Citizenship and Social Pacts in the Middle East and North Africa


​What is the meaning of citizenship in the MENA region? What analytical insights does the focus on citizenship have to offer? Why doesn’t citizenship play a bigger role in the analysis of state, society and politics in the MENA region?

​Citizenship is not the term that comes to mind when analyzing politics and society in the Middle East and North Africa. Researchers do speak of citizens, but most often in a casual way: “the citizens of such and such a country do this or that, react to this or that”. Citizenship is taken for granted, but never really analyzed. Yet questions about who a citizen is, what their rights are, and how citizenship is formed and thought about are central to understanding the MENA region, as Nils Butenschøn argued over twenty years ago. Several elements go into citizenship: a sense of belonging and identity; notions of law, employment, justice, security; and the provision of services such as education, health care and security. The general rule is that as soon as a modern state emerges, so does citizenship. The relationship between the two constitutes the social contract, in which the state acquires legitimacy in exchange for services, security and justice.

From the perspective of citizenship studies, the MENA region can be analyzed as an ongoing attempt to develop a social contract that is inclusive enough to include all ethnic and religious groups, women, and minority groups, but also as a failed contract which meets the many demands placed on it.

In this seminar, we will examine the various social contracts that have existed and how they have failed to live up to expectations. In his presentation, Roel Meijer will return in particular to the failure of the Arab socialist social contract, and the alternative citizenship projects that have emerged since then as they have been developed by both Islamists and various sectarian movements, including ISIS and the current militias. in the different countries. It will be argued that rather than rooting the analysis in concepts such as Islamism, authoritarianism, civil society or democracy – the common ways of analyzing the MENA region – citizenship could be a viable alternative lens. to analyze the area. Not only does this make the region less exotic, but it also makes it more accessible and paves the way for policies that strengthen citizens’ rights and movements that promote inclusive and equal citizenship.

Opening speech by Kristian Berg Harpviken, Research Professor at PRIO and Director of the PRIO Middle East Centre.


Roel Meijer is Associate Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and North African History at Radboud University Nijmegen. He has published numerous articles on citizenship and the Middle East and edited two volumes with Nils Butenschøn: The Middle East in transition: the centrality of citizenship (Edw. Elgar 2018) and The crisis of citizenship in the Arab world (Brill 2017).


Nils Butenschon is professor (emeritus) of political science and international relations at the Norwegian Center for Human Rights, University of Oslo. He has published widely on the Middle East and was instrumental in developing a citizenship curriculum in Middle Eastern studies.

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Middle Eastern breakfast

The PRIO Middle East Center is hosting a series of breakfast seminars for Oslo’s diverse Middle East-watching community. The series will draw attention to current issues and discuss them in light of historical, regional and global trends. MidEast Breakfast offers the opportunity to combine breakfast and food for thought in a compact one-hour format.


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