The recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have exerted pressure on the regional state system and its borders. Exploring the altered nature and function of borders in a comprehensive and theory-informed manner, together with their domestic, regional and international implications, is long overdue. As a starting point to this endeavour, this article provides the historical context to the problem of contested borders in the MENA region since the formation of the modern state system in the region until today. While problematizing a number of key concepts, the article proposes to analyse the currently contentious nature of many MENA borders by considering the often deeply conflicting configuration of state authority, legitimacy and territoriality over time; the Arab uprisings mark the most recent of a series of critical junctures. Developments at the international, regional and domestic levels are considered while attention is paid to their intersection. The article concludes by raising the question of whether prevailing conceptualisations of the state and its borders are adequate for a real understanding of past and present developments in the region, suggesting that alternative or additional approaches may be helpful.