(Dis)Integration and the Emergence of the State System in the Middle East

Written by DR. IMAD EL-ANIS

Monday, 17 October 2011 06:52

  • Introduction

Studies of the international relations of the Middle East have been dominated by discussions of inter-state relations and conflicts.[1] The dominant state- and conflict-centric approaches used to study this region largely ignore the impact of regional structures and non-state actors.[2] Furthermore, much existing literature tends to view the region’s international relations in a relatively short time-frame. This usually entails exploring the region’s history since World War One. Again, this is problematic as it results in the exclusion of an analysis of the transformation of the regional system since the mid-19th century. The main argument of this paper is manifested in two parts. The first is that the proliferation of states in the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the occupation of much of the region by the British and French following World War One led to the disintegration of intra-regional relations.[3] That is to say that, relations between people in the Middle East were relatively integrated under the imperial system in the sense that there were fewer borders and boundaries (both physical and imagined) between them.[4] This was a result of the lack of state borders within the region – these were few in number and left large swathes of territory as part of the same political entity and economic market. Introducing modern states as a way of organising people into political entities resulted in the creation of many political borders and many claims to sovereignty over territories which often were relatively small in scope. The second element of this paper’s argument is that the post-World War One disintegration of the Middle East system disrupted economic as well as political activity within the region, ultimately resulting in more instability in intra-regional relations.

middle_eastEssential to this study is the belief in the value of historical analysis as well as the adoption of the tools of historical sociology in the study of international relations.[5] Understanding and explaining the relations of the Middle East requires us to view the history of the region not as cyclical or full of patterns of behaviour. There is more value in viewing the region’s history as containing multiple layers of progression/movement from one condition to another – unevenly experienced at different times and in different spaces for the inhabitants of the region. It is certainly the position of this paper that searching for patterns of behaviour with regards to this region at least prevents the development of an eclectic framework of analysis which can take into account the diversity of experiences of the people in the region.

In order to develop an analysis of the systemic transformation which took place in the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries this study addresses three core research questions. The first considers what the experiences of people living in the Middle East were like under the previous system in terms of level of interaction and integration through the movement of people, goods, capital, services and ideas. The second area of investigation focuses on what these experiences have been like following the emergence of the modern state system. A final question to address is how these changes have affected economic integration, stability and the potential for cooperation between people in the region. This latter question draws upon the analytical assumptions outlined as part of a theory of systemic transformation and integration/interdependence theory which follow in the pages below. It is true that these questions are quite ambitious and it is not possible to fully answer them in just one study and the use of case study analysis from part of the Middle East is used here as an initial analysis.

  • Conceptualising the Middle East System

It can be claimed that systemic structures determine, to a significant extent, international relations within any given regional system: through shaping the interests, capabilities and patterns of behaviour of the actors in that system.[6] This is a bold claim about the relationship between structure and agency and is based on existing literature within this debate.[7] This paper does not, however, seek to engage fully with the structure-agency debate. Nevertheless, for the clarity of this analysis this core assumption must be outlined to some extent and so elements of this debate will be reflected on at various stages in the following pages. With regards to the Middle East, the system under consideration here includes both state and non-state actors. Primary in most analyses of the region are the state actors – the governments, military forces, intelligence services and other security services – and the international in the international relationsdenotes relations which cross territorial borders between these state actors.[8] However, a pluralistic approach to studying the international relations of the region is required. The modern state as actor in the Middle East is a relatively new form of actor and one which has been, for the most part, externally transplanted onto the region as opposed to one which has internally evolved and emerged.[9] Furthermore, historically, non-state actors, including influential individuals and economic actors, have been important in shaping relations at the local and regional level.[10]

