Simon Mabon, Houses built on sand: Violence, sovereignty and revolution in the Middle East (Manchester University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Simon Mabon (SM): In 2013 I spent a lot of time interviewing Bahrainis—both in Bahrain and in exile—who had been involved in the 2011 protests. At that time, I was interested in understanding the emergence of protests across the Middle East and the rising violence that followed, often taking place along “sectarian” lines. Engaging, as many people were in the years after the uprisings, I became increasingly curious as to why some regimes were able to prevent the outbreak of protests all together, while others faced existential challenges to their very survival.

As I continued my interviews, I gradually shifted from a focus on states to look at the ways in which rulers regulate life. In doing so, I moved away from the work of Joel Migdal, Charles Tilly, Lisa Anderson, and others who have done much fascinating and important work on the concept of the state, towards ideas of sovereign power and the work of Giorgio Agamben, Ibn Khaldun, Hannah Arendt, and Achille Mbembe as a means of looking at the ways in which rulers shaped the lives of the ruled through the process of boundary creation, inclusion and, by extension, exclusion.

During my interviews about events in Bahrain, a large number of officials (Bahraini, British, and American) and supporters of the ruling Al Khalifa family blamed the protests on nefarious Iranian manipulation, a point vociferously rejected by those who had taken to the streets. In blaming the protests on Iranian manipulation, the Al Khalifa sought to erode the legitimacy of the protests and frame those demanding change as Iranian fifth columnists—a strategy that is found across the twentieth century, dating back to 1920s Iraq, with Gertrude Bell framing the Shi’a in the south of Iraq as Persian. Lines of exclusion were constructed which mapped onto governance strategies and mechanisms of control. As I looked at other contexts, it became apparent that these mechanisms of control strategies had been honed over previous decades, from the use of capital to more coercive measures designed to prevent the emergence of dissent.

The stories of Bahrainis I interviewed in 2013 stayed with me in the coming years, offering a prescient and all to damning demonstration of the capacity of regimes to regulate all aspects of a person’s life. As my fieldwork broadened out to other countries, similar patterns of boundary making and exclusion became more prominent. Over the coming years, boundary making became tied up with acts of violence and contestation, resulting in escalating conflict in Syria and Yemen, the emergence of Da’ish in Iraq and Syria, the revocation of hundreds of Bahrainis’ citizenship, and protesters taking to the streets of Lebanon in the YouStink protests. Yet as the project developed, it became more apparent that the emergence of states was inextricably linked with processes of exclusion. From this, understanding the relationship between rulers and ruled, and the ways in which rulers regulated life became the central theme of the book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SM: In the book I seek to engage with questions about sovereign power, the regulation of life, and order with a particular focus on the ways in which rulers across the Middle East have retained power. In doing so, I cut across a number of different literatures—albeit literatures which come together when understanding the relationship between rulers and ruled—including political theory, urban politics, Islamic studies, geopolitics, constitutional law, and identity politics. At the intersection of these literatures are questions about the regulation of life and the ways in which mechanisms of control resonate within local, domestic, and regional politics. Yet the book is also influenced by scholars working in sociology, criminology, anthropology, religious studies and political geography.

The central argument of the book is that in order to understand the ways in which protests took place—and the mechanisms used by regimes to control the protests—we must look at the manifestation and operation of sovereign power, and the impact that this has on the regulation of life. Bringing political theory into these discussions about the regulation of life helps us to better understand the ways in which political projects have been created—and then evolved—as a means of creating processes of inclusion and exclusion. Drawing on debates from within political theory, I seek to understand the ways in which political communities close themselves off as an inside against an outside, creating the space as their own. Such an approach allows for a more detailed examination of the ways which different identities reside and interact within particular communities and, from this, a reflection on the nature of space and order.

