Nida Alahmad, “State, Oil, and War in the Formation of Iraq,” in Joel Beinin, Bassam Haddad, and Sherene Seikaly (eds.), A Critical Political Economy of the Modern Middle East (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020).

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

Nida Alahmad (NA): Past inquiries into Iraq’s contemporary politics have often paid attention to certain questions of political economy. However, I think that the majority of this work has been mostly informed by a limited range of questions and frameworks that, in their attempt to address immediate political concerns, often neglect the historical depths of how Iraq’s political economy has been (trans)formed and manifested. In doing so, they lose sense of how complex political and historical agency has always been in Iraq. They also end up projecting strong causal links where they do not really belong, losing sight of the malleability of the mechanisms of power and control. This chapter aims, in part, to de-center the positions of state, oil, and war in our understanding of Iraq’s modern political economy, while at the same time pointing to the roles that they have played. I try to show that oil, state, and war, which have often been seen as central categories or actors in forming Iraq’s politics and political economy, are simply thematic markers wherein we can observe historical processes and struggles that have made possible the co-constitution and reconstitution of social formations such as class, sect, and so on. This is contrary to how those themes have often been portrayed, which is as clear causes of political effects.

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

NA: I try to show within each theme of state, war, and oil how social relations such as class, sect, nation, and gender have been constantly renegotiated and transformed. To do so, I draw on a wide range of disciplinary sources (history, politics, political economy, and sociology).

Within the theme of the “state,” I show through concrete examples how processes of modern state building, consolidation, and expansion were already underway during the nineteenth century under the Ottoman Empire. Efforts to consolidate state power have continued, with various degrees of success, since that time. Drawing on a range of cases, I show how Iraq’s political economy has been entangled with efforts to consolidate state power through various methods of expanding the state’s reach through infrastructure, development projects, land, and population control.

As for the theme of oil, I address the limitations of the rentier state theory (RST) which has, since the 1980s, been the predominant framework within which the politics of oil-dependent states in the region have been understood. I explore the reasons for the prominence and persistence of this paradigm and offer an alternative understanding of the role of oil in understanding Iraq’s political economy. I suggest that we cannot depict oil rent as the singular factor in the state’s capacity to coopt and oppress political life as depicted by RST. I show how oil has enabled—while not necessarily caused—both national and international processes that altered the nature of political power in Iraq and also the social relations within the country.

The role of violence and war is woven into the narrative of the chapter, again showing through a range of cases that their effect has never been as singular as is often depicted. For instance, while wars and sanctions led to shrinking state control over territories closer to the borders in the 1990s, at the same time they opened the door for new forms of social state control that influenced political economic interactions, including the role and meaning of tribal relations in Iraq, for example.

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

NA: My work so far has been concerned with the question of the state, both as an object of knowledge and intervention. I have written a number of pieces related to this project, including an article on the reconstruction of the electrical grid under the US occupation of Iraq, and what this experience can tell us about state-building as a political technology, and this blog post reflecting on the study of the Iraqi state after 2003. In this sense, my work does address many questions that also appear in this chapter, such as how political power has been contested and transformed in Iraq as a result of various attempts to build and consolidate the state. But my attention in this chapter was primarily focused on questions of political economy and locating them within different sites of Iraq’s contemporary politics.

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

NA: I would hope that this book (and my chapter) will be read by students, colleagues, and anyone who is interested in understanding the politics and political economy of Iraq and the Middle East. I would also hope that this collection will encourage a rethinking of the categories and frameworks that are commonly used in framing questions about the politics of the Middle East.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NA: I am now working on a book project with a tentative title, State Matters: Theorizing the State and its Experts through the Iraqi Experience. It addresses questions about state-building as a form of interventionist expert knowledge, and its relation to forms of knowledge production in academia about the state generally, and the Iraqi and Middle Eastern state in particular. I start in this project from a point of contrast. The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq attempted to strengthen state capacity and transform Iraq into a liberal democracy. Their experiment in Iraq drew on state-building expertise, with academic experts in constitutions, democratization, and oil economies were consulted or employed on various state-building projects. In 2006 the state collapsed, leading to Iraq’s first sectarian civil war. The failure of the US project contrasts with the ability of the Ba’athist regime (1963-2003) to keep the state intact, at least in appearance, despite decades of wars and bombardment (1980-1989; 1990-1991; 1998) and over a decade of comprehensive international economic sanctions (1990-2003). These external pressures should have led to the state’s collapse. This project suggests that accounting for this contrast means revisiting our understanding of the state and its relationship with expert and other forms of knowledge.