There is a clear distinction between the contemporary system and previous systems which existed in the Middle East, with the latter all tending to share key characteristics. The contemporary Middle East system is a state-system with a significant number of intra-regional borders, boundaries and claims to sovereignty.[11] Previous systems, including the one which immediately preceded the state-system and which spanned from the 15th to early 20th centuries, were characterised by (intra-regional) empire.[12] These systems were characterised by few internal borders, boundaries and claims to sovereignty. This observation is important when considering the argument that borders, boundaries, claims to sovereignty and multiple ‘ways’ of organising people into groups help to determine international relations. Any given region with many of these will likely be less stable, internally, than one which contains few,[13] or which is highly integrated through institutions, for example, the EU. There is a correlation between levels of integration between states/markets and the stability of the relations between them.[14] Greater levels of economic interaction between people in any given system tends to lead to greater interdependence between them.[15] This economic interdependence encourages peaceful coexistence and helps to reduce conflict by increasing the profits derived through peaceful interaction while at the same time increasing the costs of conflict.[16] Power in international and domestic relations is primarily economic in nature and therefore competition between actors occurs largely in the economic sphere. Where there is a high level of economic interdependence and economic cooperation, competition between actors will be limited.[17] On the other hand, in a disintegrated system where interaction is limited and where levels of economic interdependence are low, cooperation between actors (state, or non-state) is likely to be hindered.[18]

This paper does not discuss inter-regional relations here as it is concerned exclusively with an analysis which considers intra-regional relations. This is not to suggest that processes of globalisation, interdependence and interaction cease at some imagined regional boundary. These processes and their existence in a global system are acknowledged. Rather, the focus here is on patterns of international relations within the Middle East and between Middle Eastern actors before and after the state-system was formed there in order to explore how this change may have affected the direction of intra-regional relations. It is true that placing the emphasis on a Middle East-centric approach risks simply replacing one dominant perspective (the western-centric approach found within much International Relations and Middle East Studies literature) with another. However, little literature exists on the impacts of the systemic transformation which took place in the Middle East prior to and following World War One and even fewer studies have been approached with the people of the Middle East and their experiences as the focus.

The key thesis of this analysis is that a systemic transformation occurred in the Middle East through the 19thand 20th centuries and reached its apex around one hundred years ago. This transformation regarded the region-wide patterns of organising the people of the region into groups and rests on the fundamental assumption that how people are organised and what groups they are organised into are key determinants of the relations which take place between them and others. In other words, any given set of people may behave towards each other in one manner at one time, but if they are organised differently and theirgroups are altered they will interact quite differently – even if this change takes place over a short period of time. It is essential to this analysis that the relations which are discussed are not simply those which are classed as international. Instead we must consider the relations as inter-human relations – as in not seeing people as belonging simply to one state or another and therefore being defined simply as elements of that state, but as people first and foremost. In the case of the transformation of the Middle East system this is of great importance due to the rapid changes in citizenship which took place during the period of transformation. Over a very short period of time individuals in the region changed from being a citizen of one state, say the Ottoman Empire, to an entirely different (and almost exclusively new) one[19], such as Jordan, Syria or Kuwait. When considering relations in this way and not simply discussing internationalrelations we can gain a better understanding of how the changes which took place altered intra-regional relations. In a literal (and state-centric[20]) translation of the term international relations we would simply be discussing the inter-state/inter-empire relations of the Ottoman Empire and the Qajar-led Persian Empire, for example, and then the multiple inter-state relations which emerged after World War One as new states were created (or imagined). We would thus be ignoring the relations between people in the form of non-state actors in those empires when they did not interact directly with people or non-state actors in the other empire(s). For example, it is useful for us to consider how people from Salt (in contemporary Jordan) and those in Nablus (in the West Bank of contemporary Palestine) interacted when they were part of the Ottoman Empire and then following the systemic transformation which left them in different states and with a new border between them. It is to this discussion that this paper now turns.


Published in Journal of Global Analysis (JGA) Vol. 2  No. 2

Imad El-Anis is a Lecturer in International Relations with teaching responsibilities on the BA (Hons) International Relations and Global Politics undergraduate degree and International Relations modules for Year One, Two and Three.


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