Mehran Kamrava, Inside the Arab State

The protest wave which shook many states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 has changed both the international relations and internal politics of the region. Mehran Kamrava`s book Inside the Arab State focuses on the domestic politics of most of the countries in North Africa, Levant and the Arabian Peninsula.

The author is director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. A seasoned scholar and expert, he has penned around 20 books on Middle Eastern politics and international relations.

The book is comprised of six chapters, a conclusion, and an appendix (which is, in fact, a very short explanation about the methodology of The 2016 Arab Opinion survey, cited in chapter five). The first chapter explains the central argument and scope of the book. To support his thesis, the author employs a number of concepts, such as institutions and critical junctures.

In the second chapter Kamrava lays out his framework of analysis, discussing the models of institutional change and showing the interplay between deliberate choices of political actors on the one hand, and historical institutionalism and path dependency on the other. The author traces the Arab states’ gradual degradation from their initial post-independence project(s) to corrupt, inefficient “Republics of Fear,” whose primary legitimacy rests on their security apparatus. Chapter three deals with the challenges the Arab uprising(s) pose to their states.

The fourth chapter shows how some of the old patterns of rule have survived the Arab Spring uprisings under the new circumstances seen since 2011, for example heavy reliance on coercive state apparatuses. The author describes the features of the so-called authoritarian persistence in some states (the monarchies as a primary example) and concludes that the Arab uprisings, by and large, did not alter socioeconomic conditions and economic patterns. The civil-military relations and institutional adjustments are also an important feature in this chapter.

While the first four chapters examine the evolution of the Arab states and their institutions before, during and after the Arab spring, chapter five provides insights into the relations between states and societies through the prism of three broad, key and intertwined concepts; citizenship, legitimacy and Islam’s social and political role.

These also include the challenges posed by the Salafi movements and ISIS, as well as the constrains political Islamists are facing today. Chapter five also contains the findings of the sociological survey The 2016 Arab Opinion, including generally positive attitudes towards democracy and the Arab uprisings. However, their outcomes are viewed increasingly negatively, since they led to economic difficulties and a deterioration of the political situation.

In chapter six the Arabian Peninsula and the characteristics of state-building and state capacity (in the author`s view, enhanced in comparison to other Arab states) are put under the spotlight based on oil wealth, relatively small populations and the dense networks of relations between the rulers and the population. However, the steady decline of oil prices since 2014 has also significantly diminished the capacity of the Gulf states.

While most of the scholarly literature on the profound changes in the MENA region since 2011 explores the international dynamics of the process, one of the very strong features of this book is its focus on domestic politics and state-society interactions and the author’s intention to assess only the formal institutions of the states.

Therefore, civil wars in countries such as Yemen, Libya and Syria are analyzed via the nexus between foreign interests and interventions plus domestic factors like centralization of power, multiple fractures in society, the cohesion of the elites, and the actions of the political actors (or agency, which is the term Kamrava prefers).

In recent years, heightened public interest has stimulated a boom in research on Middle Eastern affairs. However, a significant number of the resulting literature has focused on issues which proved to be ephemeral, e.g. the organizational structure of the Islamic State or its territorial expansion. In contrast, Kamrava’s scholarly interest focuses on long-lasting processes and phenomena, such as state institutions and structures.

One of the key institutions identified in the book is the military, and Kamrava distinguishes three main models of military reaction towards the political future of the civilian leadership during the Arab spring. In doing so, he also categorizes three different types of consequences; first – the army saving the ruler (Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman), second – instances when the military may have the will, but not the capacity to do so (Egypt, Syria), and third – when the soldiers neither have the will, nor the capacity to rescue the non-democratic leader (Tunisia).

One of the strongest qualities of the book is its attempt to reverse optics with regard to state-society relations in the Arabian Peninsula. Kamrava convincingly argues that the evolution of tribal clans into ruling families, as well as commercial and marital bonds, closely tie the ruling elite to the rest of society. The author paints a picture of considerable state capacity in the so-called petro-states on the peninsula because of their legitimacy, which is solidified through patronage networks and based on oil wealth.

However, there is a basis for some criticism of Inside the Arab State. The proposed model of the reaction of the military to the uprisings, as discussed in chapter four, is questionable in two ways: First, countries like Algeria, Jordan and Oman are included in the account, although these states did not undergo full-scale uprisings.

Second, in Egypt’s case more elaboration is required in order to substantiate the claim that the army may have the will, but not the capacity to save the old ruler. Whilst it looks like the Egyptian military is capable enough to do so, the author himself states that after the uprising the Egyptian military remains a dominant political force.

Next, in general, the length of the book`s chapters are relatively equal with the exception of chapter six, which is the longest one and comprises of about one fourth of the whole book – 51 pages out of 206 pages main text. The same chapter is intriguing, combining the lenses of the political economy plus institutionalist approach.

Nonetheless, it is not consistent because of the lack of a systematic attempt to apply the achievements of political economy scholarship to the preceding chapters in the book. Though the author makes a commendable job of citing the relevant literature generously, he passes up a valuable opportunity to strengthen his arguments as he does not consult primary sources such as national constitutions, laws and other official foundational documents. This neglect also remains questionable in view of the emphasis Kamrava puts on institutions and statehood, around which the book is centered.

Overall, the author presents his arguments in a consistent fashion with language which is plain, but at the same time not dry. Some of the arguments are however, repeated. Inside the Arab State is an informative read and is suitable for a broad range of audiences. It reveals how state institutions in the Arab states changed after independence – starting with corporatist populism, going through authoritarianism, dysfunctionality and in some cases ending up with collapse in 2011.

Some regimes were able to address the grievances of the population and remained in power (e.g. Morocco, Jordan), but even they are now suffering from a deficit of legitimacy. Overall, the book is an interesting study of current statecraft and state-building in the MENA region and also offers some predictions about their future in the Arab world.