsed polity. These statements describe Somalia (but not Somaliland) in 2013 and Sierra Leone, Liberia, Tajikistan, and Lebanon at various tumultuous periods in their recent histories. Just as all categories are fluid, however, with states emerging from Collapse and becoming Weak (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Tajikistan), or moving from Strong to Weak to Failure, as in the case of Cote d’Ivoire in the first decade of the twentieth century, states can move up the Collapse-Strong scale with effort and under good leadership once the key category of security is supplied externally by the United Nations, by individual patrons (Syrian troops in Lebanon in 1979, British paratroopers in Sierra Leone in 2001, France in Mali in 2013, and Russian soldiers in Tajikistan in 1996); or from regional forces (the African Union in the Comoros in 2008 or Ethiopian and later Kenyan troops in Somalia in 2012).[12]


Failure and Weakness in the Middle East

                    The Middle Eastern experience exemplifies what is known about the dynamics of failure and weakness in other regions, and in theory. In the Greater Middle East there are proportionally more Failed states than in other regions, many more potentially Failed states than elsewhere, a surprising number of Weak states that are vulnerable to slipping into deeper weakness or failure,  and comparatively few Strong state that do not carry within themselves the  incubus of decay and cataclysm.  The Greater Middle East, despite its great pools of wealth, in the still dangerous aftermath of the Arab spring is vulnerable to renewed tumult. Even the Strong monarchies are not risk free. Unless and until governance is enhanced in state after state, even the seemingly strongest of the rich states (and their lesser brethren) cannot assume that their thrones or their holds on power are secure.            

Failed States

           Afghanistan is a proto-typical Failed state. So is Yemen.  So is the Sudan.  Pakistan is either failing, that is on the very cusp of failure, or already failed.  Iraq was Failed as a result of the American invasion, and still remains largely Failed according to theory and reality. Syria is deep in the throes of cascading failure. No Greater Middle Eastern states are completely Collapsed, on the Somali model, but Afghanistan comes as close to that designation as any place on earth. 

           None of these Failed states is able to deliver essential political goods to their citizens. Obviously, the governments in question can hardly keep their peoples secure. None holds a monopoly of violence within its territory. None projects power much beyond a central capital city, if there. All are violent, with one or more separate insurgencies battling the state and/or another insurgency. Failed states, moreover, are ultimately too weak to enforce the edicts of their ruling regimes, to demand obedience to executive commands, or to prevent infiltrators from crossing national borders or insurgent groups from receiving assistance illicitly from neighboring states or international terrorist franchises.  Further, within such Failed states, life is short and brutish. Educational opportunity and medical assistance are scarce. Famine and food scarcities are nearby. So are declining standards of living generally, and such necessities as potable water, electric power, paved roads, and mobile telephone towers.

            The Yemeni case conforms very much to the failed state model. “Beyond the capital, the country is more rudderless than ever.” The prime political good of security is wholly absent, as are the rudiments of safety. In the nation’s south, the territory of the old colonial Aden Protectorate, a local independence movement has once again become active and prominent. It threatens forcibly to secede from greater Yemen. In the north, sectarian tensions between the Shia Houthi and mainstream Sunni Yemeni are still seething. The Houthi may be receiving assistance from Iran, and seem to be modeling their insurgency on Hezbollah in Lebanon. Battles between Houthi militants and Islah, a Yemeni Sunni political party supported by Saudi Arabia and aligned with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, occur frequently.

            “I have never felt the anxiety I feel now,” said a leading Sana political analyst and former newspaper editor.  Assassinations are frequent. Al-Qaeda elements control numerous “no-go” areas in the interior and have infiltrated into several cities and many towns.  “The economy is in shambles.”[13] And, local observers report, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi hardly leads a state that was for many years ruled by Ali Abdullah Saleh, a manipulative autocrat, and now lacks vision, direction, and political insight.

 Strong States

           The Strong states in the Greater Middle East are those ones where governments (whether monarchical, clerically absolutist, or nominally democratic) are providing sufficient quantities and satisfactory qualities of political goods. If their states are secure and safe, if there is at least security of contract and other aspects of the rule of law, if there is an inkling of “voice,” if per capita GDP and other indicators of prosperity are robust, and if educational opportunity and medical accessibility is positive, then the state will rank among the sixty or seventy global Strong states.

