This article critiques constructivist approaches to the international relations of the Middle East and sets out an alternative interpretation of the role of ideas based on political economy and the sociology of knowledge. It cautions against using constructivism as a way of ‘building bridges’ between IR and Middle East Studies and disputes the claim that the norms of ‘Arabism’ as a putative regional identity are in contradiction with those of sovereignty. The article shows that this assumption is based on the combined influences of modernisation theory and Orientalist assumptions about the power and continuity of regional culture that have persisted in Middle East IR. This is despite the fact that there is no reason to believe the Arabs constitute a more ‘natural’ nation than do the Syrians, Iraqis or Egyptians. The political role and resonance of ideas can be better established by viewing the modern history of the Middle East in terms of domestic structure and social change, and in particular emphasising the role of rising middle classes in revolutionary nationalist movements. The findings of this article raise questions for the utility of ‘moderate’ constructivist interpretations of International Relations as a whole.