Independence and Decolonization, Middle East

  • In the decades immediately following the conclusion of World War II, European formal empires in the Middle East began to unravel.
  • France retreated from Syria and Lebanon in 1946 after numerous catastrophic engagements with local peoples. The British withdrew from Palestine in 1948, leaving behind the new state of Israel, which was carved out of a large portion of Palestine; from most of the rest was created Jordan. A series of treaties and agreements led to British withdrawal from Egypt and Iraq; as a result of one of these agreements, Sudan also gained independence.
  • While the formal empires of European countries seemingly disintegrated in the 1950s, the former colonial powers, now joined by the United States, continued to maintain a presence in the region. Britain and the United States focused on controlling the production of oil.
  • Such interests now had the added dimension of being pursued within the larger framework of geopolitical tensions created by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the independence process has been very complex in the Middle East.
  • According to historian Albert Hourani, “It would be better … to see the history of this period as that of a complex interaction: of the will of ancient and stable societies to reconstitute themselves, preserving what they had of their own while making the necessary changes in order to survive in the modern world increasingly organized on other principles, and where the centers of world power have lain for long, and still lie, outside the Middle East”.
  • To understand the form the processes of independence and decolonization took in the Middle East, one has to begin in the nineteenth century. The British, the French, and the Ottomans had varying degrees of control in different parts of the region; throughout the region, a strong nationalist sentiment opposed this foreign control.
  • During the second half of the nineteenth century, the ideal of autonomy was disseminated by such organizations as the National Party in Egypt, the Young Ottomans and then the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire, secret Arab societies in Beirut and Damascus, and the Young Tunisians.
  • During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such groups began to organize nationalist demonstrations; some directly challenged the imperial rule of the British, the French, and even the Ottoman Turks. The organizations’ ideological leadership gave direction to these direct challenges to imperial presence. Arab nationalism became popular among intellectuals in Greater Syria; Turkish nationalism also grew, with its own ideas about how national communities ought to be formed. In Iran, different currents of nationalism imagined different futures for the country.
  • Throughout the region, the relationship between colony and metropole (the colonizing power) deeply affected the intellectual, ideological, and material development of both. For example, the more the French sought to gain materially from Algeria, the more resistance developed among the Algerians. Over time, this resistance coalesced into a sense of nationalism that was completely at odds with the political reality of being colonized, that is, existing only for the betterment of the colonizer. Feelings of political identity, economic identity, geographic identity, and religious identity coalesced into a powerful force. This force, on the one hand, forged powerful bonds, and on the other hand, made Middle Easterners see themselves as distinctly different from Europeans.
  • Some of the earliest attempts to achieve independence, or at least self-determination, occurred in the context of World War I. In 1916 the British promised independence to Hussein ibn Ali, the emir of Mecca and sharif of the Hashemite family, if he would help them against the Ottomans. In the same year Britain also signed the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement with France, which called for an independent Arab State or a confederation of states, although it was calculatedly ambiguous on the question of how much of a role each of these powers would play in this “independent” state. According to the agreement, postwar Middle East was to be divided among the allies, with France and Britain “prepared to recognize and protect an independent Arab state or a conferedation of states … under the suzerainty of an Arab chief.” Portions of present-day Turkey, Syria, Transjordan, Palestine, and Iraq were to constitute this so-called independent state.
  • At the conclusion of the war, Britain and France divided various portions of the Middle East into new territories called mandates, with the ostensible rationale of mentoring these mandates as they progressed toward independence.
  • In reality, they used their powerful position as a way to advance their own interests, thus earning the resentment of Arabs. For much of the nineteenth century the various nationalist groups mentioned above, and others like them, organized and in some cases fought against imperial rulenot only against the British and the French, but also against the Ottoman Turks.
  • In the Arab countries, nationalism, which originated among educated elites, spread increasingly to all sectors of society as the promised self-determination failed to appear and occupation and colonial control continued.
  • In Turkey and Iran, nationalist movements began gaining strength in the late nineteenth century and modern states began to emerge in the 1910s. Over the course of the twentieth century, decolonization took varying forms in these disparate areas, as did the new states and societies that emerged.

The Development of Arab Nationalist

  • Arab nationalism continues to be a powerful force in today’s world. The term Arab is fraught with historical difficulties; today it usually refers to a person whose language is Arabic. Equally difficult is the phrase Arab nationalism; this can be used both as an equivalent to Pan-Arabism and more specifically to refer to independence struggles in Arabic-speaking countries.
  • The 1850s and 1860s witnessed a growing sense of Arab identity. This was manifest in the renewed study of the ‘Abbasīd period (ca. 750 to ca. 1258), and, in turn, accounts of ‘Abbasīd grandeur, wealth, and intellectual pursuits served to inspire Arab pride and solidarity.
