Remembering failed states in the Middle East

*This post was prepared for the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” workshop, February 6, 2015. 

By David Siddhartha Patel, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University

In mid-November 2011, four weeks after the fall of the Moammar Gaddafi regime, residents of Msallata, Libya celebrated the 93rd anniversary of the proclamation of independence of the Tripolitanian Republic. They marched in the streets and listened to stories about the founding in 1918 of the first republic in the modern Middle East: al-Jumhuriya al-Trabulsiya. Although that state survived only a few years, until 1923, these commemorations suggest that “memories of stateness” have lasted much longer. Similarly, on June 1, 2013 in eastern Libya, Ahmed al-Senussi declared Cyrenaica to be a “self-governing region,” echoing his great-uncle King Idris’s declaration of independence of the Emirate of Cyrenaica on June 1, 1949.

The central government of Libya is weak: When Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was seized from a hotel in the capital in 2013 by a rebel militia, another rebel militia purportedly freed him. Many analysts speculate that Libya could break up, either de facto or de jure. If it does, could memories of the Tripolitanian Republic and the Emirate of Cyrenaica provide bases for new political communities? Arab notables from the coast, tribal chieftans from the hinterland, and Berbers from the Nafusa Mountains came together to form a republic in 1918. Could memories – real or invented – and the flags of those defunct states unite tribes and factions today?

These two “Libyan” states are not the only inchoate polities that vanished from the map of the modern Middle East and North Africa. Depending on criteria, between 29 and 62 autonomous territorial polities that existed in the region after 1914 have disappeared, most often by being absorbed into or conquered by other states. Only a few of these “failed states” have received focused attention from scholars, such as Joshua Teitelbaum’s study of the Kingdom of the Hijaz, Madawi Al-Rasheed’s history of the Emirate of Jabal Shammar, Graham H. Stuart’s account of the city-state of Tangier, and Anne K. Bang’s thesis on the the Idrisi State of Asir.[1] As far as I know, no one has attempted a comprehensive study of them as a group.

My new book project studies and compares these failed states.[2] I am interested not just in how they came to be and how they died, but I also propose to document and study how they are remembered today by residents of the Middle East and the ways in which political entrepreneurs could use their histories and symbols for mobilization. If Syria, Iraq, and Libya break up because of unrest, might the past – the failed states of the past – shape the future map of the Middle East?

This memo describes several parts of my book project and is organized into three sections: 1) identifying the universe of these failed states and presenting some descriptive findings; 2) briefly discussing my plans to compare “polities that passed” to states that survived; and 3) suggesting ways to explore “memories of stateness” today.

Part I: The universe of failed states

The first step in this project is to identify the full universe of states that have failed in the Middle East since 1914. As far as I know, I am the first to attempt this. I have identified a minimum of 29 and up to 62 such territorially-based polities, depending on how I code various sultanates, federations, and states that existed in South Yemen under British protection.

International relations scholars typically define “stateness” in terms of membership in international organizations or recognition by great powers.[3] This operationalization misses almost all of the inchoate states in the Middle East. Instead, I employ a modified version of Scott Abramson’s neo-Weberian definition of a state, which emphasizes domestic capacity, including a quasi-monopoly of violence over a fixed territory.[4] Norman Davies’s 2012 study of European polities that vanished identifies five mechanisms of death: implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation, and “infant mortality.” I adapt his coding scheme.[5]

A few preliminary observations from the dataset:

  1. Polities died in every decade from the 1920s to the 1970s, and new polities continued to emerge through the 1950s. The map of the Middle East was not set at the San Remo Conference.
  2. Of the 19 extant states in the MENA, 10 contain the territory of at least one failed state.
  3. States failed throughout the region, not in a single sub-region.
  4. States failed in areas influenced by the British, French, Spanish, and no colonial power.
  5. The IR literature on state death tends to focus on conquest and overlook cases of collective abdication.[6] Both causes of death occur among states in my dataset.
  6. Many (arguably, most) states in the MENA perished by voluntarily merging with others.
  7. No MENA states died via implosion or violent dissolution. There is no regional precedent like the Soviet Union, Federation of Yugoslavia, or Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  8. Iraq possesses only one failed state within its borders: the Kingdom of Kurdistan, a city-state that existed in Sulaymaniyah from around 1921 to 1924. Iraq has no reservoir of substate “memories of stateness” for Arab Sunnis or Shiites to draw upon in the event of partition. In contrast, Syria and Libya do.

