Many fields are explored when looking at Middle Eastern and North African politics, ranging from sectarian politics, tribal affairs and regional power struggles to the analysis of governing styles. Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East uses case studies from the Middle East and Africa to examine the way that the institutional construction of the state has contributed to the current political situation in the countries examined.
The book under review was edited by Professor Mehran Kamrava, the Director of the Centre for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University in Qatar. His opening chapter sets out the theoretical framework of a state. The standard Weberian definition of the state is emphasised, and has been used as a platform for questions in subsequent chapters. Essentially, Kamrava has taken an undervalued and underestimated concept in the field of Middle East politics and taken advantage of that to create a comprehensive and unique approach to understanding the many changes that have occurred in the region. The book also examines the concept of a failed state in the academic sense, and clarifies definitive mainstream media misconceptions of what a failed state is. One of the ways that this is done is by defining the dichotomy between a failed state and a failing state. This gives a solid theoretical base for the reader, which makes the other chapters easier to understand.
These are a series of essays written by experts in their fields, who all stuck to the theme of contextualising state theory, bringing their unique approaches and a fresh analytical perspective to bear. The book moves quickly from questioning the typical Westphalian interpretation of a state to an eye-opening analysis of minute details that usually fly over the analysts’ head. An example is the chapter on “Interventionism and the fear of urban agency in Afghanistan and Iraq” by Daniel Esser. While it may be accepted commonly that the capital city of any country is representative of which party has the monopoly of governance and security, the implications of this have been underestimated. For example, any territorial gains made by Daesh in Iraq would have negative implications for the government, but if the group managed to take over Baghdad, it would be the biggest symbol of the failure of the Iraqi government’s ability to control the country.
Other themes include Libya post-Gaddafi, which provides an in-depth analysis of the former dictator’s governance style to explain the reasons behind the current civil war, the identity struggle for Palestinians and their statehood, and Yemen’s historic tribalism and how it has affected the current political situation. The book also looks at the international community’s failure to combat Al-Qaeda’s growth in popularity amongst Yemeni youth, and how that is connected to an intrinsic definition of the state, which does not suit Yemen’s national structure. The position of women, diaspora communities and state capacity are also drawn upon.
Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East is a brilliantly-structured book that offers a fresh viewpoint within the overall debate about why the Middle East is in crisis. In all cases, it shows that troubled Middle East states do not follow Westphalian ideals, and explains how dictatorial regimes are responsible for the current chaos that their countries are in. The book takes a concept that is underestimated in academic literature, simplifies it and tests it against the facts. As well as being rich in factual information, this makes the book easy to understand and follow.