The outlook towards Arab states from a Western international relations standpoint has been fraught with misinterpretations and mis-understandings of the actual ground realities. In contemporary IR, the concepts of realism and social constructivism are looked at as being mutually exclusive. In my view, I believe that the best way to view Arab states in IR is through a synthesis of both realist and social constructivist lenses. The resulting Arab School of IR paradigm can be compared to Headley Bull’s Grotian solution in “The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics” except with a heavy emphasis on religion.
Firstly, realism is a prevalent aspect of international relations with regards to Arab states due to the state being the most important actor, power being used to influence end results and peace being the ultimate goal. Contrastingly, the current Western point of view attempts to project their own liberal understandings of IR onto Arab states that do not have the groundwork ready for such values to flourish. This stems from Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ which categorizes non-Western societies as being the ‘other’ thereby promoting to Western scholars the idea that the key to addressing conflict in the Middle East is to mold their societies along Western ideals and constructs (Said 1978). This was clearly seen from the failed Western attempt at nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Due to the orientalist thought that Arab and Western societies are far removed from one another, the latter overcompensate in trying to make the former as similar to them as possible, and in doing so create more conflicts and divides between the two ‘civilisations’ as Samuel Huntington would say. With a decreased orientalist view of IR towards Arab states, there would be less enforcement of Western ideals thus creating a more conducive environment for international diplomacy and domestic state-building.
However, shortening the gap between the East and West will only help Western IR scholars up to a certain point. The social constructivist view will play a large role here as there needs to be a basic understanding of the Arab social structures and their influence on the state upon which Western scholars can formulate their ideas after an individual case by case analysis. An indication of how parochially Western most IR scholarship is can be seen through the fact that no current theory effectively addresses the Arab tendency to reject the state in favour of a cosmopolitan religious society thereby forcing the creation of an amalgamation of different aspects of different theories to create a perfect lens from where to view the Arab world from.
Another weakness of Western scholars is their attempts to enforce their own understanding of the Italian Marxist Gramsci’s emancipatory politics on Arab societies as was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Emancipatory politics can be defined as “utilizing the power of the state to liberate people from traditional social structures and arrangements that are deemed ‘unjust’” (Turley 2014) when in fact the majority of Arabs do not want to be liberated from their traditional social structures as can be seen by the continuing way that tribes heavily influence Middle Eastern politics (Ayubi 1996). Gramsci’s, an Italian Marxist’s, views of society and state being artificial constructs that are driven by human appetites and desires (Martin 2002) can resonate strongly with the religious populace of many Arab countries. Concurrently, Immanuel Kant’s idea of a global cosmopolitan society, albeit with religion being the distinct Arab factor, is one that runs parallel to many of the Islamist parties across the Middle East such as the Muslim Brotherhood. To create a global Islamic society where nations are irrelevant is one of the core ideologies of fundamentalist Muslims thus allowing the Kantian view to resonate with them (Esposito 2002). The fact that a heavily liberal, individualist Kantian standpoint can find space in Arab societies is something overlooked due to the divisive mentality of Western orientalist scholars who cannot accept the convergence of Eastern and Western opinions. The Kantian and Gramscian views are indications of the Arab tendency to reject the state as the primary actor in international relations and move towards a more globalized form that runs akin to the Kantian idea of cosmopolitanism. Most importantly however, the differentiating factor here is religion. While the state may seem ignored from these perspectives, the reality on the ground is different.