The ideas of Agamben and Arendt feature prominently in the book, alongside the work of Khaldun and Mbembe. Agamben’s ideas received a great deal of attention after the events of 9/11 and the war on terror, but few have sought to explore the ways in which his ideas resonate in the Middle East, aside from the likes of Sari Hanafi, Ronit Lentin, John Nagle, and Sara Fregonese. Agamben’s ideas offer a rich philosophical approach through which one can understand efforts to organise and control of human life through the governance power of the state. Taken further, Agamben’s ideas help to understand the creation of what he terms bare life, the conditions in which the lives of people can be stripped of political meaning, essentially abandoned by the state yet bound by its laws.

In the book I look at efforts to regulate life in different forms, from constitutional documents and efforts to derive legitimacy from religion, to economic and coercive mechanisms of control, of both people and space. Yet the presence of shared identities, norms, language, and histories means that processes of regulation and exclusion can have repercussions across the region; similarly, the emergence of protest movements too can inspire action. As such, with a nod to international relations scholars working on the region, it is important to consider the ways in which events cut across levels of analysis, both from regional to domestic and from domestic to regional.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

SM: My previous work has predominantly focused on the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which, on reflection, was grounded in more traditional IR debates. This book has allowed me to build on some of my earlier work but also to ground that in a more rigorous discussion of local politics and how regional trends shape the regulation of life. While Houses could have been written without my previous work, I think that my earlier books provided me opportunities to better understand the impact of regional developments on domestic affairs. That being said, this is a stark departure from my earlier work. It is perhaps the piece of work that I am most proud of, and it was also the most challenging to write.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SM: For obvious reasons, I hope that the book will be read by scholars, students, journalists, and policy makers. While theoretically dense in parts, I hope that there is also scope for the informed general reader to broaden their understanding of regional politics, rejecting a few lazy stereotypes in the process. I also hope that this book goes some way in offering a new way of looking at the Arab Uprisings and, perhaps more broadly, a lens through which to look at the evolution of relations between rulers and ruled. As analysts continue to label recent outbreaks of protest as the “Arab Spring 2.0,” I hope that Houses demonstrates that we should not view acts of protest independently, but rather as part of a broader struggle for inclusion and belonging.

I am thankful to Manchester University Press for making the book open access which, I hope, means that it will get a wider readership that it perhaps might have done otherwise.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SM: As director of the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-Sectarianisation (SEPAD) Project at Lancaster University’s Richardson Institute , I retain a keen interest in exploring sectarianism and ideas of desectarianization. Understanding the processes of boundary making and unmaking is central to much of my current work, explored in generous grants from Carnegie Corporation and The Henry Luce Foundation. In pursuit of this, I am working with a wonderful team of SEPAD Fellows who push me intellectually and personally (a huge thanks to you all!).

I am completing a monograph for Cambridge University Press on the impact of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran on divided societies across the Middle East. This book seeks to pull out some of the regional-domestic linkages from Houses, challenging several assumptions about sectarianism and trans-regional linkages and rejecting the “proxy wars” thesis. Instead, I argue that while shared sectarian affinity serves as one means of facilitating transnational relationships, there are other aspects at play, including shared visions of order, belonging, and security.

Extract from the book (from Chapter 7, pp. 183-187)

As protesters took to the streets in early 2011, political organisation was renegotiated amidst the reconceptualization of protest and resistance. This biopolitical machinery helped regimes control life, stripping it of political meaning but when this was deemed insufficient, sovereign power was exerted by controlling life through death. Regimes across the Middle East are largely adept at dealing with political dissent, but this was a scale unlike no other. Regimes quickly declared states of emergency, suspending political structures and the rule of law as a consequence of perceived existential threats to their rule. Recourse to such methods was hardly surprising, yet as the repeal of emergency legislation was a prominent feature of protestor’s demands, such action only served to escalate tensions. Once again, the state of exception had become the paradigm of government, the new norm.

