For decades, interstate and intrastate conflicts have been an enduring and poignant characteristic of life in the Middle East and North Africa. Active and dormant wars and disputes dot the stretch of the Arab region, from the Western Sahara on the Atlantic Ocean, to the plains of Syria and Iraq on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and to the far reaches of Yemen’s Bab al-Mandab and the coasts of the Horn of Africa. Millions of combatants and innocent civilians have risked—and lost—life and limb. Massive tracts of land and entire countries have been destroyed in the pursuit of asserting control, maintaining occupation and authoritarianism, defending against nascent insurgencies, fighting non-state actors, and addressing myriad other forms of violence.
The Arab world’s wars and disputes have become more intense since the Second World War and the dramatic and successful liberation from colonial rule, some of which was achieved through armed struggle. The wars arguably became more complicated and now involve active as well as passive participants, domestic and foreign. Political scientists, security experts, military and strategic thinkers, policy-makers, and others have composed various typologies of these wars: civil; inter-, intra-, and extra-state; low intensity; asymmetrical; insurgent, counterterrorist, or separatist; and ethnic and sectarian, among others. All have had devastating effects on Arab society and have been the main contributors to poverty, underdevelopment, illiteracy, inequality, poor education and health, and many other serious socioeconomic problems.
To be sure, over the last seven decades, only a handful of Arab countries escaped the scourge of civil wars. Most devastating, and to differing degrees, were those in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990; Yemen in the 1960s, the 1990s, and since 2004; Sudan between the 1980s and 2011; Somalia since the 1980s; and Syria since 2011, with tragic political, social, and economic consequences. In addition to the human and humanitarian costs, some had geostrategic ramifications. For example, the Sudanese war eventuated in the breakaway of the country’s south and the creation of a new African nation, South Sudan, while the Somali war helped lay the groundwork for dismembering the federal state and the semi-independence of Somaliland and Puntland.
Many Arab countries have also experienced interstate wars such as the many rounds of fighting between Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, on the one hand, with Israel, since its establishment, on the other. Those wars led to the loss of the rest of Palestine and Arab lands to Israeli occupation. Iraq in the 1980s fought a war with Iran that helped destroy both countries’ economies. Iraq also invaded Kuwait in 1990 and only left after an international coalition coalesced to liberate the tiny emirate. Iraq was subjected to a sanctions blockade in the 1990s and then again to an American-led invasion in 2003 that spawned different forms of instability and a number of extremist organizations. These cross-border wars resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Arabs and others in the region and the destruction of property and infrastructure of states and societies.
The Arab world also underwent low-intensity warfare between politicized ethnic communities seeking recognition of their rights, while central governments sought to assert both their exclusive Weberian right to a monopoly on the use of violence and their Westphalian tradition of preserving their nation-states. A clear example is the decades-old struggle between Iraq’s Kurds and the central government in Baghdad. That conflict eventually resulted in the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq that, despite operating within the country’s territory and drawing a sizeable proportion of its budget from the federal government, has the potential––if local, regional, and international conditions allow––to inaugurate its full independence from the center. Ethnic and sectarian conditions also obtain in other countries such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco and these could potentially lead to the same scenario as that in Iraq.
Importantly, the Arab world has been beset by the establishment of the state of Israel in historic Palestine and the dispossession and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were made refugees in neighboring countries and around the world. They now number in the millions and a large number live in difficult conditions in inhospitable camps. Those who remained became second class citizens in Israel or lived under Jordanian and Egyptian control until 1967, when an interstate war resulted in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gaza Strip. At no time did the question of Palestine cease to be an underlying cause of conflict and instability in the Middle East because it affected all other elements of struggle in the surrounding countries. Today, the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflicts continue to be at the heart of developments in the Arab world and the Middle East.
Social, economic, political, and religious polarization as well as nefarious sectarianism have also wreaked havoc on Arab societies and states. Religious extremists possessing their own version of the ultimate truth have taken it upon themselves to rend their societies and expand to the international arena to spread their political and religious beliefs. Acts of violence, reciprocated by equally brutal state responses, were perpetrated against innocent groups and communities within individual polities. Other devastating attacks against targets around the world––specifically in the United States and Europe––elicited reprisals and gave ambiguous justification for counterterrorism policies that have contributed to social and political tensions in the Arab world and added to the instability besetting Arab societies.
These different manifestations of conflict and instability in the Arab world should not be seen as reflections of endogenous circumstances only. In fact, many of them have been affected by factors exogenous to the Arab world and have tended to originate from two general conditions. The first was related to the influence of the bifurcated international environment during the cold war, when some conflicts reflected alignments between some Arab states and one or the other of the two poles of international politics, the United States and the Soviet Union. The other less clearly delineated factor reflected—and continues to reflect—the global conditions after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1989, there have been conflicts in the Arab world that were and remain associated with ethnic and sectarian disputes, invasions, cross-border wars, and the so-called war on terror, all seeing interference by international actors such as the United States. To be sure, many of today’s active Arab conflicts––in Syria, Yemen, and Libya––and low-decibel, under-the-radar tensions in Arab societies are in good part influenced by outside actors in the form of counterterrorism efforts prescribed and perfected by American and other strategists.