  • By the close of the nineteenth century and into the early part of the twentieth century, in Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus, a new literate class developed that began advocating the notion of Arab “nations.” This growing intelligentsia advocated not only a sense of national solidarity, but also a method of societal organization and plans for independent development.
  • Arabs had to at once break loose from the Ottoman Empire’s historical control and keep the European nation-states at bay.
  • World War I led to a decrease in the power of the Ottomans, but there was a simultaneous, if short-lived, increase of British and French domination of the Arab world’s socioeconomic development.
  • In 1913, the Arab National Congress demanded governmental autonomy for the Arab provinces of the ailing and loosely consolidated Ottoman Empire. Calls for greater autonomy were also directed at the British and French, whose influence and control were well established, but deeply resented by the Arabs.
  • With the advent of World War I in 1914, Arab demands began to threaten Britain’s position in the region, particularly as the Germans took advantage of the situation to promote anti-British sentiment. The Germans made contact with Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, who had considerable influence on regional Muslim populations. Hussein continued to assist the Germans until June 1915. Another valuable contact for the Germans was Ibn Saud, who was quite powerful in the Arabian Peninsula, and exercised considerable influence in the region up to the Persian Gulf to the east; all of this land was exclusively under British authority.
  • In the latter part of 1915, Hussein resumed friendly relations with the British, whose assistance he sought in negotiations aimed at winning Arab freedom from Ottoman control.
  • In 1916, despite offering their assistance and support for an “Arab Confederation,” the British signed the Sykes-Picot agreement with the French, the details of which were to be kept a secret from the Arabs. These details were nonetheless made public by Bolshevik Russia; as news spread, the various Arab nationalist organizations became alarmed, as sovereignty appeared to be slipping away rather than coming closer.
  • The year 1917 was witness to an event that has had a lasting impact on the geopolitics of the Middle East. The Balfour Declaration, made in November of that year, left a legacy that the Middle East and the rest of the world continue to confront into the twenty-first century.
  • In a published letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent leader of the British Jewish community, the British secretary of foreign affairs, Arthur James Balfour, stated that Britain favored the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.
  • Balfour added that such a homeland was to be established with the understanding that nothing would be done to compromise the civil and religious rights of the other inhabitants of Palestine. That Palestine continues to be occupied and the state of Israel continues to contest its borders belies the initial intent of creating a Jewish homeland there.
  • The Arab Revolt against the Ottomans that started in 1916 came to an end in 1918 with Palestine and Syria free of Ottoman control. However, in place of the older empire came British control; it was an unforeseen consequence of seeking British help in ousting the Ottomans.
  • Arabs expected the British to grant them independence at the end of World War I. Instead they got the 1919 arrangements between the French and British to divide the Middle East between themselves—Britain gained control of Mesopotamia (Iraq), Palestine, and present-day Jordan, and the French were to control Syria and Lebanon. Only the remote desert areas were free of British-French control. As mentioned above, these new territories were officially considered mandates, and were registered as such with the recently formed League of Nations.
  • From the 1920s to about the 1960s, Arab nationalism matured into a force that was ever more difficult to contend with for the British and French. The most powerful example of this maturation was the formation of the League of Arab States, which was set up by Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Transjordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia; it demonstrated Arab unity and cooperation in creating a future for Middle Eastern peoples.
  • As one after another nation-state was formed, each with a distinct identity, a new era emerged in the western and southwestern reaches of Asia.

The Emergence of Modern Nation-States

  • The section that follows will consist of a country-by-country consideration of decolonization and modernization in the Middle East; because the region comprises so many nation-states, the attention paid to individual countries will necessarily be brief.
  • A notable factor affecting all countries in the region was the discovery of oil in the 1920s and 1930s. Oil production had a tremendous impact on Middle Eastern economies, of course, but by the 1950s it also was affecting the entire global economy. This inevitably led to a shift in the geopolitical processes at work in the region.


  • Located on the Persian Gulf, and comprised of thirty-three islands, Bahrain historically has had contact with several other peoples and nations, mostly through trade. Additionally, it has been occupied by several of them, namely the Persians, the Omanis, the Portuguese, and the British.
  • Between 1861 and 1971 Bahrain was a British protectorate. The ruling family of Bahrain, the Al Khalifa family, arrived in the area in the mideighteenth century, and had to contend with successive occupiers.
  • It was one of the Al Khalifas, ‘Isā ibn Salmān Al Khalifā, who effected the transfer of Bahrain from the British to its own people in 1971. Termination of British control was not necessarily the result of pressure from the local people. Perceptions of Britain’s changed position in the world were largely responsible for its receding from the Gulf regions.