The historical use of emergency legislation across the Middle East set a precedent for constitutional powers to be used in times of domestic unrest, embedding potentiality within the fabric of political organisation. Yet with the onset of the uprisings, regimes derogated from legal responsibilities to ensure their survival. The uprisings had a seismic impact upon regional dynamics as millions of people were displaced from their homes amidst widespread instability and violence across the region. Widespread migration both within and between states impacted not only on state infrastructures but also their economies, as refugee populations were comprised of large numbers of professionals and highly qualified workers. The flow of people across state borders placed huge strains upon host countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, whilst also having a serious impact upon the construction of societies and their very survival.

These actions occurred in space which quickly took on new political meaning, opening up new sites for regulation. Whilst sites of opportunity, they were also sites of the mundane, where the theatre of the spectacle was also the everyday landscape of life’s routines, making the evolution of space more powerful. Amidst contested societies and environments, public spaces become the battleground; the more symbolic the better. Across the region, people articulating political messages occupied public spaces where they were quickly met with counter-narratives, protests and often, the security mechanisms of the state. As Mona El-Ghobashy suggests, “the streets had become parliaments, negotiating tables and battlegrounds rolled into one”. Public space quickly became a zone of indistinction: a site of contestation and exception, where regime and opposition discourses clashed, whilst repressive force was a mechanism of control.

The uprisings triggered a fundamental shift in the way of doing politics. Beyond the mobilisation and direct action seen in the squares of the region, politics became a topic that was readily discussed as the shackles of authoritarian restrictions were thrown off. Debate about political life was everywhere but with such debate came divisions. As securitizing moves took place, political divisions both online and in person between family and friends became increasingly heated, resulting in ostracization and separation. It was a time of uncertainty for regimes and peoples, but it was a time when regimes fought back.

Derogation from constitutional clauses and establishment of emergency powers gave regimes seemingly unlimited power to respond to protest movements in whatever way was deemed necessary. Although a number of constitutions possessed clauses that limited the time under which emergency legislation could be imposed without review, such powers were rarely challenged. Through derogating from legal obligations, regimes were given power to respond to protests with violence, both direct and structural, destroying political space and reshaping the nature of societal dynamics. Such moves allowed for the repression of a range of different political and religious groups across the Middle East with regional repercussions.

Emergency Laws were deeply unpopular and often cited by protestors as one of their main grievances. Perhaps the most prominent example of the draconian use of such laws was in Egypt. Although Emergency Laws in Egypt were lifted in the final days of the Mubarak regime – for the first time since 1980 – they were quickly reinstalled by SCAF amidst the uncertainty of post-revolutionary life. In response, rights organizations were vocal in their condemnation of the move. In response to Decree 193/2011, which not only revived the powers but also expanded their scope, an open letter was written that noted how the legislation

Strengthened the belief that a vast gulf separates, on one hand, Egyptians’ aspirations for democracy, an end to the legacies of an obsolete despotic regime, and a clean break with the practices and policies of that repressive regime, and on the other, the tendencies of those administering the country’s affairs, who are clearly and gradually preserving the primary components of the deposed president’s regime while attempting to give it a facelift by sacrificing several old regime figures.

Although Mohammad Morsi had promised to remove emergency laws, when faced with serious threats to his regime he derogated from the rule of law, returning to a paradigm of government that had become the all too common norm. In support of the sovereign decision, Morsi stated that “I am against any emergency measures, but I have said that if I must stop bloodshed and protect the people then I will act”.

After the coup d’etat that deposed Morsi in the summer of 2013, Decree 136 permitted military personnel to stand by police forces to protect buildings. Such a decision was supported by the move to allow civilians to be tried in military courts, once more depriving people of political rights. Two years on from the uprisings, concern at the behaviour of the security services remained, amidst widespread corruption and endemic violence, with policemen remaining “above the law and immunized from criminal accountability”.


In the early days of the uprisings in Syria, emergency laws were repealed in a token nod towards the protest movements. Imposed in 1963 to legislate for the prolix war with Israel the laws were used to support efforts to counter internal dissent, feeding into narratives that dissent was an attempt to emasculate the nation or collude with the enemy. On 20th April 2011, Decree 161 lifted the emergency legislation, but the state of emergency was later replaced with Decree 54. Upon its implementation Mohammed Al Shaar, the Interior Minister, was explicit in his warnings to protestors stressing that they must “refrain from taking part in all marches, demonstrations or sit-ins under any banner whatsoever”.

