The current near collapse of the Arab state system is but the most recent manifestations of an enduring failure to adapt to the exigencies of an externally imposed but inescapable modernisation process. At the heart of that systemic failure is the lack of an effective public law, as Western legal transplants have not worked and indigenous normative and organisational models based on religious tradition have proven elusive. The adoption of Western models –through both colonial coercion but also deliberate choice – has been accompanied by demands for ‘sacred law’ of to play a role in the modern constitutional and bureaucratic edifice of the state. This has created numerous common points of friction when the bounded rationality of a ‘sacred law’ clashes with the comprehensive rationality of the modern, corporatist state. This tension is ultimately a reflection of the failure to accept the methodological prerequisites of modern public law, not least international law.