  • Britain’s withdrawal of troops from the Gulf region in 1968 led to Emir al Khalifa declaring independent in 1971. Bahrain signed a treaty of friendship with Britain, thus concluding Britain’s status as a protectorate.
  • Eventually Bahrain joined the United Nations and the Arab League. Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy, and the reins of government are passed by the emir to his eldest son.
  • Bahrain was one of the first Gulf states to reap oil profits following the discovery of oil in 1932.
  • Its citizens enjoy these benefits today in the form of high-quality education and health care; however, unemployment continues to be a problem. T
  • ensions between Bahrain’s rulers and the country’s poor Shi’ites also give cause for concern. Bahrain has cordial relations with its Gulf neighbors, other Arab nations, and several Western nations, including Britain and the United States. Because its economy is well diversified, the economic future of this small kingdom is bright.


  • France and Britain had equal interest in managing Egypt’s future; this sharing of power was called caise de la dette (dual control).
  • Their dual partnership of commercial and then eventually political interests started at the turn of the nineteenth century and continued until 1882.
  • ‘Urābī Pasha Al-Misrī, an officer in the Egyptian army and a nationalist, resented the presence of Turkish ad Circassion officers. He led a revolt against them in 1881 and became a national hero with his slogan, “Misr li’l Misriyīn” (Egypt for Egyptians).
  • The ruler of Egypt, concerned about ‘Urabī’s increasing popularity, asked for British and French assistance in curbing it.
  • Eager to oblige, Britain and France orchestrated a naval demonstration at Alexandria. Riots followed in the city, which the British then bombarded. ‘Urābī led the Egyptian army against the foreigners; he was defeated, which cleared the way for Britain’s domination over Egypt.
  • Egypt, which was acquired by Britain as a protectorate in 1914, formally became an independent state in 1936, though it remained a monarchy until 1953.
  • Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism, which were at times militant, were strong in Egypt as long as British rule, direct and indirect, continued to emanate from Cairo.
  • Egyptian nationalism was evident throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. Britain declared war against the Ottomans in November 1914 and a month later pronounced Egypt its protectorate. At this point nationalism was a response to local concerns; the masses suffered due to the demands of World War I on Egypt.
  • British occupation, with the declaration of martial law, damaged nationalist expressions of the intellectuals.
  • In 1917 Ahmad Fu’ād became the sultan. In the days following the conclusion of the Great War, three Egyptian politicians led by Sa’d Zaghlūl demanded autonomy for Egypt; they decided to take a delegation (in Arabic, Wafd) to England.
  • The British government took two actions that accelerated the spread of the nationalist movement. First it refused the delegation, and then it arrested Zaghlūl. Egypt erupted in revolt. The representatives in Britain negotiated a calm with the nationalists; Zaghlūl was released and the Wafd began to dominate Egyptian politics. It pressured the British to negotiate an “independence,” which ended Egypt’s protectorate status, but the British government reserved authority in matters of defense, foreign interests, imperial communications, and the Sudan.
  • Fu’āad became the king of Egypt in 1922, heading a constitutional monarchy. The Wafd, the most popular nationalist party led by Zaghlūl, continued its demands for true national independence. In the 1930s King Farouk (who succeeded Fu’ād) was considerably popular, but the Wafd rapidly lost its place as the beacon of Egyptian nationalism when its leadership elected to assist the British in the war effort.
  • At the end of World War II, Egyptian politics were in complete disarray. The Wafd almost disappeared from the scene; the torch of nationalism passed to the Muslim brotherhood, a militant organization that had mass appeal.
  • Through the 1940s, Cairo witnessed demonstrations that at times were violent. During the same decade, when Egypt played a crucial role in the formation of the Arab League and when Israel was created, Egypt’s nationalism reached new heights. Political instability became the order of the day until 1952, when waves of nationalism changed the course of Egypt’s destiny.
  • On January 26, 1952, anti-British demonstrations that proved pivotal to the Egyptian nationalist movement broke out, leading to extensive damage to symbols of British presence in Cairo, such as hotels, a travel agency, and the airline offices. Seventeen Britons were also killed in what has since been named the Black Saturday riots.
  • On July 23, 1952, a coup d’état overthrew King Farouk, who was by now widely considered a puppet of the British. Planned by a group of military officers called the Free Officers’ Executive Committee, the coup was almost bloodless and Farouk went into exile.
  • The president of the Free Officers’ Executive Committee, Gamal Abdul Nasser, became Egypt’s new leader. About a year later, Egypt was proclaimed a republic. Nasser quickly introduced social and land reforms, ultimately developing a reform program that came to be called Arab Socialism. Even with Nasser in power, Egypt continued to have ties—albeit uneasy ones—with the British and the Americans.
