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Emirates and Central States

Emirates and Central States

Syed Ibrahim Moiz, full rights reserved


Bism Allah

Readers might be familiar with my liberal usage of the term emirate when discussing certain modern countries or political entities. Given that this Arabic term is out of use in much of the modern world, some confusion is understandable. In this brief article I shall outline why I use this term and what for. I use the term for three types of modern political arrangement: firstly large and internally autonomous political units in a federalist system, such as Sharjah within the United Arab Emirates or Puntland within Somalia; secondly such large political units that are practically, but not officially, autonomous within decentralized states; and thirdly such political entities and polities that are in fact entirely autonomous and independent, but are not internationally recognized as such.

Why Emirates?

First we must begin with what an emirate is. Historically, emirates were practically independent, or partly independent, principalities in the Islamic world, usually attached to some greater polity as vassals or as allies. The practical dissolution of the centralized caliphate – the ultimate temporal state for Muslims – in the eighth and ninth centuries, on which I have tangentially written more here, here, and here – saw a number of practically independent polities emerge, led by usually local political-military leaders or emirs. These were usually regional strongmen, tribal leaders, aristocrats, military adventurers, or a combination thereof. While the vast majority of such emirates were in practice quite autonomous, however, they pledged official loyalty to the caliphate and usually received at least symbolic diplomas and certificates from the caliph to cement their authority. Some emirates, such as the Samanid emirate in Central Asia, sprawled over considerable territory. The caliphal authority was largely formal here, but certainly not unimportant; for instance caliphal recognition might be sought in a dispute between different emirates.

Over the years, the term sultanate came to be used by many such polities – particularly the larger ones, such as the Ghazni-based sultanate that may have popularized the term. Often, with sultanates wielding more immediate power in their neighbourhood than did the caliphate, smaller emirates aligned themselves as vassals or allies with sultanates. One case study is the Ayyubid sultanate in the thirteenth-century Levant; it was a rather loosely structured confederation led by the Ayyubid family of military adventurers and their lieutenants. Although many minor Ayyubid members quite liberally used the term sultan – the sultan of such and such city, for instance – this was unusual among most sultanates: in practice they were emirs loosely loyal to the sultan, who was himself officially loyal to the caliph; in turn, emirs were also officially loyal to the caliph and could, and in some cases did, appeal to caliphal support against the sultan or against rival emirs. Even sultanates, thus, were at this point confederations of smaller emirates (emirate + emirate = sultanate). Confederations are loose arrangement where the peripheral units are individually sufficiently large to avoid central domination. In such cases where the peripheral units are smaller and weaker compared to the centre – the case for most modern states – the state is able to centralize.

During the age of sultanates: Emirate + Emirate + Emirate = sultanate (officially subservient to caliphate)

During the pre-sultanate age: Emirate + Emirate + Emirate = caliphate

Starting from the Mamluk sultanates of the thirteenth century, many sultanates became far more centralized than their predecessors, culminating in the union of the caliphate and sultanate in the Ottoman sultanate, a state that was far more centralized than most others. This progressive historical centralization of classic sultanates is why I shall proceed to use the term emirate, with its more centrifugal connotations, rather than sultanates, with its more centralized connotations.

Emirates in federal systems. In the modern period, the United Arab Emirates is a functional example of a federalized system and among the few that use the term emirate officially for its constituent units. As its name indicates, this is a union of Gulf principalities that in the early 1970s united to form a recognized state, paramount among whose constituents were Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Arguably until very recently, the emirs of the constituent principalities – Sharjah, Rasul-Khaimah, Ajman, and so forth – enjoyed internal autonomy in their affairs, with only foreign policy, military policy, and security controlled by the capital at Abu Dhabi. Much as Sharjah is an emirate vis-à-vis the United Arab Emirates centre, I will use the term emirate to describe other constitutionally autonomous constituents of states. Thus Puntland and Jubaland in modern Somalia, a state that recently became federalist in its constitution, are emirates with regard to the Somali state.

Emirates in non-federal systems. Far more common, particularly in states that have undergone some sort of conflict, is the emirate as non-constitutional entity; that is, the state is not officially federalist, but it has a region or an unofficial faction that is practically autonomous. One example is the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan (or Bashur, South Kurdistan), which is in fact but not on paper entirely autonomous from Baghdad since the 1990s. With independence referendums having been quashed, Bashur/Iraqi Kurdistan is still not an independent state, but in practice it has an administration, parties, military and security units, and economy that is almost entirely independent from the Iraqi state proper. In my parlance, thus, Bashur is an emirate with regard to the Iraqi state even though there is no such constitutional arrangement.