            But in some important cases “strength” may be a misnomer.  States that are very secure may also simultaneously be “hollow” states if they oppress their citizens – if the state’s security is a mere cosmetic visage – and if they provide a high order of political goods only for privileged elites —  a minority of the citizens of the state.  These states may appear outwardly strong, and their citizens may conform. But if the political goods received by the majority of a state’s citizens (as in the emirates of the Arabian Gulf, Morocco, and Jordan) are inferior or perceived to be inferior, and if there is no real voice for most inhabitants  — if the majority feels marginalized – a state’s security may be but a façade. Within the fabric of such “hollow” Strong states there may be long-repressed groups anxious to participate in decisions and results more fully, or to seek redress against the overweening state.

             Dictatorships often wear a mask of strength. Systematic repression gives them a fake strength, as in Iran and the Sudan; Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Tunisia before the 2011 protest movements; Iraq under Saddam; When the glue of security within such mock states dissolves as their individual legitimacies falter, so such pretend states Fail.

              Many of the monarchies seem strong. They deliver security and safety, even if in heavy- handed ways. They provide educational opportunities, if mostly for males and mostly for children of the dominant and privileged classes.  The application of the rule of law may also be limited to certain classes. And transparency and respect for basic human rights may be honored mostly in the breach. 

            Even the most benevolent monarchies, many seemingly impregnable in their strength, cannot genuinely transfer power to their people. Some, such as Qatar, provide well for their people and their immigrant work forces. Wealth, in such cases, does indeed trickle down. But how that wealth is used, how the state determines all manner of priorities, and how Qataris are treated and how their workers are regarded becomes less matters of discussion than issues opened or foreclosed by the whims of rulers. The 2012 jailing of a renowned poet for mocking the emir could hardly inspire confidence.

             Some of the other monarchies in the Middle East are less wealthy and/or less assertively benevolent than Qatar.  Kuwait and Jordan have traded a modicum of voice for material well-being. Kuwait has a rowdy parliament and a noisy press, but its riot police routinely batter protestors and evade the rule of law. In Jordan, younger people and West Bankers press King Abdullah II and the old Jordanian elites for greater dollops of parliamentary democracy. Morocco is trying to open up the political spectrum and provide a kind of paternal participation.  But in each of these cases a country’s “strength” rests on dangerously shifting terrain. In them governance is effectively embryonic and subject to the capricious whims of a non-elected leader. Monarchy is inherently precarious.

          Indeed, no less an authority than King Abdullah believes that the era of Arab monarchies is passing. “Where are the monarchies in 50 years?” he asks.  The public, he asserts, “will no longer tolerate displays of excess or corruption.”  His own family hardly “gets it.” “Im always having to stop members of my family from putting lights on their guard cars,” he gave as one example.  Royal families are going to expendable, he hinted.  “That is the reality of the Arab Spring that hit me.”  Additionally, says Abdullah, his monarchical responsibility in the immediate future is to lead a transition to democracy in the Middle East that excludes giving power to Islamists.[14]

           Polities such as autocratic Oman, a polity with numerous political prisoners, pardoned by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said only after manhy months of incarceration; Qatar; the United Arab Emirates – where emir mocking and advocating political system change are illegal; Morocco; and Saudi Arabia, where public demonstrations are banned and there are internal battles going on between the arch-conservatives and the very mild reformers; outwardly exhibit a kind of strength.[15]  Algeria’s military rule provides its own form of security. But so did Iraq under Sadaam Hussein and Syria under the Assads demonstrate that level of high security, repression, and surveillance before the internal implosion occurred.

        The majority of the states of the Greater Middle East are Weak. Iran’s currents of unrest run strongly, despite the firm hands of the clerics and the Islamic police.  In Bahrain, a Sunni monarchical family retains control by force, with Saudi assistance. It dispenses a large measure of  “cruel justice.”[16] Lebanon, with Syria collapsing to its north and east and Hezbollah dominating parts of the states, clearly remains quintessentially Weak despite a democratic façade. It is fractured and too unsafe. Its government can hardly project power anywhere.  Jordan is an additional very Weak state despite a democratic façade and the careful balancing act performed daily by its king.