Excerpt from the chapter (from the introduction) 

“The study of Iraqi politics and political economy, at least within the English-speaking world, has long been defined by Hanna Batatu’s The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq as one characterized by class-based political movements and struggles. Since its publication, the majority of academic works on Iraq have been diplomatic and political histories, while political economy studies of Iraq since the early 1980s have been dominated by rentier state theory. The fall of the Ba‘thist regime in 2003 brought questions regarding Iraq’s national identity, sectarianism, and whether or not Iraq is a colonial invention and thus an artificial state, to the forefront of scholarship. Scholars have also re-examined the Ba‘thist era in terms of governance, the party’s involvement in the daily lives of Iraqis, and the legacies of the Iran-Iraq war. But the political economy of social classes that Batatu introduced forty years ago has not been reexamined since.

Building sociologically detailed accounts of Iraq’s political economy has become increasingly more difficult since Batatu’s work appeared. Consequently, a metanarrative operating on the level of state politics and focusing on the role of the state has predominated in forming the nature of inquiry of Iraq and its political economy. This is not necessarily due to its role as “the center of gravity” in Iraqi politics; it is an effect of the state’s restrictions on academic research of and in Iraq.

Three themes—the state, oil, and war—have shaped both Iraqi politics and Iraqi studies over the past decades. These themes emerge from Iraq’s modern history and its representation in academia. The shifts in the study of Iraq can be traced to two interrelated factors: access to primary source material, and the political context of the time. Limited access to primary sources and restrictions on academic freedom inside Iraq especially during the Ba‘thist period (1963-2003), resulted in the production of political and diplomatic histories that do not, because they could not, draw heavily on empirical or archival sociological investigations. Despite these difficulties, a small number of Iraqi economists, notably Isam Al-Khafaji and Abbas Alnasrawi, addressed questions of political economy particularly in relation to state policies and class formation during this period. But questions of political economy became generally dominated by the emergence of rentier state theory (RST) as a framework to understand the political economy of oil-dependent states in the Middle East during the 1970s and 1980s. This was also manifested in studies on Iraq, particularly during the 1980s. In their joint and separate reviews of Iraq’s historiography, Marion-Farouk Sluglett and Peter Sluglett also point out the emergence of academic work with political agendas supportive of the Iraqi Ba‘thist regime. The Slugletts were among many scholars whose work was critical of the regime. But perhaps the most famous anti-Bat‘thist was Kanan Makiyya who almost mirrored the pro-Ba‘thist writings in his absolutist portrayal of the regime. Because of this political polarization, “[s]cholars and policy makers alike have tended to simplify the complexities and ambiguities of this 35-year [Ba‘thist] period, arguing that the former regime erased both society and politics, leaving post-invasion Iraq a blank slate.

Studies of Iraq underwent a major shift following the 2003 U.S. invasion. While many archival materials have been destroyed or lost during the 2003 war, some of the Ba‘th party archives are now available for scholarly investigation. Official restrictions on academic freedom no longer exist.  However, over the past decade Iraq has been suffering from violent conditions that pose new challenges. Opportunities and restrictions on access to primary sources and fieldwork are partly shaped by the same political circumstances that have informed recent scholarship on Iraq. These include: the collapse of state institutions and immediate disorder following the 2003 invasion; the de-Ba‘thification of Iraqi society; sectarian violence that culminated in civil war in 2006; the threats of the Islamic State (IS) to erase Iraq’s borders that were established, according to its rhetoric, by colonial powers; the new political system of federalism and consociationalism; and the constant negotiations on Kurdish region’s position in Iraq’s political and economic life.

I argue that state, oil, and war are interrelated themes rather than definitively bounded categories that determine certain political economy effects. They are markers in historical processes that, since the late nineteenth century, involved the formation of social relations often organized by conceptual categories such as class, sect, nation, and gender. These social relations have informed and constituted one another within particular material and historical contexts. In what follows I elaborate on the links between the state and oil, trace the impact of wars and armed conflicts, and discuss the transformation of social relations, particularly class.”