The Permanent State of War and the Future(s) of the Middle East

#WR2050 5 / November 2020

Author: Gabriel Garroum, PhD candidate at King’s College London, Department of War Studies

Imagining the future is a temporal struggle, a potential weapon, a dangerous journey. Yet, we desperately yearn for it, we constantly desire better times ahead. However, location and trajectory are essential; the horizon of possibilities does not look the same everywhere. For those who think in and about the Middle East, it is hard to disassociate imagination from the effects and transformations of war. I am not suggesting here the unfortunately common, unrefined vision of the Middle East as merely the land of conflict. It is, on the contrary, to call for an approach to war as a social institution, once and for all. This is, I would argue, a necessary point of departure to imagine futures and counter-futures alike. Indeed, the period 2019-2020 seems to offer an advanced, disturbingly accelerated glimpse on future potentialities.

The first concern is the place of violence and security. For the Middle East - that conglomerate of mostly postcolonial states that rarely become more than an empirical case study - the promise of complete security is little more than an induced optical illusion. The question of security, as traditionally posed, is irrelevant amid the current material conditions of its polity. For those who experience the cycle of endless violence, categories are useless; there is no real war and then several other types of more or less lethal conflicts and scenarios. War, as well as the preparation for war, take shape in endless registers and speeds, affecting our collective imaginations, our infrastructures and bodies. War, understood this way, is a socially-organising, ubiquitous phenomenon in the Middle East. It pervades everything, everywhere.

The second concern, which is inherently related, is the position of the state in the region. The state is, for many in the Middle East, the number one provider of insecurity. This, of course, is neither a recent phenomenon nor exclusive to this region. However, it is fair to say that the intensification of authoritarianism and repression of dissent, disintegration of state structures, and collapse of basic services has severely intensified during the last years. Although the Middle East is profoundly embedded in an international constellation of great powers that still decides much of its future, this last decade has substantially shown that the ‘domestic’ also has agency. The state, in other words, has never been so actively questioned from within.

Thus, where is the Middle East heading to? The proliferation of a myriad of war-intensities and the increasing inner challenges to the state - from massive popular mobilisations to the increasing dissolution of state actors/non-state actors binary - suggests that the future will be a highly contested one. Arguably, the state is here to stay, and it will keep dominating the production and shaping of regional (dis)order. The question remains whether local civil constituencies will be able to crack the vicious cycle of violence and force the state to halt the rampant logics of fear and exclusion currently in place. In other words, and echoing Achille Mbembe, the upcoming struggle remains against a state of affairs that closes the future for many and leaves it open for some.