Amidst unrest across the Bahrain, on 15th March 2011, the Al Khalifa declared a state of emergency in accordance with Article 36(b) of the Bahraini Constitution. Coming a day after GCC troops crossed the King Fahd causeway, emergency legislation was imposed to restrict political activity and support counterrevolutionary efforts, coupled with the use of military courts to try protestors. Three days later, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh declared a 30-day state of emergency, suspending the constitution. In Kuwait, regime efforts to regulate political life involved handing out prison sentences to those who stormed the parliament along with those who insulted the Emir.

In a similar move, Saudi Arabia sought to regulate political activity through recourse to counter-terror laws that restricted access to the internet and freedom of speech. Such efforts resulted in the establishment of new anti-terror legislation which meant that acts of peaceful dissent can be defined as terrorist crimes. In addition to such manoeuvring, Riyadh employed other strategies to regulate political dissent and opposition. The Ministry for Culture and Information placed legal requirements on anyone wishing to blog to have a license; those wishing to apply for a license had to be in possession of a college degree and be over 20.

Another mechanism of control that became increasingly prominent at this time sought to regulate citizenship, where the politics of identity and ensuing revocation of citizenship rights from individuals became increasingly important in times of crisis. Such a tactic has been routinely used across the Gulf, provoking not only philosophical questions about the nature of citizenship, but also exploration the legal mechanisms through which such strategies can be undertaken. As Zahra Bashar notes, the importance of historical and cultural dynamics has created a particular form of citizenship and stringent restrictions upon those who can claim nationality. With this in mind, after the uprisings, states across the Gulf amended legislation to allow for the removal of citizenship through recourse to either anti-terrorism legislation or nationality laws and between 2011 and 2018, 738 Bahrainis had their citizenship revoked in perhaps the quintessential example of bare life. One former MP told me that he found out that he had lost his nationality whilst in London, via Al Jazeera.

Amidst such conditions, lives are deemed “expendable” through the cultivation of bare life, through recourse to Law Number 58 of 2006 for Protecting Society from terrorism Acts and The Citizenship Law of 1963. In Bahrain, it is illegal to be a stateless individual, a crime routinely punished under the Asylum and Immigration law. As a consequence of their position in society, the stateless are unable to appeal against the charges as they possess no legal protection or ability to give lawyers power of attorney. It denies individuals access to employment, marking them as migrant workers requiring sponsorship, along with the right to own property. It also denies healthcare and excludes children from formal education. By the summer of 2018, 738 individuals had been stripped of their citizenship, many of whom remain in Bahrain as “illegal residents”, reduced to bare life: abandoned by the law yet bound to it.

Beyond the physical space, protests also took place online, prompting regime efforts to regulate the internet and arresting a number of individuals such as Nabeel Rajab, a Bahraini human rights activist, for criticizing the Al Khalifa. While social media is often heralded as the means through which the uprisings took place, such a position denies local agency and the widespread regulation of the internet meant that some narratives were restricted. Supporting this position, Derek Gregory acknowledges that Westerners in positions of privilege tend to reduce political action in the Middle East to the digital repertoire, ignoring the importance of “brave bodies in alliance installing new spaces”.

The uprisings demonstrated once more that space matters, highlighting the power of the street, of collective consciousness and the possibility of becoming as the intimately tiny collided with hegemonic regional pressures. Yet the process of negotiating the uprisings – the clash between regimes and societies – reminded many that ownership of space had not been fully transformed from elites to publics. Efforts to demonstrate control through architecture continue as violence is embedded within urban structures. The erasure of symbolic sites was supplemented with an increasingly militarised regulatory force and an increase in symbolic violence. Across the Gulf, the presence of ruling families in public spaces, along highways and within hotels increased in the aftermath of the protests; regime power was seemingly all encompassing and hard to avoid.