  • Egypt became a leader among other Arab nations, and Nasser an Arab hero. Nasser demanded international recognition of Arab dignity and the right of Arab nations to cooperate in building their own futures. However, there were several roadblocks along Egypt’s path to decolonization. Western countries were not willing to offer loans without attaching unreasonable terms, leading Nasser to dub such loans “imperialism without soldiers.
  • By 1961, however, Nasser had developed a better relationship with Britain and the United States; both nations established full diplomatic ties with Egypt.
  • A powerful challenge to Egypt’s future stability was the unresolved issue of the Occupied Territories of Palestine, also known as the state of Israel. Another challenge to Nasser’s government from within Egypt’s borders came from the Islamist lobby known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat, began a modernization process in Egypt that was met with resistance from Islamic conservatives, many of whom were jailed. Sadat paid with his life in 1981 when he was assassinated by Islamist extremists.
  • In the last years of the twentieth century there were several difficulties confronting Egypt, particularly economic ones. While oil and cotton continued to be the country’s primary exports, most Egyptians—who constituted the fastest growing population in the Arab world—did not benefit from these exports. This led to increasing disaffection among some segments of the population, which turned increasingly to fundamentalist Islamist groups.
  • The country’s leader, Hosni Mubarak, attempted to improve Egypt’s image in the Arab world—in recent decades Egypt had been perceived by many Arabs as being too close to the United States and Israel—while maintaining cordial relations with Western powers and Israel.

Egypt, World War II and its aftermath

  • Although Egypt provided facilities for the British war effort during World War II (1939–45) in accordance with the 1936 treaty, few Egyptians backed Britain and many expected its defeat.
  • In 1940 the British brought pressure on the king to dismiss his prime minister, ʿAlī Māhir, and to appoint a more cooperative government. When, early in 1942, German forces threatened to invade Egypt, a second British intervention—often termed the 4 February Incident—compelled King Farouk to accept al-Naḥḥās as his prime minister. The Wafd, its power confirmed by overwhelming success in the general election of March 1942, cooperated with Britain.
  • Nevertheless, Britain’s February intervention had disastrous consequences. It confirmed Farouk’s hostility to both the British and al-Naḥḥās and tarnished the Wafd’s pretensions as the standard-bearer of Egyptian nationalism. The Wafd was weakened also by internal rivalries and allegations of corruption.
  • Al-Naḥḥās was dismissed by the king in October 1944. His successor, Aḥmad Māhir, was acceptable to the British, but he was assassinated in February 1945, at the moment Egypt declared war on Germany and Japan. He was succeeded by a fellow Saadist, al-Nuqrāshī.
  • At the end of World War II, Egypt was in a thoroughly unstable condition. The Wafd declined and its political opponents took up the nationalist demand for a revision of the treaty of 1936—in particular for the complete evacuation of British troops from Egypt and the ending of British control in the Sudan.
  • Politics was passing into the hands of radicals. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, developed from a mainstream Islamic reformist movement into a militant mass organization. Demonstrations in Cairo became increasingly frequent and violent. The pressure prevented any Egyptian government from settling its two main external problems: the need to revise the treaty with Britain, and the wish to back the Arabs in Palestine.
  • Negotiations with Britain, undertaken by al-Nuqrāshī and (after February 1946) by his successor, Ṣidqī, broke down over the British refusal to rule out eventual independence for the Sudan. Egypt referred the dispute to the United Nations (UN) in July 1947 but failed to win its case.
  • Until the interwar period neither the Egyptian public nor the politicians had shown much interest in Arab affairs generally; Egyptian nationalism had developed as an indigenous response to local conditions. After 1936, however, Egypt became involved in the Palestine problem, and in 1943–44 it played a leading part in the formation of the Arab League, which opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
  • After World War II, Egypt became increasingly committed to the Arab cause in Palestine, but its unexpected and crushing defeat in the first Arab-Israeli war (1948–49), which had been launched with Syria, Iraq, and Jordan in response to the declaration of the State of Israel in May 1948, contributed to disillusionment and political instability.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood stepped up its violent activities. Al-Nuqrāshī, again prime minister, tried to suppress the organization and was assassinated in December 1948. The Brotherhood’s leader, Hassan al-Banna, was murdered two months later.
  • The Wafd won the general election in January 1950, and al-Naḥḥās again formed a government. Failing to reach agreement with Britain, in October 1951 he abrogated both the 1936 treaty and the Condominium Agreement of 1899.
  • Anti-British demonstrations were followed by guerrilla warfare against Britain’s garrison in the canal zone. British reprisals in Ismailia led to the burning of Cairo on January 26, 1952. Al-Naḥḥās was dismissed, and there were four prime ministers in the ensuing six months.