The domestic considerations informed by Waltz’s second level of analysis play an immense role in trying to formulate an effective framework by which to analyse Arab states. Key elements that Western scholars usually forget when addressing IR in Arab states is the role that religion, international political economy, elites and social context play in forming Arab political thought. In the case of religion it is important to create a stark delineation between the different religious ideologies prevalent in the state itself since, unlike in western systems, religion is a primary factor in influencing political activity in Arab states. A clear example of this is in Lebanon where the political boundaries can clearly by seen through a religious lens (Hanf 2015). Secondly, the increasingly globalising international political economy is instrumental in providing deep understandings of how Arab states behave. A highly-integrated global society should in theory allow for the trickle-down effects of growing global wealth to be shared. However the reality is much different due to the strong role of elites in Arab states. This can be referred to the as “the 2nd image reversed” and explains how external factors influence domestic structures (Hudson 1999). An example of the negative impact of giving too much power to elites can be seen through the Mubarak and Saddam regimes. Both dictators and their respective circles of elites were continuously supported by the West thereby resulting in years of anger and mistrust towards the regimes to build up which finally culminated in violent uprisings or civil wars. Therefore, Western scholars have to move away from the claws of the Arab elite and move towards a framework that promotes strong infrastructural development through a comprehensive dialogue with domestic businesses rather than merely dealing with leaders. Thirdly, the varying historical, social, and tribal aspects of each individual society within the Arab world must be looked at in isolation from other Arab states due to the fact that there are key variances between Arab societies. The Kurdish question arises here due to the fact that they are not Arabs hence if the Western world should view them as distinct from Arab societies, their understanding of the situation on the ground would be far more accurate. This reflects the social constructivism aspect of my contributed paradigm since most Arab states have a shared historical worldview with regards to the Israel/Palestine issue. However, with the upsurge in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the differences within Arab states have become increasingly stark as can be seen through the increase in sectarian violence across the Middle East. While the general divide between Sunnis and Shias has been addressed after the disaster of the 2003 Iraqi invasion, there has still been a dearth of analysis on the different sectarian and tribal makeups of many Arab societies. For example, in the case of PEW surveys, most of their analyses and polls simply target ‘Muslims’ as a whole while not aptly reflecting the myriad of beliefs and sects that make up most Arab states thus being unreflective of the average view in the country.
Similar to the English school of IR, my contribution to the study of Arab states would result in the formation of the Arab School of IR except with a focus on social constructivism rather than liberalism as the partnering ideology. While the Kantian and Gramscian associations would promote the idea that the state is a weak actor in Arab IR, the opposite holds true. Like the English School, my paradigm would involve the state being the primary actor in influencing international relations as even though the state is sometimes sidelined in place of ethnic and religious ties when looking at an Arab country, these ethnic and religious clusters in turn answer directly to the state. Therefore, Arab societies aim to realise the cosmopolitan society of Kant through the avenue of the state as reflected through Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and while the 2nd image of Waltz is instrumental in highlighting a distinct ethno-religious concept of Arab society, it is the state itself that controls and represents this identity on the international stage rather than the individuals.
This brings up the key point of non-state actors since they are an increasingly prevalent part of Arab society. If Western scholars start to decrease their focus on the importance of the Arab state and more on the fringe elements, it may provide an inaccurate representation of the Arab social makeup. To associate a small group of loud non-state actors with the national thought of a state would only weaken the role of the state in the country thereby potentially destabilizing an already settled ruling government. A recent example of this was the rushed Western support for the Syrian opposition at the start of the Syrian civil war in 2012. A more measured and calculated response may have resulted in a less violent impasse between the two camps since the overt Western support for the Syrian rebels fueled their desire to topple Assaad. Furthermore, the realisation that Arab societies cannot be looked at as one monolithic entity is paramount in providing a greater understanding of the Middle East to Western IR scholars. While seemingly incompatible with one another, this synthesis between realism and social constructivism will provide a much more in depth understanding of the complex behemoth that is Arab IR.
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Bull, Hedley. The anarchical society: a study of order in world politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Esposito, John L. Unholy war: Terror in the name of Islam. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Hanf, Theodor. Coexistence in wartime Lebanon: decline of a state and rise of a nation. IB Tauris, 2015.
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Martin, James. Antonio Gramsci: Marxism, philosophy and politics. Vol. 2. Taylor & Francis, 2002.
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