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«Propelled by the oil boom of the mid-1970s the Middle East emerged as the world’s fastest growing region.1 Hopes and expectations were high for ...»

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The Absence of Middle Eastern Great

Powers: Political ‘‘Backwardness’’ in

Historical Perspective

Ian S. Lustick

Propelled by the oil boom of the mid-1970s the Middle East emerged as the world’s

fastest growing region.1 Hopes and expectations were high for Arab political consoli-

dation, economic advancement, and cultural efflorescence. With falling oil prices and

a devastating war between Iran and Iraq, these hopes had dimmed somewhat by the

early 1980s. In 1985, however, the spectacular image of an Arab great power was still tantalizing. A Pan-Arab state, wrote two experts on the region, would include a total area of 13.7 million square kilometers, second only to the Soviet Union and considerably larger than Europe, Canada, China, or the United States.... By 2000 it would have more people than either of the two superpowers. This state would contain almost two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves. It would also have enough capital to nance its own economic and social development. Conceivably, it could feed itself.... Access to a huge market could stimulate rapid industrial growth. Present regional in- equalities could ultimately be lessened and the mismatch between labor-surplus and labor-short areas corrected. The aggregate military strength and political in uence of this strategically located state would be formidable.... It is easy to comprehend why this dream has long intoxicated Arab nationalists.2 Within ten years, however, this assessment sounded more like a fairy tale than a scenario. Indeed the last two decades have been dispiriting for Arab nationalists, not only measured against the prospect of a great national state, but compared to levels of I am grateful for helpful comments made on preliminary drafts of this article by Thomas Callaghy, Melani Cammett, Avery Goldstein, Steven Heydemann, Friedrich Kratochwil, Sevket Pamuk, and this journal’s anonymous reviewers. The paper on which this article is based was originally prepared for a January 1996 workshop on ‘‘Regionalism and the Middle East’’ organized under the auspices of the Joint Near and Middle East Committee of the Social Science Research Council.

1. El Mallakh 1978,195.

2. Drysdale and Blake 1985, 225. For similar expectations and scenarios of Arab unity, prosperity, and power, see Kerr 1982, 2; and El Mallakh 1978, 186–89. On the potential for a great Arab state, see, for example, Waterbury 1978, 53–55, 100; Luciani and Salame 1988, 13; Salame 1988a, 264, 278; and Sira- ´ ´ geldin 1988, 204.

International Organization 51, 4, Autumn 1997, pp. 653–83 r 1997 by The IO Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 654 International Organization cooperation and interstate integration in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, where highly developed countries are joining with rapidly expanding emergent economies in regionally based communities of wealth and growth. In the Middle East, on the other hand, all integration schemes have failed. Intraregional trade remains very low, with estimates ranging between 2 and 8 percent over the last fteen years.3 Most Middle Eastern states are experiencing either economic stagnation or absolute decline. From 1980 to 1991 the Middle East (including Israel and Iran, but not Turkey) and North Africa registered almost a 3 percent decrease in annual income growth compared to a 1 percent decrease in Sub-Saharan Africa and a 1 percent increase for all the developing world.4 The region suffered a decline of almost 2 percent in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita between 1980 and 1993.5 Unemployment in 1993 was twice as high (15 percent) as that in any other region of the world.6 Many explanations have been offered for disunity, economic stagnation, and the failure of any Muslim or Arab state to emerge as or to build a Middle Eastern great power. Despite the rhetoric and sentiment of Arab nationalism and Arab unity and, more recently, Islamic unity, contemporary Middle Eastern history is riddled with parochial hostilities, meaningless schemes for mergers and federations, and a raft of regimes strong enough to suppress dissidents but too weak and insecure to risk intimate forms of cooperation with their neighbors. With ‘‘arti cial’’ colonial borders virtually intact, energy and capital surpluses are mostly separated from demographic bulk and centers of military and administrative capacity and political appeal. These conditions, it is often pointed out, have prevented Middle Easterners from building large internal markets and from exploiting their homogeneity, resources, and administrative-political capacity for dynamic, long-term economic growth.7 Most analysts who have confronted what Fouad Ajami dubbed the ‘‘Arab predicament’’ have implicitly or explicitly used the processes and successes of European integration after World War II to identify the requisites of success in the Middle East and the reasons for failure.8 Those who have thought the prospects were not all bad for Arab integration have stressed what they deemed the growing self-con dence, pragmatism, and exibility of states whose separate sovereignty was increasingly recognized and accepted as permanent by their neighbors. Using Western Europe as a point of reference, these observers expected Arab governments would thereby be able to leave aside old feuds and cooperate without worrying about political dissoluSee Miller 1993, 8; Sha k 1995, 17.