This Book
The above brief, inchoate, and incomplete list and rendition of the state of conflict in the Arab world by no means suffices to explain the origins, causes, trajectory and development, or potential conclusion of strife in the region. Indeed, it only serves to raise awareness––if that is in fact needed––of the poignancy of conflict in the region and its impact on Arabs’ hopes, aspirations, and future attempts at joining the international community’s development goals. In the political science literature on democracy, some theorists have viewed the Arab world as “exceptional”; that is, it is unlike other regions in the developing world that have undergone waves of democratization and successful transitions from authoritarian rule. But this so-called exceptionalism theory––mistaken, shallow, and facile as it is––may not be so wrong when it is applied to the conflicts the Arab world has suffered for the last few decades. While there are some conflicts today, in Africa and Asia specifically, no other region is currently experiencing the wrenching instability that besets the Arab world.
This volume seeks to look at conflict in the Arab world from a different perspective than typologies of violence and geographical assignments. The essays argue that whatever its form, wherever it persisted, and however variegated its consequences, conflict was precipitated first and foremost by endogenous conditions for which the responsibility lies on the shoulders of Arab leaders, decision makers, and elites. They precipitated the environment that made conflict inevitable; in fact, they participated in perpetuating the circumstances that made it a defining characteristic of Arab societies. That many Arab leaders immortalized themselves in their positions of authority––many have served for decades as monarchs and presidents and refuse to allow the development of institutional mechanisms for good governance––is testament that the conditions for conflict could not be ameliorated. Their coteries of consultants, advisors, beneficiaries, and hangers-on have been happy to perpetuate such conditions—a measure of the leaders’ satisfaction with their service.
To be sure, for Arab leaders and their elite supporters, conflict was and remains a cynical tool for helping to maintain control. In addition, they see that conflict in general––whether internal or cross-border––occupies people and prevents them from demanding change from authoritarian rule. Authoritarian regimes have always used times of conflict as national emergencies during which the opposition is silenced and demands are rolled back as distractions. Authoritarian leaders can always count on the fact that a needy population is usually too busy just making ends meet. Indeed, perpetuating poverty and inequality in the Arab world may undergird an official policy whose aim is to stifle opposition and replace it with resigned acquiescence.
By avoiding the discussion of ongoing conflicts––civil wars, cross-border fighting, insurgencies, and the like––this book examines different aspects of the domestic causes for conflict in the Arab world and the prospects of its amelioration on two interrelated and interdependent pillars. The first is reforming the Arab state––its makeup and institutions and its position in society––and the second is affirming the importance of citizenship for Arab states’ inhabitants. In other words, the book seeks to evaluate the domestic conditions for the existence and perpetuation of conflicts and recommends strategies for mitigating them by highlighting the dual and dialectical relationship between the state, as the legal political entity, and the citizen, as the agent for legitimizing the state’s rule. Most importantly, this volume calls for strengthening the Arab peoples’ agency in helping not only to lessen the causes giving rise to conflict in their lives but to participate in building the states that work to prevent conflict from afflicting their societies in the first place.
Section I: Addressing Causes of Conflict
Four contributions to this collection emphasize the essential conditions giving rise to conflict in the Arab world: socioeconomic disparities, poor records of human rights, and challenges to security. By providing the basic conditions giving rise to conflict and instability, the contributors lay the groundwork for how to combine the dual remedies of state building and strengthening citizenship in the Arab world as strategies that would arguably alleviate the state of conflict for Arab societies.
Relying on United Nations studies and using a sweeping historical view of the economic decline of the Arab world since the 1970s, Rami Khouri exposes the current state of poor socioeconomic conditions in day-to-day life in Arab societies. He explains that poverty, disparities in the distribution of income, vulnerability to uncertainties, and marginalization govern the Arab region today. His analysis shows that at present, some two-thirds of Arabs are poor or vulnerable to poverty. The United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) found that in ten non-oil-producing Arab states, approximately 116 million people were classified as poor (this is about 41 percent of the population) while 25 percent were vulnerable to poverty. The total could top 200 million. Perpetuating this catastrophic socioeconomic situation are two associated facts: the deficient levels of education in many Arab countries and the lack (or weak state) of social services provided to the poor. It is hard to see how such poverty and marginalization can be sustained without additional state repression.