The Nasser Regime & Suez Crisis
  • At mid-century Egypt was ripe for revolution. Political groupings of both right and left pressed for radical alternatives. From an array of contenders for power, it was a movement of military conspirators—the Free Officers led by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser—that toppled the monarchy in a coup on July 23, 1952. In broad outline, the history of contemporary Egypt is the story of this coup, which preempted a revolution but then turned into a revolution from above.
  • For more than five decades, rule by Free Officers brought just enough progress at home and enhancement of standing abroad to make Egypt an island of stability in a turbulent Middle East.
  • The 1952 coup was fueled by a powerful but vague Egyptian nationalism rather than by a coherent ideology. It produced a regime whose initially reformist character was given more precise form by a domestic power struggle and by the necessity of coming to terms with the British, who still occupied their Suez Canal base.
  • The domestic challenge to Nasser came in February–April 1954 from Maj. Gen. Muhammad Naguib, an older officer who served as figurehead for the Free Officers and had been president since June 1953, when Egypt officially became a republic. Political parties had been abolished in January of that year. To supplement his power base in the military forces, Nasser drew on the police and on working-class support mobilized by some of the trade unions. The small middle class, the former political parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood all rallied to Naguib. In the end, Naguib was placed under house arrest, and Nasser assumed the premiership. Nasser’s triumph meant that the government would thereafter rely on its military and security apparatus coupled with carefully controlled manipulation of the civilian population.
  • Obscured in the West was Nasser’s initial moderation regarding Egypt’s key foreign policy challenges—the Sudan, the British presence, and Israel. An agreement signed in February 1953 established a transitional period of self-government for the Sudan, which became an independent republic in January 1956. Prolonged negotiations led to the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Agreement, under which British troops were to be evacuated gradually from the canal zone. Some Egyptians criticized the treaty from a nationalist perspective, fearing that external events could permit the British to reoccupy the canal bases.
  • An attempt to assassinate Nasser by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in October 1954 was used as a pretext to crush that organization. A number of its members were executed and hundreds were imprisoned under brutal conditions. In the decades to come, these incarcerations were to bear bitter fruit as a generation of Brotherhood militants became hardened and drew new conclusions about the nature of the state in Egypt. One of them, a formerly secularist writer and scholar named Sayyid Quṭb who had come late to the Brotherhood, drew upon his prison experience to draft a template for modern Islamic holy war that was afterward embraced by a large number of Egypt’s Muslim militants.
  • In retrospect, it is clear that Nasser was a reluctant champion of the Arab struggle against Israel. Domestic development was his priority. A dangerous pattern of violent interactions, however, eventually drew the Egyptians into renewed conflict with Israel. Small groups of Palestinian raiders (fedayeen), including some operating from Egyptian-controlled Gaza, were infiltrating Israel’s borders. Early in 1955 the Israeli government began its policy of large-scale retaliation. One such strike—an attack on Gaza in February 1955 that killed 38 Egyptians—exposed the military weakness of the Free Officer regime, which tried, but failed, to buy weapons from Western countries.
  • In September 1955 Nasser announced that an arms agreement had been signed between Egypt and Czechoslovakia (acting for the Soviet Union). The way to improved Soviet-Egyptian relations had been prepared by Nasser’s refusal to join the Baghdad Pact (the Middle East Treaty Organization, later known as the Central Treaty Organization), which had been formed earlier that year by Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, with the support of the United States, to counter the threat of Soviet expansion in the Middle East. With the 1955 arms deal, the Soviet Union established itself as a force in the region.
  • The erosion of Nasser’s initially pro-Western orientation hastened when the United States and Britain refused to give Egypt funds they had previously promised for the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Defiantly, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company in July 1956 in order to use its proceeds to finance the dam. Britain and France, major shareholders in the company, were angered by Nasser’s actions (France was equally infuriated by Egyptian aid to the Algerians who were revolting against French rule) and sought to regain control of the canal by an intricate ruse. In collaboration with France and Britain, Israel, which continued to suffer raids by Egyptian-supported guerrillas, attacked Egypt in October. The two European powers then brought in their own troops, claiming to be enforcing a UN peace resolution, and reoccupied the canal zone. Pressure on the invading powers by the United States and the Soviet Union, however, soon ended the so-called Suez Crisis, leaving Nasser, despite his military losses, in control of the canal. The following year, Egypt agreed to the placement of a UN Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Sinai Peninsula to act as a buffer between Egyptian and Israeli forces.
  • Nasser, who, as the sole candidate, had been elected president in June 1956, pursued a more radical line in the ensuing decade. He created the National Union as an instrument of mobilizing the people and launched an ambitious program of domestic transformation, a revolution from above that was paralleled by a drive for Egyptian leadership in the Arab world.
