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School of Social and Political Science: Graduate school


Hsinyen Lai

Hsinyen Lai
Hsinyen Lai
Politics and International Relations School of Social and Political Science University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh UK EH8 9LD
Research Interests
Historical sociology, Gramsci and Marxist Theory, ideas and foreign policy, International Relations of the Middle East, the Gulf Arab states, the Arab Left, China's Middle Eastern policy


MSc(R), Politics (University of Edinburgh, UK)

MA, Political Science with major in International Relations (National Chung-Cheng University, Taiwan)

BA, Arabic Language and Literature (National Cheng-Chi University, Taiwan)


Dr Ewan Stein and Professor Juliet Kaarbo

Research Interests

My research interests mainly lie at the intersection of historical sociology and international relations, especially with the focus on ideology and its interplay with state foreign policy and more broadly with regional politics through the lens of international social theory. These interests relate specifically to two areas of the Middle East and East Asia. After submission of my thesis, I am now drafting a postdoctoral project that explores the presence of People Republic of China (PRC) in the Gulf since the 1970s.    

PhD Project

The Social Drivers of International Relations in the Gulf: Gramsci on the Case of Bahrain and Gulf Alignment 1971-1981

My PhD project revisits the relationship between ideology and foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly that between Arab nationalism and state regional policy in the Gulf. It seeks to answer the question: What explains a Gulf Arab state’s policy toward regional alignment in the independence phase? In doing so, the thesis explores the specific case of Bahrain between 1971 and 1981, a period in which Bahrain attained its formal independence and then moved towards alignment in the form of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). To answer this question, the thesis advances existing explanations in the study of international relations in the Middle East (IRME), especially the Wendtian constructivist approach to norms and identities in the relationship between Arab nationalism and foreign policy. Wendtian constructivists claim that shifts in regional norms from ‘Arabism’ to sovereignty allow one to explain foreign policy in the Middle East after 1967. While such a claim is received uncritically by IRME, the regional policies of individual Gulf Arab states have mostly been examined in this vein and thereby assumed to share some commonalities driven by cultural, sectarian and institutional homogeneity among these states in the region. However, this thesis offers an alternative account of it. By integrating other histories of Arab nationalism with IRME and conceptualising nationalism as a modern ideology, this thesis argues that internal socio-political dynamics mediate the interplay of ideology and a state’s regional policy. It further argues that the formation and evolution of Arab nationalism in international relations of the Gulf is best understood beyond norms and identities, and examined under a more historical and sociological scrutiny − taking both colonial history and the process of capitalist formation into consideration.

This thesis draws on Antonio Gramsci’s insights to build a theoretical framework for conducting a historical sociological investigation of the case of Bahrain. Through a reformulation of Gramsci in an alternative Gramscian approach to the Coxian one in the study of international relations (IR), this thesis reconstructs three interrelated concepts from Gramsci − development, ideology and struggle − to examine the social bases that conditioned the formation and evolution of Arab nationalism, and the political struggle that shaped a locus in which Arab nationalism influenced Bahrain’s policy towards Gulf alignment in the 1970s. It argues that the political struggle included different, contradictory more often than not, social forces deriving from Bahraini late-coming capitalist formation under British colonialism. Then, the struggle continued to impact on the ideological development of Arab nationalism and its interplay with Bahrain’s regional policy. The thesis further argues, in a Gramscian sense, that the struggle was a conflict between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces, which escalated along with the rise of the New Arab Left and the upheaval caused by Marxist-Leninist revolutions in Arabia from the late 1960s onwards. But, it was unresolved after an interrupted process of ‘historical restoration’ between 1971 and 1975. As a consequence, the Al Khalifa regime in Bahrain, as an incomplete hegemony, faced the dilemma of being open about its alignment with the US. Nonetheless, in the second half of the 1970s and the early 1980s, a series of extended regional issues arose, including the Arab cause, the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. The ways in which Al Khalifa responded to these issues reflected the dynamic ideological ties between Arab nationalism and Bahrain’s regional policy and paved the road to Bahrain’s participation in the GCC in 1981. Through an integration of the Bahraini case and the reformulated Gramscian framework proposed in this thesis, the thesis offers a more complex account than the existing literature of international relations in the Gulf and contributes to the historical sociology of IRME in general.


  • Ewan Stein and Hsinyen Lai, 'Ideology, Foreign Policy and Regional Order in the Middle East: Explaining the Persistence of Rival Security Alignments', presented at 5th Global International Studies Conference, World International Studies Committee, Taipei, April 2017.
  • Hsinyen Lai, 'Rethinking the Role of Ideas in the International Relations of the Persian Gulf,' presented at Taiwan Scientific Symposium in Scotland, Edinburgh, March 2015.
  • Hsinyen Lai, 'A Meso Approach to Ideas and Foreign Policy in the Middle East: the Anatomy of State-Society Relations in Historical Sociology,' paper presented at the International Studies Association's annual convention, New Orleans, February 2015.

Other Publications

Grants and Awards

  • WISC Travel Grant, World International Studies Committee (2017) 
  • Fieldwork funding, School of Social and Political Science, Edinburgh University (2016) 
  • Government Scholarship, Ministry of Education, Taiwan (2015-2017)
  • ISA Travel Grant, International Studies Association (2015)

Teaching Experience

  • Tutor,  'Politics of the Middle East', University of Edinburgh (Spring 2017)
  • Tutor, 'Egypt: Political Dynamics in a Changing Middle East', University of Edinburgh (Spring 2015)

Memberships and Other Activities

  • Member of International Relations Research Group, Edinburgh University
  • Member of Foreign Policy Analysis and Role Research Group, Edinburgh University.
  • English-Mandarin Chinese interpreter, the Taiwan Public Financial Management training programme (August 29-September 10, 2016) and the Taiwan Executive Leadership Programme (September 1-12, 2014),  Academy of Government, Edinburgh University
  • Secretary of Cross-Party Group on Taiwan, Scottish Parliament