Looking at repression, marginalization, and disempowerment, Sarah Leah Whitson highlights the use of tools like arbitrary arrest, torture, killings, rights abuses, and curtailment of citizens’ freedoms as a way to perpetuate authoritarianism. To her, these constitute critical elements for a deliberately designed system of control that disempowers civil society and individual citizens and prevents populations from participating in governance and the economy. Whitson accurately links authoritarianism with corruption, abuse, and ineffectiveness and posits that the policies of marginalization and rights violations have been used by governments as conflict avoidance strategies. To her, governments in the Arab world see power as a zero-sum game where the state stands in opposition to the citizen, a situation that prevents stability and justice. She states that empowering civil society groups and assuring political inclusion and human rights are the only ways that Arab states could avoid the fragility that makes them unstable houses of cards.
Mehran Kamrava highlights the security challenges facing countries in the Middle East and examines four different but overlapping categories. The first is the security architecture that has developed in the region that excludes Iran, a country not seen by the United States and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council as having legitimate security concerns. The second is the widespread neglect of non-military security threats such as identity politics and sectarianism. The third and fourth challenges are a dialectical combination of the belligerence exhibited by some actors in the Middle East––basically, creating instability and hostility because of their own insecurity––and the traditional security dilemma that both reproduces itself and is reproduced by the constant upgrade and importation of yet more defense and military systems. Complicating these challenges are three general unknowns: the fate of the oil economies in the post-oil era when international investments become crucial, the future direction of Iranian foreign policy, and the shape of American security policies in the region.
Section II: Reforming the Arab State
One of the remedies for addressing the condition of conflict in the Arab world is addressing the mechanisms of reforming the Arab state as a structure of institutions, laws, regulations, organs, leaders, and elites. This book devotes four varied contributions by specialists in the fields of international law and transitional justice, conflict management and humanitarian response, macroeconomics and governance, and democracy and social change.
In the chapter on transitional justice in the Arab world, specifically after the protests of the Arab Spring, Noha Aboueldahab cautions against considering the practice in the Arab region as similar to areas of the world where a change from authoritarianism took place. To be sure, she protests that all post-Arab Spring processes of accountability have failed to truly hold leaders accountable because of obstacles erected by the states themselves. In fact, only in Tunisia was a process of transitional justice implemented after 2011; but even that was weakened and aborted by state leaders’ machinations, which prevented the implementation of its proper mandate. On the other hand, she lauds Syrian activists’ efforts at documenting atrocities in Syria, for future accountability. What is critical, according to Aboueldahab, is that transitional justice efforts are cumulative and should not wait for perfect conditions to be undertaken. If properly planned and executed, such efforts could pave the way to liberal democracies that can build accountable states.
Sultan Barakat contends that the states of the Arab world can no longer pretend that poor economic, social, environmental, and other conditions only affect some of them and not others. He writes that individual states are manipulated by competing interests inside and outside the Arab region and that this has perpetuated their fragmentation and division. He thus proposes a strategy of inter-Arab collaboration and cooperation to implement a regional development and reconstruction plan that can help ameliorate conflict. As Barakat puts it, this should not do away with individual states in the service of a collective; states can be involved in joint action without losing their uniqueness and independence, and such engagement would show political maturity and visionary acumen. To do that, he proposes ten steps for regional collaborative reconstruction that can serve as a holistic, problem-solving outlook with conflict management at its heart.
In her analysis of Arab socioeconomic policies and problems, Bessma Momani approaches economic liberalization efforts as a significant root cause of conflict because they simply transferred ownership of state-owned enterprises to groups of elites who were and remain connected to the centers of political power. Any growth that was achieved in Arab economies has been “non-inclusive”: large swathes of Arab societies have no stake in their countries’ economies. What needs to be done, and quickly, is to redirect economic activities toward benefiting the underprivileged class and improving its standard of living. To Momani, this is the single most important function of states in the Arab region because of their inordinate influence over economic activities. In addition, she sees such an effort as best accompanied by political liberalization to enhance legitimacy and by inclusive policies involving women, rural communities, and the young.
Finally, Daniel Brumberg examines the Arab state, which he sees as having sharpened the instruments of autocracy and identity-based politics. What he calls the “pillared state” has developed to become unified with regimes, the economy, and the security sector. Thus, a challenge to any of these elements of control is a challenge to all, prompting a necessary tightening of leaders’ hold on power. Using the Syrian, Libyan, and Egyptian cases over the last eight years, he argues that the responses of Assad, Qadhafi, and Sisi to protests were conditioned by this “sectorized” understanding of the individual states. For a long time, Arab leaders have used sectarian and other rationales to legitimate their state projects, but only as these served their interest in remaining in power, supported as they are by like-minded elites benefiting from the pillared state. Brumberg believes that the current shift to more authoritarianism in the Arab world is likely to continue and become more acutely felt, likely leading to more conflict.
