Nation building through state building

Shehab Al-Makahleh
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To diagnose Arab issues, one should first address two concepts: nation-building and state-building. For more than 80 years, Arabs have lost their real identity due to hundreds of years of colonialism and regional conflicts.

Nation building has been used to refer to multilateral and bilateral engagements in post-conflict situations to brittle and friable states. On the other hand, state building hinges on effective political and economic institutions to build the identity and enrich human resources.


The process of building the state relies on the political paradigm in the first place because the innards and objectives vary according to those who are in charge of the state-building process based on their goals, interests and doctrines. The process also depends on social and economic factors.

Therefore, this ontological incongruity has imposed multiple epistemological definitions of state and nation building as an indicator of the dynamic concept of state and nation building at the theoretical and methodological levels in the Arab world, which can be blamed behind all Arab failures at the international fields politically and economically.

Between state and identity

Looking at the predicaments that Arabs are undergoing from the Levantine (Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon) and Iraq, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, one notices that the denominators are state and nation building.

In 1805, Napoleon said: “There cannot be a firmly established political state unless there is a teaching body with definitely recognized principles. If the child is not taught from infancy that he ought to be a republican or a monarchist, a Catholic or a free-thinker, the state will not constitute a nation; it will rest on uncertain and shifting foundations; and it will be constantly exposed to disorder and change.”

There is a dire need in the Middle East to focus on institutional reconstruction and to claim that state-construction undertakings do not inescapably entail a concomitant nation-building struggle

Shehab Al-Makahleh

The onus on external actors in nation building is to succour through organized architecture, which represents social justice backed by democratic procedures such as free elections, constitution, free media, and rule of law.

This cannot act well without healthy economies and free market policies. The link between a state and a nation building is education and media which help to disseminate national cognizance, construct and promote national identity through education, mass media, iconography of the state and its apparatuses.

The oxymoron of endeavouring to construct or reconstruct states cannot be achieved without building the nation. Thus, state foundations cannot be operational and productive without bearing in mind the socio-political consistency of communities.

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The notion of state and nation building in the Middle East is very important to understand the challenges that the Middle Easterners are encountering. State-building is different from nation-building; yet, they are interrelated. This is similar to a hardware (state) and a software (nation). They cannot function well without this juxtaposition.

Thus, there is a dire need in the Middle East to focus on institutional reconstruction and to claim that state-construction undertakings do not inescapably entail a concomitant nation-building struggle because once the state is under construction, the nation can be prepared for the next phase as part of socio-political cohesion.

Challenges galore

The Middle East states face many existential threats and challenges. However, the extortions are twofold. First, state governance is very fragile. Second, because most of the Middle East countries depend on other countries to achieve quick and visible results; this can work out on the short run, but will not be beneficial for these states on the mid-term and long-run.

A flashback at these states reveals that the nation-building process has borne fruits through improving security, expanding economic activities, and enhancing human development.

Either or both?

Hundreds of years ago, the greatest cities in the world had been Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were built in synchronisation with building the nation. The secret lies in building a state in parallel with building the nation as the state is the body and the nation is the soul.

Before the Arab Spring broke out in some countries, the issues that would hinder any progress and development of any state were crystal clear in most of the Middle East countries. This has been fueled by external factors that led to mass demonstrations that toppled some Arab regimes and to civils conflicts amongst others.

Referring to recent history in the aftermath of Western colonialism of Arab states, none of them has enjoyed peace, integration, prosperity and progress although these countries have gained their independence long time ago. Imperialism effect still controls the hinges of most of Arab countries’ political and economic activities.

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The 2011 watershed events left many Arab states in shambles and others in muddles due to the ongoing chaotic shift of coalitions, proxy wars, bigoted vehemence which have marred the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape.

Since 1970s, many Arab countries had states without a system, which paved the way for non-state actors to fill the vacuum in some cities and provinces such as in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia.

This has enfeebled the existing Arab states in favor of other regional powers such as Israel, Iran and Turkey which have benefited from this status quo by gaining clout and ground.

Diagnosing the crisis

By following up the recent history of all Arab states, it can be realised that the state crisis in the Middle East lies in two spheres. The first is the failure state such as Yemen where the decline of the central authority of the government is at stake.

This has instigated dangerous groups to take the initiative to manage and control the country’s security. The second is that Arab states are between the hammer of modernity of economic and social structures and the anvil of conventional systems. This discrepancy exacerbates governance, development and rule of law.

As long as there are conflicting priorities between state and nation-building in the Arab countries, Arab states will not have any political influence regionally and internationally. Thus, state-building should start in line with nation-building through overhauling social, media, economic, educational, security, military and judicial systems in the Arab world to meet future challenges.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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