This book manuscript explores the historical development of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East over the past century, arguing that we cannot understand the varying durability of these autocracies without engaging their social origins. Likewise, it contends that the genesis of modern Middle East states profoundly implicates not only intense conflicts between domestic actors but also the geopolitical influence of foreign hegemons. Combining historical research and fieldwork, this project thus investigates how early social conflicts pitting rural-backed regimes, often with the aid of geopolitical patrons, against contentious urban sectors shaped the ruling coalitions mobilized by these autocratic governments at the dawn of the post-colonial era—initial coalitional choices that ultimately shaped the institutional carapaces and political fates of these regimes in future decades. The book develops this theory by identifying three patterns of state-building linking early conflicts and geopolitical subventions with long-term pathways of stability and contestation: regime durability, when rulers rallied mass coalitions in the absence of great power meddling (e.g., Tunisia, Kuwait); tenuous survival, when autocratic sovereigns mobilized selective coalitions combined with limited external support (e.g., Jordan, Bahrain); and political termination, when dictatorial rulers marshaled only narrow coalitions due to the presence of robust Western sponsorship (e.g., Hashemite-era Iraq, Pahlavi-era Iran). The conclusion is counterintuitive. The more that geopolitical patrons enabled domestic rulers to liquidate social opposition during founding conflicts that would determine the fate of the post-colonial state, the more persistent contestation they faced in the long-run due to their adoption of exclusionary and repressive ruling strategies. Conversely, when rulers lacked the exogenous support necessary to crush contentious social groups, and engaged them instead through bargains and negotiation, they erected the institutions and policies necessary to ensure mass backing behind their new regimes.
Image credit: "Emirs of Kuwait" catalogue entry by Laudi Abilama on display at Bardo, Beirut, August 2008. Photo by Lina Khatib