Section III: Toward Inclusive Citizenship
Examining the other side of state-society relations, that of the Arab peoples, the book delves into the mechanisms that prevent the peoples of Arab states from exercising their citizenship rights in an open social and political environment. The contributions in this section thus try to address identity concerns and the problems of exclusion, the scourge of sectarianism, Islamism and its purported incompatibility with democracy, and the impact of social media on Arabs’ relations with their states.
Leveling a reasoned criticism at how Arab states have practiced exclusive identity politics vis-à-vis their minorities, Linda Bishai and Elly Rostoum explain the old trend as a product of undemocratic applications of governance that seek to divide Arab societies, in the process increasing the chances of conflict. They use Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as examples of ethnic and sectarian identity divisions in the service of a predatory regime feeding on identity conflict for survival. Their remedy is a combination of several factors, chief among them the transition to real democratic notions of governance that rely primarily on revising the idea of an Arab identity so that it becomes inclusive and heterogeneous. Such a change will help minorities gradually shed their grievances and feelings of marginalization and encourage them to have a sense of belonging as nationals in their countries.
Reaffirming prior ideas about Islamism and the right of Islamists to be political players, Shadi Hamid argues that disliking Islamists should not be a cause for excluding them from a functioning democratic system. He writes that it is always possible to oppose and even hate a particular group without going as far as removing its members from political life. Using the examples of Lebanon, Iraq, and Tunisia, Hamid cogently writes that Islamist parties––even Shia ones in Lebanon and Iraq––have played significant roles in their governments. In Morocco, Islamists are in government, although no one can call that monarchy a democracy. These examples only sharpen the conclusion that Islamists’ participation in government has simply become uncontroversial, and that the more they engage politically, the more difficult it becomes for adversarial political actors to exclude them legally or constitutionally.
Looking into sectarianism in the Arab world, Marwan Kabalan argues that it is a recent phenomenon that reflects contemporary events and problems. In essence, sectarianism is a political ruse used by elites and furthered by serious developments over the last few decades such as the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the wars in Syria and Yemen. However, Kabalan sees the rise of sectarianism as a natural outgrowth of the failure of state building that, in turn, was facilitated by outside intervention. The Arab state has not shouldered its responsibilities properly nor has it carried out its duties of providing security and public services and protecting the rights of citizens. Importantly, Kabalan states that the remedies for sectarianism include distinguishing between religious and ideological differences, on the one hand, and the political and cynical usage of the phenomenon by elites, on the other. Ways to address sectarianism also include differentiating between the so-called Islamic State, a Sunni organization, and the Sunnis who do not think it represents them. Finally, citizenship, along with the Arab state, must be strengthened to assure Arabs of their natural rights under equal protection of the law.
A final contribution by Tamara Kharroub looks into the weaponization of social media, which has become the conduit for identity conflicts in the Arab world. She argues that as groups feel threatened, they retreat into primordial identities such as tribalism to express their distinctiveness. On the opposite end, powerful elites use identity designations to deprive certain groups of their rights, aided by manipulation of social media. In so doing, they exacerbate social divisions and thus escalate conflictual relations. Kharroub proposes a two-pronged strategy that can be effective in dealing with this weaponization. The first is related to the large companies that control social media outlets. As big businesses, they should realize that their profits do not lie only with the powerful; indeed, part of their social mission is to oppose the spread of hate speech and bigotry. The second strategy is directed at helping societies overcome the legacies of poverty, inequality, and marginalization that fuel conflict both online and offline. This task should be undertaken by civil society organizations and educational institutions whose responsibility is to design and implement digital literacy and civic education programs.
What Tomorrow Will Bring
Conflict has been a common feature in the Arab Middle East and North Africa. Disparate conditions and causes have given rise to conflict, exacerbated its seriousness, and made it the bane of effective development in the region. But if human history is any guide, conflict in the Arab world will eventually find its end, together with the demise of the authoritarianism that fed its cycles and benefited from its calamities. But that eventuality will depend on a dual approach that combines reforming the oppressive Arab state, which mostly served the interests of powerful leaders and elites, and rehabilitating Arab citizens to become agents for change.
It is true that the wave of protests that represented an Arab Spring in 2010-2011 failed to affect a full-blown surge of democracy and social peace. However, it helped to shake the foundations of the Arab state that has failed to address the many causes of conflict and discord in Arab society. And because agency matters, the hope is that the Arab peoples will continue to work toward becoming agents of change, with the goal of achieving and enjoying a peaceful existence. We hope that this book helps in explaining the domestic conditions that afflict the Arab world and make it “exceptional” regarding conflict, and in elucidating the important remedies for the devastating impacts of enduring conflicts in the region.
Imad K. Harb
Director of Research and Analysis

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