Such cases are often found in wartorn countries. For example, Syria’s devastating war has seen the defacto split of the country into enclaves; the Syrian Baathist regime controls much of southern and central Syria, but in the late 2010s the northeast was held by American-backed Qasd militia and the northwest by the Nusra Front, which expelled Turkish-backed rivals from much of the Idlib province. During the Lebanese civil war, the south was held by the Israeli-backed Maronite militia the South Lebanese Army, and could be said to constitute an emirate; they were eventually displaced and replaced by Iranian-backed Hezbollah, whose control in southern Lebanon arguably makes that region a Hezbollah emirate. Afghanistan in the 1990s saw a number of such emirates spring up quite independent of Kabul – the 1992-95 Herat emirate led by Ismail Khan, a principality with no official basis but practically entirely independent, being a key example.

Often it takes military force, or the threat of military force, to keep such non-constitutional emirates at bay. My own homeland, Pakistan, is a rare example of a functional state where the provinces could almost be conceived as emirates. Unlike practically any other country of similar size and population, Pakistan has only four very large provinces – each of which thereby can exercise considerable centrifugal pull on the central state. This has over the years formed an uneasy arrangement whereby the few centralist instruments – foremost the army – have wrestled for power with provincial centres. Given the rapid fragmentation of Pakistan’s first nationwide party the Muslim League, the army is now one of the few centralist – and thusly often resented by provincial elites – factors in a country that is structurally but not constitutionally built like a federalist state. The other major nationwide party in Pakistani history, the People’s Party, adopted a ruthlessly centralist stance in its 1970s heyday – but, in its subsequent rivalry with the army, has since then adopted a far more centrifugalist stance and took steps toward federalism during its stint in power in 2010. The 1990s in particular saw the large parties feuding over the periphery in Pakistan, with the army usually called in as a referee to settle their issues. Thus Pakistan comes tantalizingly close to becoming a state where the provinces could be potentially conceived as emirates – except that the centralist power in the “sultanic” capital’s armoury, the military, prevents it. This also accounts largely for the periodic civilian-military mistrust and unrest in Pakistan.

Emirates as unrecognized states. The arbitrariness of the modern state system means that, unlike bygone centuries – where control over a stable principality was enough to warrant recognition – such recognition is no longer guaranteed today. This brings us to the last type of emirate, one that often overlaps with the other categories here. That is the unrecognized state – a sizeable territory administered by a faction or coalition of factions for a sizeable period, but lacking diplomatic recognition as such for various reasons – often to do with wary neighbours or power politics at the global level. I use the term emirate here too, because many historical emirs were not officially recognized as independent of the sultanate or caliphate – even though they very much were in most regards. The Aghlabis and Tahiris in the ninth century, for instance, were practiclaly autonomous to the extent that they had dynasties; yet on paper, they were no more than governors-general for the Abbasids.

Examples abound today. Chechnya announced its independence from Russia in 1993 and, within three years, practically achieved it through war. While the subsequent Chechen principality of Ichkeria was beset by its own share of problems, it was unique among Russia’s breakaway substituents in that it nonetheless ruled independently of Russian administration or arms until 1999-2000, when Russia invaded and captured it. Yet it was not recognized by any state actors. Ichkeria in 1996-2000 is therefore an example of an emirate of this third type. Northern Cyprus, liberated from Cyprus by Turkey in 1974, is nonetheless internationally unrecognized, and thus counts as another emirate. Somaliland clawed away from a crumbling Somalia in 1991 and remains independent to this day – but, unrecognized in spite of considerable lobbying attempts, it counts as another emirate of a very different sort to Somalia’s Puntland and Jubaland regions.

One key aspect of this sort of emirate is that the governing party has, like an actual state, control over a significant body of territory. The 1993 Oslo Accord gave the Palestinian fidayin a (very limited) control over parts of Israeli-conquered Palestine, but the split between Hamas and the others in 2007, and the Hamas takeover of the Ghazza Strip, rendered the latter a Hamas emirate. Despite their headquarters in the West Bank, the remaining Palestinian Authority can not be considered an emirate because they lack such comprehensive control over their territory as Hamas has in its territory.

Similarly, when Nusra seized control of Syria’s Idlib province from other insurgents in 2017, it implemented a different, and largely exclusive, control in areas under its control, which differed from the Idlib of 2015-17 that had been ruled by a coalition of groups. The Taliban, who captured most of Afghanistan in the 1990s until their ouster, did have comprehensive control in the area they governed, but were never recognized internationally, and their emirate was eventually ousted by American invasion. Similar dynamics seem to be have played out in Yemen during its several wars; most recently the Houthis, who control most of the north today, can be considered an unrecognized emirate.


It should be noted that when I refer to emirates in the modern sense, I do not mean that they function in their internal governance as medieval polities (most modern emirates are officially republics). Rather their place within the international system is broadly analogous to that of the historical emirate. We have covered three types of emirate here, some of which overlap. The question of emirates and their surrounding states can, I think, lend some clarity to several relevant topics in political science: the question of state versus non-state actors, the question of centre versus periphery, the question of state fragmentation. I have certainly found it a helpful lens during my research.