I am creating a geographic information system (GIS) to map and visualize these failed states, as well as collecting a variety of information about them. Using GIS in this way helps us see where these states existed and the extent to which their borders reflect current national identity contestations. How did these states come to exist? How many pre-date the arrival of colonial powers, how many were created by colonial powers, and how many were indigenous attempts to resist colonialism? To what extent did their boundaries and membership cross linguistic, tribal, and sectarian boundaries? Once I map these states, I will be able to analyze the extent to which their actual or claimed borders are coterminous with the international and subnational borders of today’s states. One question I will answer is the extent to which these failed states continue to determine subnational demarcations. Is the purported weakness of national identity in the Middle East today partly a legacy of early state formation and dissolution?

Part II: Comparing failed states to extant states

Charles Tilly and several other scholars have observed that to fully understand the process of state formation, we cannot focus only on states that survived but must also consider those that did not. This part of my project matches and compares a sample of failed polities to extant states to identify factors that might account for why some autonomous polities survived (e.g., the Emirate of Transjordan, later the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) and others (e.g., the Kingdom of the Hijaz, 1916-25) did not. A tremendous amount of literature focuses on state-building in existing states, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Some scholars occasionally compare those states to one another. But no one asks if we can learn about state-formation by comparing Kuwait with Hatay State (1937-39).[7] Although they seem like an unlikely pair, both Kuwait and Hatay were new coastal states with high linguistic and religious diversity and large and powerful neighbors who sought to annex them.[8] Why did Kuwait’s diverse population (Arab and Persian, Sunni and Shiite) unify to fend off Saudi irredentism at the Battle of Jahra in 1920 while Hatay’s population split along linguistic lines, facilitating annexation by Turkey in 1939? These questions are relevant to the contemporary Middle East and of interest to political scientists, as well as historians.

Part III: “Memories of stateness”

Figure 1 presents two images from Western media of how civil unrest might lead to a redrawing of the map of the Middle East. The map on the left, which appeared on the cover of The Atlantic in early 2008, depicts more than a dozen changes to the region’s borders and regimes. Some new states have no precedent as independent polities, such as a unified Kurdistan or the partition of Iraq into Sunni and Shiite states. In Syria, however, several autonomous polities that existed during the French mandate reemerge as independent states with similar borders and flags: “Druzistan” is Jabal Druze (1922-36, 1939-42; a.k.a. State of Suwayda), and “the Alawite Republic” reflects the historic Alawite State (1920-1922, 1924-36, 1939-42; a.k.a. Government of Latakia). The map on the right, which accompanied a piece by Robin Wright in The New York Times, does not depict the “reemergence” of states that failed from Syria, but it shows Libya and Saudi Arabia breaking apart largely along the lines of states that existed before those countries were unified by Idris and Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan respectively.

 Figure 1: Redrawing the map of the Middle East 
Patel 1Source: The Atlantic, January/February 2008  Patel 2Source: Robin Wright, “Imagining a Remapped Middle East,” The New York Times, Sept 28, 2013

Scholars know little about how states that failed are remembered by residents of the contemporary Middle East, and little useful theory exists that would allow us to deductively restrict the conditions under which political entrepreneurs could use or invent symbols of those states to successfully mobilize populations. I propose to study the ways in which a subset of these states are remembered.