  • Early in 1958 Egypt combined with Syria to form the United Arab Republic (U.A.R.), but Egyptian dominance antagonized many Syrians, and the union was dissolved in bitterness in September 1961 (Egypt retained the name United Arab Republic until 1971). Nasser blamed the secession on Syrian reactionaries, and in direct response he pushed his revolution in Egypt further to the left. The following spring a National Charter proclaimed Egypt’s regime to be one of scientific socialism, with a new mass organization, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), replacing the National Union. Most large manufacturing firms, banks, transport services, and insurance companies were nationalized or sequestered.
  • Egypt made dramatic domestic gains. In 1950 manufacturing contributed 10 percent to the total national output, but by 1970 that figure had doubled. However, these achievements in industry were not matched in agriculture, and they were further undercut by Egypt’s rapid population growth. In a landmark move toward agricultural reform, Nasser enacted a policy in 1952 that limited land ownership to 200 feddans (208 acres [84 hectares]) per person.
  • Throughout this period the potential military danger from Israel was a constant factor in the calculations of the U.A.R. government. It worked to strengthen ties with the Soviet bloc and to promote cooperation among the Arab states, even though such attempts usually failed. Nasser masked essential Egyptian moderation on the Israeli issue with a militant rhetoric of confrontation in order to preserve his standing in the Arab world.
  • The failure of the union with Syria had been a blow to Nasser’s Pan-Arab policy. To regain the initiative, Nasser intervened in 1962–67 on the republican side in Yemen’s civil war. This action led the U.A.R. into conflict with Saudi Arabia, which supported the Yemeni royalists, and with the United States, which backed the Saudis. Until then Nasser had managed to obtain substantial aid from both the Soviet Union and the United States. Because of congressional opposition to Nasser’s policies, U.S. aid was cut off in 1966.
  • This series of reversals figured prominently in Nasser’s decision to abandon his policy of “militant inaction” toward Israel. For 10 years, relative peace on the border with Israel had been maintained precariously by the presence of the UNEF stationed on the Egyptian side. In the Arab summit conferences of 1964 and 1965, Nasser had counseled restraint, but in 1966 events eluded his control. Palestinian incursions against Israel were launched with greater frequency and intensity from bases in Jordan, Lebanon, and, especially, Syria. A radical Syrian regime openly pledged support to the Palestinian guerrilla raids.
  • On November 13, 1966, an Israeli strike into Jordan left 18 dead and 54 wounded. Taunted openly for hiding behind the UNEF, Nasser felt he had to act. The Egyptian president requested the UNEF’s withdrawal from the Sinai border. But that included, as UN Secretary-General U Thant interpreted the order, removing UN troops stationed at Sharm al-Shaykh at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. Egyptian troops there proceeded to close the gulf to Israeli shipping.
  • Israel had made it clear that blockading the gulf would be a cause for war. On June 5, 1967, Israel launched what it called a preemptive attack on Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, which led to a short conflict that came to be known as the Six-Day (or June) War. Israel’s victory over Egypt and its allies was rapid and overwhelming.
    • Within the first hours of the war, all of Egypt’s airfields were struck, and most Egyptian planes were demolished on the ground.
    • In the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian forces were defeated and put to flight. An estimated 10,000 Egyptians died, and the Israelis reached the Suez Canal on June 8.
  • During the war, Israel occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula (along with territories belonging to the other Arab belligerents), and the Suez Canal was closed to traffic. Instead, the waterway became a fortified ditch between the two warring sides.
  • Egypt was crushed by the loss, all the more because the government media had painted a rosy but misleading picture of Egyptian operations during the opening days of the war. Nasser, humiliated, resigned, but there was a popular outpouring of support, only partially manipulated by the government, for him to remain in office.
  • Regardless, the Nasser era was in fact over. Egypt rearmed rapidly, and a low-level conflict later known as the War of Attrition soon began along the canal with the Israeli army (particularly its air force). In both domestic and foreign affairs, however, Nasser began a turn to the right that his successor, Anwar Sadat, was to accelerate sharply.


  • Since the beginning of the twentieth century, this Middle Eastern nation, currently known as the Islamic Republic of Iran, has undergone revolutionary political and ideological changes.
  • The Qājār dynasty had ruled Iran from 1796 to 1925, but in 1925 Reza Khan established himself as Reza Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty; his heirs had the right of succession to the throne.
  • European presence and influence had grown throughout the nineteenth century, and by the end of the century there was considerable popular and religious antipathy because of the lavish lifestyle of the shahs and the resources expended to keep the Europeans pleased. In the popular unrest against the shah, merchants and Shī’ite clergy (ūlāma) combined their efforts.
