International Affairs
1 July 2017 , Volume 93, Number 4

In the featured article in the July issue, Louise Fawcett examines the durability of the Middle East state system through the period of upheaval that followed the Arab uprisings of 2011.Interrogating many claims that the region is undergoing a radical transformation, Fawcett argues that the nations and borders of the Middle East will most likely remain intact. While states are invariably fragile, and vulnerable to external and internal challenges to their sovereignty, the twin imperatives of border preservation and state survival should direct the priorities of governing elites for the foreseeable future.  


Louise Fawcett


To many observers the Middle East state system since the Arab uprisings stands at a critical juncture, displaying contradictory patterns of fragility and durability. The uprisings, which started late in 2010, were revolutionary in their initial impact, but beyond Tunisia, it is the counter-revolutionary movement which has proved more durable. However, the region has witnessed regime changes alongside intense levels of popular mobilization, violence and transnational activism. The results have been highly destabilizing, resulting in challenges, not only to regimes, but to the very sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. This, in turn, has contributed to a shifting regional power balance and repeated episodes of external intervention. Some commentators have argued that the whole regional system, always fragile and contested, is finally undergoing radical transformation; others point to its resilience. This article evaluates the latest wave of instability and its consequences for Middle Eastern states, their sovereignty and regional order, introducing themes and discussions taken up in other articles in this special issue. It argues that despite recent upheavals (and multiple predictions to the contrary), the Middle East system of states and borders will likely remain intact—at least in the medium term. This does not mean that states are necessarily ‘strong’ in a Weberian sense or that sovereignty at different levels is uncontested, but that continuity— state survival and border preservation—is likely to prevail over major change.