Middle Eastern geopolitics I – Statelets

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

Non-state actors have become entrenched in countries across the Arab world over the past few decades, forcing their hosts to rethink their own strategic postures and objectives, writes Tarek Osman



he thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords in 2023 that were supposed to bring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians brought the beginning of a new phase of struggle between the two peoples.

This new phase is part of a wider set of confrontations, hot and cold, that will predominate in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf in the foreseeable future. This wide region will undergo the chaotic repercussions of these hot and cold confrontations for years before a new geopolitical and political economy order takes hold.

Several factors give momentum to them. The first, which this article focuses on, is that in different parts of the region non-state actors have managed to build political, economic, social, and cultural structures over the past few decades and particularly in the years since the failure of the Arab uprisings in 2011 and to coalesce them into statelets that are effectively independent from the states in which they are based.

The most prominent example is the Shia group Hizbullah in Lebanon, but there are also other examples of such groups in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan, as well as others on the margins of the Arab world in the African Sahel that are trying to style themselves in similar ways. Hamas in Gaza has also built and operated its political, economic, administrative, and military structures independently from the Palestinian Authority (PA).

These non-state actors almost always espouse national objectives that are supported not only by the constituencies in their statelets, but also by large sections of the people of the states they are based in, thus widening their political base.

However, their objectives typically transcend the national, and they often adhere to doctrinal, typically religious, ideologies. Hizbullah, Hamas, the Popular Mobilisation in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen all adhere to interpretations of Islam as both a theology and a governing frame of reference, for example.

In some cases, non-state actors rely on regional or international sponsors, either sharing the same ideology, such as in the case of Hizbullah and the Islamic Republic of Iran, or entering into transactional relationships with foreign sponsors that provide financial and logistical support in return for their acting as minor partners in promoting common interests.

In many of these cases, religious, tribal, and national objectives mix with the practical interests of the non-state actors. This often results in their muddled political positioning inside the countries they are based in. Often, however, the mixing of objectives also widens their constituency.

Popularity endows legitimacy, particularly when the processes and institutions of genuine representation are weak or lacking. Since there are underlying and long-simmering feelings of victimisation amongst large sections of Arab societies – very often with justifiable reasons – the objectives and rhetoric of these non-state actors and their championing of national aspirations can merge with feelings of victimisation.

But mixing the secular with the sacred imposes restrictions on their strategic choices. They often become unable to adopt long-term political compromises. Their ideologies, or the objectives on which they have anchored their political identity and often their legitimacy, can compel them to pursue highly challenging ends, even when pursuing these entails colossal costs to themselves and their constituencies, let alone to the societies they have established themselves within.

This strategic determinism often leads to militancy becoming indispensable to the doctrines and ways of operation of these non-state actors.

When these ways of operation prove impactful, the enemies of these actors change their strategic calculus. As I wrote in the US magazine Foreign Affairs in Summer 2020, Hamas, like Hizbullah before it, has been working on developing new ways of attacking Israel with the intention of ultimately compelling the latter to rethink its national security parameters and assumptions. This became glaringly obvious in the wake of the 7 October attacks on southern Israel.

The operations of these non-state actors also create dilemmas for the countries they are based in. Because their operations are a function of decision-making that is independent from the parameters and restraints of the states they are based in, the latter’s geopolitical postures need updating as these actors gain more power and increase and widen their operations.  

For example, Lebanon has faced serious challenges in developing a sustained defence strategy for years, particularly as Hizbullah has upgraded its operations and widened them regionally. Put another way, there is a strong argument for seeing the strategic calculus of these non-state actors as being different from that of the states they are based in.

Non-state actors have become entrenched in several countries in the Arab world, and they will continue to be primary players in Middle Eastern geopolitics in the foreseeable future. It is for this reason that several key players in the region need to rethink their strategic calculus and postures.

The next article in this series will present which countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf need to do so and according to which parameters.


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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