4. Sha k 1995, 15.

5. Ibid., 65. Annual growth in GDP in the region also decreased, from a peak of 6 percent in the mid-1970s to less than 1 percent in the late 1980s. See ibid., 4.

6. Diwan 1995, 3.

7. For a useful list of failed Arab integration initiatives, see Azzam 1993, 227–28.

8. Despite the recent emphasis on Islam as a unifying political identity in the Middle East, no framework has been or is more promising as a basis for achieving substantial political and economic integration than Arab nationalism. Therefore, I focus my analysis on the failure of Arab integration or Arab state building, while acknowledging that Arabism has never been completely divorced from Islamic motifs and suggesting at the end of the article that the argument works equally well for Muslim schemes for political integration. For a sample of the ‘‘obituaries’’ written for Arab national unity, see Brown 1984, 27–43;

Ajami 1992; and Tibi 1990, 24–25.

655 Absence of Middle Eastern Great Powers tion or subversion.9 Some analysts have stressed the functional necessity of close economic cooperation and political integration, arguing from necessity to inevitability or likelihood.10 Others trace the large-scale movement of labor and remittances across Arab state boundaries, recalling, in their anticipation that such interdependencies were binding the Arab world into an economic whole, theories associated with Karl Deutsch and Ernst Haas to the effect that increasing transactions across borders and the unintended spillover of functionally important requirements for cooperation would lead Europe toward both political and economic integration.11 More pessimistic analysts have used the European experience to explain why the Arab world has not integrated successfully. Citing regime heterogeneity in the Middle East, the absence of strong democratic institutions,the skewed distributionof wealth, and the weakness and insecurity of governments—these observers blame the failure of regional integration on how different the Middle East is in these respects from Western Europe.12 My argument begins by suggesting that, whether optimistic or pessimistic, these analyses are based on a misplaced analogy of post–World War II European states with post–World War II Arab or, more broadly, Islamic or Middle Eastern states. A much more fundamental appreciation of the political and economic quandaries faced by the peoples of the Middle East is possible if the dozens of states in the region are compared to the scores and even hundreds of European states and principalities that, in gradually decreasing number, comprised Europe (and the lands bordering the North Atlantic) from the 1200s through the late nineteenth century. The question then becomes: How is it that powerful states, such as Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Italy, and the United States, could arise in these regions—states that not only combined the natural resources, cultural affinities, demographic bulk, military capacity, administrative integrity, and economic wealth necessary for activity on the world stage as great powers, but could also serve either as hegemonic leaders in the construction of regional blocs (especially the European Community) or as dependable, con dent partners in such endeavors? This recasts the essential question to be asked about the contemporary Middle East in a more appropriate historical context. Why have there been no Middle Eastern great powers?

