With the language of multiple and inter-related crises dominating descriptions of the Middle East, it is easy to believe that the Arab state is fragmenting into fiefdoms, sectarian strife and trans-nationally inspired chaos. Yet of the 22 member states of the Arab League, only three – Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon – show signs of current or potential collapse. The rest, with the ever-present exception of the Palestinian state-still-to-be-created, continue to adapt and change with a resilience that belies current perceptions.
Much hinges on how one defines the Arab state. For an increasing majority of Arab populations, the state has long since ceased to be a public entity, accessible to its citizens. Instead, it is a largely privatized concept, controlled and inhabited by the minority of those who populate its decision-making apparatus and exclusively determine the dispensation of its assets. For all the talk of democracy, it is accountability and access to a broader concept of the state that the Arab world’s dispossessed citizenry seeks most. But even in the societies where civic space has (haltingly) opened in the form of elected parliaments and press and public freedoms, their purpose has been for discontents to let off steam, not to extend their political access. Few institutions of state function as mechanisms to bring transgressors to account or to change official policy, despite occasional concessions to a wider set of interest groups. Still less can public debate direct or influence “public” spending toward productive and sustainable ends.