        Egypt is Weak, insecure, unsafe, with little ability to deliver essential political goods. Libya is Weak, potentially sliding into failure as warlords everywhere try to chisel their own sectional power from the whole.  Tunisia, when it establishes an effective Muslim rule, may teeter on the edge of Strength. Meanwhile, groping forward, it is Weak.                                               

            What characterizes all of these Weak states in the Greater Middle East?   (Globally there are eighty or ninety Weak states at any point in time.)  Weak states in the Middle East and elsewhere provide many, but not nearly all, of the important political goods on which citizens normally depend.  The quality of those goods likewise is deteriorating or has long ago deteriorated. Once again, the state may have begun to demonstrate an inability to protect its citizens or to exert itself hegemonically outside of its capital city.

              A one-time wealthy Weak state such as Iran, subject to crippling European and American sanctions in 2012 and 2013, remains on one of the lowest levels of “weakness” since its ability to obtain the foreign exchange with which to make imported goods available to its citizens has vanished, inflation is soaring, and its long-time oil-based prosperity seems to be threatened.  It is a state, too, with little in the way of governance attainments.

              Other Weak states may be weak because they have not managed to emerge from the battles of the Arab spring and summer with consolidated states (the Libyan case) or politically well-organized states (Tunisia, Egypt, the Yemen). The latter in 2013 were as yet incapable of supplying many essential political goods.   Safety and security were elusive, rule of law was fragmentary, participation and voice were mostly absent, economic opportunity was weakened by turmoil, and human development remained at best unsatisfactory.  Until these states and the other Weak states of the contemporary Greater Middle East manage to deliver more and better political goods, especially the essential ones, much of the region will remain fragile, volatile, and only marginally productive. Their peoples will suffer from falling health, educational, and economic indicators until weaknesses are alleviated and these Weak states begin again to deliver the services and political goods that their inhabitants desire.

The Nature of the State in the Contemporary Greater Middle East

               The modern nation-state barely exists in the Greater Middle East. That is, most of the polities in the region are mere states with abundant, unrealized national aspirations. Their inhabitants in large part are subjects of a regime or a government without having been integrated into a nation. Their identifications and alliances for the most part are religious, ethnic, or sub-regional. Ruling classes are separated and distinct in many cases from the masses of citizenry. Some of the latter have fewer rights than those who adhere to the dominant form of religious expression, speak a favored language, come from a preferred geographical area, or have made alliances with those persons or groups currently in power.  Geographical expression after geographical expression in the Greater Middle East has assumed the form of a state, sometimes artificially as in the cases of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. But nations they are not yet.

             Iran, Oman, Tunisia, and Morocco may be the only exceptions to this generalization. Libya was held together by King Idris and Muammar al-Qaddafi, but never turned into a nation except by fiat. Now Cyrenaica wants to go its own way. So does Tripolitania. And other sections and sub-regions compete for portions of oil riches and for autonomy. The Sudan, too, has its several divisions, from Nubia to Darfur, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile, the Beja areas, and beyond. Egypt has its Copts, its Bedouin, and now its Islamists and non-Islamists.  Lebanon is Sunni and Shia, secular and Hezbollah. Algeria has Islamists and non-Islamists, a coastally-based, Arabic-speaking ruling elite, and those in the interior who are Berber-speaking.  Iraq has serious religious and ethnic fault lines, as do Afghanistan (with antagonism between Hazara and the rest, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and so on, and Pakistan, separated as it is into Punjabis, Baluchis, and frontiersmen.

              The monarchies are not yet nations, even embryonically.  They rule over (not for or with) their subject peoples, most of whom need not even be Arab-speaking or from the region. Bahrain, an extreme case, has a Shia majority attempting to assert itself (or at least sue for rights) against the ruling Sunni monarchy.

The Rocky Road Ahead

              In terms of governance, the lives and livelihoods of the majority of the peoples of the can only get better. For many decades a collection of Middle Eastern autocracies pretending to be democracies provided stability through repression and injustice. Then civil protest crumbled those states, leaving few effective political institutions and regimes too weak and too incapable of maintaining the service delivery level of their predecessors.

                 Now, heading into 2014, the mutual task of the new leaders of the weak states and the old or inherited leaders of the strong states is to perform more fully in order to satisfy the aspirations of the majority of their citizens. That is, such leaders will need to deliver the quantities and qualities of political goods that their peoples crave, and expect from a modern state (even non-nations).  Otherwise, the Weak states of the Greater Middle East will remain weak, and the Strong states and monarchies will continue susceptible to bouts of weakness, even failure.

