Babak Mohammadzadeh | University of Cambridge

State-Society Relations and Foreign Policy Autonomy in the Persian Gulf

What are the social and historical processes that determine and constitute state-society relations? And if state-society relations are subject to change, how is the external conduct of states affected by them? Analysts of foreign policy rarely consider the contingent formation of states in human societies. Although domestic factors are frequently invoked to explain foreign policy contingencies, it has proven to be problematic to account for their collective impact (Alden and Aran 2012: 63). The discussion of particular state and societal properties rather creates a range of deterministic, and arguably unhelpful, expectations about the behaviour of states. Authoritarian states are typically expected to possess a great degree of autonomy from public opinion by virtue of their coercive state apparatus, which is understood as affording regime elites a free hand in the conduct of foreign policy. Rentier states which rely largely on the acquisition of external rents and only limitedly extract resources from society are considered to be even less constrained by domestic considerations. Yet, even in polities with seemingly submissive populations, social relations are closely intertwined with dynamics inside and outside of state boundaries. This problematises the notion of a state that exists outside of time and space.

In conceptual and analytical terms, state-society relations provide a holistic and historically sensitive description of the internal structure of states. This can have two mutually constitutive applications in the analysis of foreign policy. On the one hand, the degree of embeddedness of the state in society clarifies to what extent the domestic environment can serve as a resource pool for the enhancement of state autonomy in international affairs, as states variously tap into the geopolitical resources that their societies bring to bear. Alternatively, the manner of embeddedness of the state in society determines the structuration of the state as a result of domestic forces, a factor that might structurally enable a particular type of conduct in foreign affairs. This begs the question to what extent long-term patterns in foreign policy partially depend on the embedded relations of the state-in-society, in both quantitative (degree) and qualitative (manner) terms.

Drawing on Michael Mann’s historical sociology, this thesis seeks to examine how changing state-society relations have influenced the internal constitution and external conduct of the modern Saudi and the Iranian states since their historical emergence in the twentieth century. By focusing on the consolidation of regime structures in Saudi Arabia and Iran and examining successive stages in state formation, this thesis traces how ideological, economic and military organisations of power have transformed the character of the state, engendering variations in the degree and manner of embeddedness of the state-in-society and leading to specific directions in foreign policy.

The thesis will be of disciplinary interest for IR and Middle East studies. It contributes to IR by demonstrating the utility of historical-sociological modes of explanation based on state-society relations and evolving forms of statehood, overcoming the often debilitating inside-outside dichotomy prevalent in many IR theories and providing an alternative means of reconciling rationalist and constructivist approaches to state behaviour. Secondly, the thesis exposes the social origins and historical constitution of the Saudi and Iranian states, and thus provides a new perspective on how state and societal influences have historically interacted with the near-abroad policy of both countries.