  • During the early part of the twentieth century they were joined by the landlords as well. A simultaneous movement started that was grounded in the ideologies learned through contact with the West, one that called for democratic reforms.
  • With World War I the Russians withdrew from northern Iran, leaving the British as the sole European presence. Bowing to international pressures, Britain withdrew in 1921. In the same year an Iranian army officer, Reza Khan, staged a coup, taking over control of all the armed forces. As the war minister for the last Qājār ruler, Reza Khan built a strong army and brought political stability to a land that was in administrative upheaval. In 1925 he deposed the ruler, and with the approval of the ūlamā he was crowned as the shah.
  • Reza Shah’s central government began to assert its authority in every aspect of the people’s lives. In 1935 the name of the country was changed from Persia to Iran.
  • In the 1960s and 1970s the Shah of Iran began a concerted effort to turn Iran into a modernized and westernized state, utilizing the wealth gained from oil for this purpose. The Shah launched the “White Revolution,” by which suffrage was extended to women, and limited land reforms were made.
  • However, the wealth from the massive reserves of oil and natural gas was unequally distributed, causing internal strife and dissent on a rather large scale; opposition came most prominently from Islamic officials, particularly Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
  • In an effort to control the dissent from within and maintain good relations with Western nations, the Shah became more repressive. At the same time, to silence his critics at home he promised that his government would observe Islamic tenets, extend support to Palestinians, and stop the export of oil to Israel and South Africa.
  • He did not make good on those promises, and for this and a host of other reasons he was unable to prevent a revolution. In January 1979, after his own army refused to continue firing on the people, the Shah was forced to leave Iran. Weeks after, Ayatollah Khomeini flew in from Paris and set off an Islamic revolution that led to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  • The Republic is a theocratic state, with an elected president and a unicameral Islamic Consultative Assembly.
  • From 1980 to 1988 Iran and Iraq fought a bitter war after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sent his troops to invade Iran. Despite the vast amounts of oil production from its nationalized oilfields, Iran continues to have economic problems as it has not diversified its economy or encouraged foreign investment.
  • Iran remains a loner among the nations of the Middle East, as it does not have cordial relations with most of its Arab neighbors and also has not maintained congenial contacts with Western nations.


  • As mentioned earlier, Iraq became a formal mandate of Britain in 1919. British presence in the region predated the formal assignation of mandate status, however, and was already a source of resentment; the mandate system only made matters worse.
  • The system was reworked when Iraqi revolts against the British started in the 1920s; in its place was formed a provisional government controlled by the British.
  • Arab resistance to being colonized grew apace. In June 1930 an Anglo-Iraqi treaty formally conferred independence to Iraq, with the caveat that Iraq would have “full and frank consultations with Great Britain on all matters of foreign policy.
  • In this manner, Britain retained control over Iraq’s future relations with its neighbors (of which the most important for Britain was Iran).
  • Furthermore, with the Hashemite monarchy in power, pro-British civilians governed Iraq well into the 1950s. A military coup d’état in 1958 displaced the Hashemites, after which Iraq aligned with Egypt.
  • As the process of decolonization took a more militant turn, Iraq suffered much unrest, until 1963 when a new socialist government formed by a coalition of nationalist army officers and members of the Ba’ath Party took power.
  • After 1968 the Ba’athists were the sole ruling authority of Iraq. Saddam Hussein, who had played a powerful role from the wings, became the president of Iraq in 1979 and stayed in power until 2003, when he was ousted by the coalition forces of the United States and United Kingdom.
  • While the exports of this oil-rich country could have made for a modern state, the benefits of oil wealth did not accrue to Iraq’s people. This resulted in deteriorating infrastructure, periodic rebellions on the part of Kurdish and Shi’ite populations, economic sanctions from the United Nations, and involvement in wars with Iran, Kuwait, and the United States.
  • These problems led in turn to a depletion of Iraq’s national resources, financial bankruptcy, and a dramatic drop in standards of living.
  • In March of 2003 the United States invaded Iraq, which as of 2006 it continues to occupy, with no end to the occupation in sight, despite a violent and protracted insurgency aimed at driving it from the country.


  • Like most nations of the Arab world, Jordan seeks to preserve its ancient history alongside modern developments.
  • Because Jordan (formerly known as Transjordan) is surrounded by numerous other, arguably more powerful, Arab states (and Israel), it has had to delicately balance its affairs and relations with other countries.
  • The territory that is now Jordan was formerly part of Syria and under Ottoman control. After World War I the Ottoman Empire collapsed and in 1922 the League of Nations split up the former Syria into modern-day Syria, which became a French mandate, and Palestine and Transjordan, which became British mandates.