                    For the Failed states of the region, the struggle of the next few years and decades is about how to reduce and end violence so that the first and most important political good, security, can be introduced into, and reform the body politic of those states that exhibit the incubus of failure. Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Sudan, Syria and so on cannot progress until the germ of the security is re-established. Then, and only then, can such states advance from failure to weakness and, eventually, to strength. 



[1] See Robert I. Rotberg, “Governance Trumps Democracy: Examining the African Experience,” in Michael Boss, Jurgen Moller, and  Svend-Erik Skaaning  (eds.),  Developing Democracies: Democracy, Democratization, and Development (Aarhus, Aarhus University Press, 2013),  98-115.

[2] This chapter’s discussion of governance draws heavily on Rotberg, “Strengthening African Governance  : Ranking Countries Would Help, Washington Quarterly, XXIV (2004), 71-81; Rotberg, “Improving Governance in the World: Creating a Measuring and Ranking System,” in Rotberg and Deborah L.West, The Good Governance Problem: Doing Something About It (Cambridge, MA 2004), 3-30; Rotberg, “On Improving Nation-State Governance,” Daedalus,  CXXXVI  ( 2007),  151-155;  “The Meaning of Governance: Ranking Africa,” in Rotberg and Rachel M. Gisselquist, Strengthening African Governance: Index of African Governance, Results and Rankings 2009 (Cambridge, MA 2009), 7.

[3] This and succeeding paragraphs draw on Rotberg, “Good and Bad Governance,” in Rotberg, Governance and Leadership in Africa (Philadelphia, 2007), 21-24.

[4] For details, see the published or web versions of Rotberg and Rachel M. Gisselquist, Strengthening African Governance: Index of African Governance (Cambridge, MA, 2007, 2008, 2009).  The Index continued since 2010 and is now compiled by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, under his name.  But the original methodology is largely being followed and much of the data contained in recent issues of the Index can be compared against earlier iterations.

[5] This sentence proposes a formal Middle East Index of Governance along the lines pioneered by the author for Africa (Egypt and the Maghreb countries included). Earlier research carried out by the author at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government showed that doing so was feasible, indeed easier than for Africa.


7] See Aart Kray, Daniel Kaufmann, and Massimo Mastruzzi, “The Worldwide Governance Indicators: Methodology and Analytical Issues, http://www.brookings,edu/research/reports, 24 Sept. 2010

[8]  A North-South Institute ongoing research project seeks to compare an analyze all of these numerous indexes that pertain to or reflect the measurement of governance.

[9]  Rotberg, “Failed States,” in Joel Krieger (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Comparative Politics (New York, 2013),  I, 383-389.  See also Rotberg, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: Breakdown, Prevention, and Repair,” in Rotberg (ed.), When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton, 2004), 1-45.


[10] The strong nation-states are those that rank highest in the democracy rankings of Freedom House, the human rights reports of the U. S. State Department, the anti-corruption perception indices of Transparency International, the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program, the competitiveness indices of the World Economic Forum, and the Doing Business surveys of the World Bank—the Finlands, New Zealands, and Singapores of the world, plus Canada, the United States, and large portions of Europe.

[11] Several of these paragraphs draw upon the arguments advanced in Rotberg, “State Failure and States Poised to Fail: South Asia and Developing Nations,” in T. V. Paul (ed.), South Asia’s Weak States: Understanding the Regional Insecurity Predicament (Stanford, 2010), 31-50.

[12]  See  “Failed States,” in Krieger, Oxford Companion, 384

[13] Sami Ghalib, quoted in Robert F. Worth, “Yemen, Hailed as Model, Struggles for Stability,” New York Times,  Feb. 19, 2013

[14] Excerpts from an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, published in full in the March 2013 Atlantic  Monthly  and reported in David D. Kirkpatrick, “Jordan’s King Find Fault with Everyone Concerned,” New York Times, March 19, 2013. The quotations are from the New York Times’ version.

[15] Freedom House ranks Saudi Arabia (along with North Korea and Equatorial Guinea) as one of the globe’s least free nations.

[16] “A Mirage of Rights,” Economist, 19 Jan. 2013



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