Westphalia and Versailles: War and State Building in Europe and the Middle East ‘‘The Ottoman Turks,’’ wrote Albert Hourani, in one of his last essays, ‘‘may be called the Romans of the Muslim world.’’13 From a long-cycle perspective, focusing

9. See Noble 1991, 52, 78–93; and Taylor 1982, 108–20.

10. See Sirageldin 1988, 185–207; Kanovsky 1968, 350–76; Bani Hani 1984, 184; and Drysdale and Blake 1985, 225.

11. Ibrahim 1982, 17–70.

12. See Nonneman 1993; Miller 1993, 3–6. Regarding civil society, see Barakat 1993; and Luciani and Salame 1988, 16–21.


13. Hourani 1991, 130.

656 International Organization on the evolution of states and the cultural, military, and political frameworks that incubate them, the analogy between the Ottomans and the Romans is founded on the gradual attenuation and eventual disappearance of an imperial center. Both the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the Holy Roman Empire in medieval and early modern Europe advanced and upheld (sometimes in reality, sometimes as legal ctions) claims of authority over heterogeneous populations, complex arrays of monarchs, satraps, vassals, and enormous land masses divided into gradually stabilizing but never xed administrative segments. For the emirs, sheikhs, and walis of the Arab world, the gradual decline and nal disappearance of the Ottoman Empire was equivalent to the gradual decline and eventual disappearance of the Holy Roman Empire for the lords, dukes, kings, and princes of Europe. In both cases enforcement of claims to authority over wide cultural and geographic areas (Muslim Middle East and Christian Europe) was abandoned and replaced with parochial but locally potent claims to sovereignty over small pieces of the region by local elites.

In Europe the Westphalian treaties of 1648 gave formal acknowledgment to the validity of these claims (insofar as they could be upheld in the arena of international political and military competition) and to replacement of the universal sovereignty of the emperor with a host of separate sovereigns whose autonomous existence had long since acted as the mainspring of European politics. In the Middle East, on the other hand, most local elites ready to advance their own claims to rule territories no longer incorporated within the Ottoman Empire were, for the most part, cast aside or submerged beneath the superordinate power and imperial ambitions of European states. This process began long before World War I, but it was the Treaty of Versailles that formally acknowledged replacement of the Ottoman Empire’s universal sovereignty with rule by different European ‘‘mandatory’’ powers under the auspices of the League of Nations. In this context, the League of Nations stood for nothing more than the European state system, which had, in any case, long since emerged as the decisive force in Middle Eastern political affairs.

Here is revealed the most important difference in the developmental trajectories of state systems in Europe and the Middle East. European states developed, expanded, made war, gained victories, and consolidated—or suffered defeats, shrunk, failed to consolidate, and disappeared—in an international context of moderated but violent disorder. By one reckoning, in 1900 ‘‘there were around 20 times fewer independent polities in Europe than there had been in 1500. They did not disappear peacefully or decay as the national state developed; they were the losers in a protracted war of all against all.’’14 As Charles Tilly noted, early modern Europe was anarchic, but, ‘‘largely as a result of the previous uni cation under the Roman Empire,’’ it was, in broad cultural terms, fairly homogeneous.15 This setting required prudent rulers of states to be ambitious and encouraged them to consider absorption (rather than destruction) of neighboring populations and wealthy districts as a route to increased power. Even more importantly, rulers operating within this system did so free from the actual or

–  –  –

potential interference of outside powers whose military, economic, and administrative capacities, by dwar ng those of the young European states, could have prevented the system from operating. Nor were these rulers constrained by international norms against acquiring new territory as a result of victory in war or threat of war.16 In the Middle East, on the other hand, and in the Arab Middle East in particular, rulers of territories, or candidates for rulership, found themselves not only overwhelmed by the tremendous power of individual European or North American states (especially Britain, France, Italy, and the United States) but subjected to an elaborate array of international institutions and norms (represented by the system of Concerts and Congresses of the nineteenth century and the League of Nations and the United Nations in the twentieth century). In sharp contrast to the war-lubricated Westphalian system—whose units expanded into great powers, sunk to middle or small power status, or disappeared altogether, as a result of wars waged at the highest levels of force available at the time—the system of colonial subordination and externally enforced norms to which the nineteenth and twentieth century Middle East was subjected did not allow cross-border warfare by local rulers to effect substantial change in the number, size, or internal regimes of states.

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