The Arab World: From Nationalism to Tribalism

The “parade of autonomies” we are currently witnessing in the Arab world, primarily in Iraq and Libya, is an indicator of the crisis the region’s nation-states are undergoing.

Unlike Europe, however, it is less a consequence of integrationist trends than an indicator of the Greater Middle East’s archaism, its return to tribalism.

Farewell to the nation-state

Let’s start with the socio-political trends that are starting to prevail in international politics.

The recognition of Kosovo opened a new chapter in the history of international relations. In 2003, Henry Kissinger announced the “death of the Westphalian system,” and, accordingly, state sovereignty is gradually starting to look like a bad idea.

The modern era, in which the only legitimate form of existence for a country was that of the so-called nation-state, is coming to a close. Postmodernism is advancing in international politics, and the sovereignty of the nation-state is becoming increasingly inconsistent with the emerging reality.

A so-called “network,” as it is now fashionable to term this concept in Western intellectual circles, is forming as a result (the EU is now increasingly being positioned as a pilot state network structure).

This process is characterized, above all, by the diffusion of power: authority is rapidly moving out from under national bureaucracies, both in an upward direction — to a variety of supranational institutions — and downward — to so-called civic institutions, or regional communities.

Some researchers call this phenomenon glocalization (a term coined by the British sociologist Roland Robertson) — a specific local reaction to globalization. It is noteworthy that with glocalization regions neither break down nor become isolated, but generate local demand for global trends by developing local scenarios of globalization processes (the Kosovo example is very revealing in this respect).

Thus, we are witnessing a radical political transformation. After all, it clearly is impossible to create a strong and competitive Europe without weakening its nation-states. Therefore, a strong Europe is not a Europe of nations, but a Europe of regions.

We are apparently beginning to see the same trend developing in the vast Greater Middle East. However, it may go in an entirely different direction there.

From nationalism to the Caliphate?

Thus, the events of the Arab Spring demonstrated that the Middle Eastern nation-states are also past their heyday. Unlike their European “big brothers,” however, the process here is much more painful.

Which, by and large, is not surprising. After all, Arab nationalism was a romantic anti-colonial movement of military elites permeated by Western ideas who sincerely believed that, with the establishment of European-styled government institutions, life would automatically rise to the level of Europe (however, the formation of Israel in the mid-20th century was also an important factor in the spread of Arab nationalism; that, however, is a topic for a different discussion).

The pro-Western military romantics failed to understand that, unlike Europe (and Israel), Arab nationalism is a typical “chimera.” Indeed, tribalism predominated in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-20th century, and the conditions under which bourgeois revolutions could take place did not exist. Consequently, nation-states could not form.

Therefore, the aspirations of Nasser, Gadhafi, Hussein or Assad Senior for statism, secularism and decolonization were fundamentally alien to the people and tolerated by the “street” in those countries so long as Moscow and Washington were engaged in a global confrontation.

With the collapse of the bipolar world and the resulting withdrawal of support by the nationalists’ chief ally in the region — the Soviet Union — the Arab nation-states became, in essence, an “abandoned geopolitical field.” In addition, defeat in three Arab-Israeli wars in which nationalist regimes played “first fiddle” for the Arabs made the proponents of nationalism extremely unpopular on the Arab street.

As a result, towards the end of the 20th century course was set for the ideology of the Cold War’s victor — Western-style liberalism. However, this option does not seem to be a good fit for the Arab world, either. And finally, the Islamists led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia are now trying to fill the ideological vacuum.

As I have said in the past, however, people in Arab countries that have been accustomed to the charms of secular life for decades are becoming increasingly concerned about the spread on their soil of the Wahhabi model of social organization that is inherent in the Arab world’s current chief “integrators,” and that significantly inhibits the “drive for integration” by Doha and Riyadh.

Thus, after inflicting a crushing blow on the institution of the nation-state in the region, the main powerhouses of the Arab Spring have as yet been unable to offer the Arab world the promised “New Caliphate.”

And that means we will probably see a “Greater Arab Somalia” as the Arab nation-states disintegrate, rather than a “Greater Arab EU.”

On the road to Somalization

Recently, there has been increasing talk of the Somalization of the Greater Middle East. And there is good reason for that.

We have the “parade of autonomies” in Iraq that began last fall in Salahaddin, followed by Basrah, Fallujah, Diyala, Nineveh and other cities. Then there was the declaration of independence by the so-called “Republic of Iraqi Kurdistan,” and the formation in early March of the “Western Kurdistan” autonomous region in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey.

And of course, there was the decision by the “Congress of the People of Cyrenaica” held near Benghazi to create a “union federated district of Barca,” which startled many people; the anti-government uprising in Bani Walid; and autonomist sentiments in Misrata, Sebha and elsewhere in Libya.

The nature of what is happening in these regions shows that European regionalization is not behind all of these regional autonomist trends and the weakening of the nation-states, but rather a return to tribalism. In other words, the Greater Middle East is undergoing distinct tribalization.

In Europe, glocalization may lead to implementation of the traditional German geopolitical concept of regions — from Pastor Friedrich Naumann’s Middle Europe, to Karl Ernst Haushofer’s idea of pan-regions, and to Carl Schmitt’s concept of large space (Großraum ) — which presuppose full integration, actual self-government by territories, cooperative relations between the central government and the regions, subsidiarity, solidarity, consideration for the specific cultures of regions, social orientation, the priority of regional authorities, and trans-border cooperation.

In the Arab ecumene, destruction of the Arab nation-state is a direct route to archaization of the region, to its Somalization and to permanent inter-tribal clashes in a struggle for natural resources.

Is it possible, however, that the powers that be are counting on that? After all, tribalization of the hydrocarbon-rich Arab world is the dream of every energy importer, because it is much easier to bargain with the leader of some “backwoods” tribe that owns large reserves of oil or gas and is not burdened with national problems.

But have the people importing energy resources from Europe’s “underbelly” considered the risk that it will turn into a vast “powder keg?”

Vitaly Bilan holds a Ph.D. (History) degree and is an Ukrainian expert on the Middle East. 

Source: New Eastern Outlook 


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