In my preliminary work I have focused on how Kurds “remember” the short-lived Republic of Mahabad (1946), also sometimes referred to as the Republic of Kurdistan. Memories of Mahabad resonate far beyond Iranian Kurdistan. They heavily shaped the organization of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the worldview of Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, who served as Mahabad’s Minister of Defense. His son, Massoud Barzani, was born there and referred to the state as “an ideal time and place to be born a Kurd.”[9] The Mahabad flag remains the flag flown in Iraqi Kurdistan. Chwar Chra Square – where the Republic was proclaimed and where its founder, Qazi Muhammad, was hung – remains a powerful shared symbol among Kurds (not coincidentally, a major hotel in Erbil/Hawler is the ChwarChra Hotel). As Syrian Kurdish parties form a transitional administration to run Kurdish-majority areas in northeast Syria and coordinate with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, the history and symbols of the Republic of Mahabad might be useful in the creation of a shared sense of identity. I speculate that a reliance on those shared pan-Kurdish symbols will make it more difficult for Kurds to credibly signal to the Turkish and Iraqi governments that they will not seek greater unification. Similarly, I am trying to track if and how Syrian Druze invoke the history of the state of Jabal Druze in their self-governance efforts. The flag of Jabal Druze has begun to appear with Druze military units serving in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army. If the Assad regime crumbles, I would not be surprised to see the rediscovery of the Alawite State’s flag and symbols as Alawites retrench to the coastal governates of Latakia and Tartus. Examples from Libya began this memo. I will use online sources to track the “revival” of symbols and memories of failed states.

I think this project will challenge conventional understandings of how current conflicts might reshape the map of the contemporary Middle East. It should also reshape the state-building literature by demonstrating the extent to which existing scholarship truncates the dependent variable. To understand states that survived, we need to examine those that did not.

David Siddhartha Patel is a junior research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University. Previously, Patel was an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.


[1] Teitelbaum, Joshua. 2001. The Rise and Fall of the Hashimite Kingdom of Arabia. New York: New York University Press. Al-Rasheed, Madawi. 1991. Politics in an Arabian Oasis: The Rashidi Tribal Dynasty. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Stuart, Graham H. 1955. The International City of Tangier. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Bang, Anne K. 1996. The Idrisi State in Asir, 1906-1934: Politics, Religion, and Personal Prestige as Statebuilding Factors in Early Twentieth-Century Arabia. Bergen: Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

[2] If I cannot reappropriate the term “failed state,” I might call them “states that failed” or “polities that passed.” I am trying to avoid referring to them as “dead” states because part of the project explores the extent to which they continue to survive through memory and the conditions under which they might be revived.

[3] See Correlates of War Project. 2011. “State System Membership List, v2011.” Online, The COW project defines membership in the international system after 1920 as membership in the League of Nations or United Nations or a population of 500,000 or more and establishment of diplomatic missions from any two major powers. And see Fazal, Tanisha. 2007. State Death: The Politics of Geography and Conquest, Occupation and Annexation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 14-17.

[4] Abramson created a dataset of European states from 1100-1789. Abramson, Scott. 2013. “The Economic Origins of the Territorial State.” Unpublished Manuscript. Princeton University.

[5] Davies, Norman. 2012. Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations. New York: Viking.

[6] On conquest see Fazal, 2007. On collective abdication see Ermakoff, Ivan. 2008. Ruling Oneself Out: A Theory of Collective Abdications. Durham: Duke University Press.

[7] The one exception to this is the tendency of histories of Saudi Arabia to briefly explain why the Al Saud defeated the Al Rasheed. See, for example, Al-Rasheed, Madawi. 1992. “Durable and Non-Durable Dynasties: The Rashidis and Saʿudis in Central Arabia.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 19, 2:144–58.

[8] Britain had to come to the defense of Kuwait in 1899, 1901, 1914, 1920, 1928, and 1961. Not to mention 1991…

[9] Barzani, Massoud. 1997. “An Ideal Time and Place to be Born a Kurd.” The International Journal of Kurdish Studies 11, 1-2:49-52.

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