  • Transjordan’s independence was achieved in two stages. First, in December 1922 the British, while retaining the country’s mandate status, recognized its constitutional independence under Emir Abdullah, son of Sherif Hussein. It was not until March 1946 that full independence was granted; Transjordan became a constitutional monarchy and Emir Abdullah was proclaimed king. In 1949 the country was renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, an entity Abdullah hoped would eventually include Palestine.
  • Other Arab nations, particularly Egypt, objected to the idea of incorporating Palestine, and in 1951 Abdullah was assassinated in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsā Mosque by a Palestinian youth who opposed his expansionist ideas. The throne passed to his son, who was quickly deposed because of his problems with mental illness.
  • In 1952 British-educated Prince Hussein, then only seventeen, became the ruler. King Hussein is perhaps the best known of Jordan’s rulers, because of his untiring efforts to achieve a stable balance of power in the Middle East.
  • He was assisted in his efforts by the United States, which, in pursuance of the Eisenhower Doctrine, sought to replace Britain as the primary Western power in the region.
  • King Hussein maintained good relations with several Arab nations as well, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As a small country with limited resources, Jordan has had to contend with chronic debt, poverty, unemployment, and water shortages.
  • Following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, Jordan lost almost half of its arable land, causing further economic hardship.
  • Arab refugees from Palestine make up about a third of the population of Jordan and have been given citizenship; however, they remain largely unintegrated and discontent.
  • Despite these problems, Jordan’s educational and medical systems are among the best in the Middle East. Since 1999 the country has been led by King Abdullah II.


  • Much like other Gulf regions, Kuwait was initially a British protectorate, in its case from 1899 until 1961.
  • Another small country on the Persian Gulf, Kuwait derives its wealth from oil production; like Jordan, it has to carefully balance its relations with neighboring states.
  • Sheikh Abdullāh al-Salem al-Sabāh was the first emir of independent Kuwait. It was on Kuwait’s instigation that the relationship with Britain was terminated in 1961, even though the British maintained an influential presence for another decade.
  • Kuwait had been established by members of the Bāni Utūb clan in the middle of the eighteenth century after they moved to the region from the central part of the Arabian peninsula.
  • Almost immediately, Kuwait’s independence was threatened by the military rulers of Iraq. Iraq’s expansionist aims in 1961 were thwarted first by British military assistance, then firmly denied when an Arab League force from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the United Arab Republic pushed Iraq’s army back to its borders.
  • In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait yet again, which led to an expensive war to liberate Kuwait, the Persian Gulf War, led by the United States.
  • Today, Iraq and Kuwait continue to observe an uneasy truce. In order to rebuild its infrastructure after the war, Kuwait spent more than $160 billion.
  • Kuwait is an oil-rich nation nominally governed by a constitutional monarchy; in reality, the parliament is essentially an advisory body and the emirs, who come from the Al-Sabāh family, exercise exclusive authority.
  • Like most Gulf states, Kuwait has a multicultural society as a result of its large number of expatriate workers, who in fact outnumber native Kuwaitis. The citizens of Kuwait enjoy a very high standard of living, as Kuwait’s rulers spend a large percent of oil profits on public services, healthcare, education, and municipal services.
  • Kuwait is a member of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), a loose six-state alliance devoted to ensuring regional stability and promoting economic development.
  • Kuwait’s allies include Western nations as well as its Arab neighbors.


  • Lebanon is perhaps the most cosmopolitan of Middle Eastern states. As a territory mandated to the French, it had a difficult relationship with its European ruler, at best.
  • At the onset of World War II, Lebanon demanded the end of French domination and suzerainty. In 1943, putting aside their differences, both Christian and Muslim political groups signed the National Pact, a clear declaration of Lebanon’s intent to establish autonomous self-rule.
  • Lebanese nationalists then drew up a constitution that recognized and promoted Lebanon’s religious diversity.
  • It divided up political responsibilities in the following way: a Maronite would hold the presidency, a Sunni Muslim the premiership, parliament’s speaker of the house was to be a Shi’ite Muslim, the chief of staff of armed forces was to be a Druze, and the parliament’s seats would be divided in a six-to-five ratio between Christians and Muslims.
  • In a bold statement of autonomy, the new constitution eliminated all existing statutes and provisions that could potentially compromise Lebanon’s independence. The French, unhappy with these actions, arrested the president and suspended the constitution. But the tide had already turned. The United States, Britain, and other Arab states came to Lebanon’s support, leaving the French no option but to recognize Lebanon’s sovereignty, which they did in December 1943.
  • In the next few decades, Lebanon’s stability created an environment conducive to economic growth and social progress. This initial phase, so full of promise, came to an end in 1975, however.
  • A civil war, followed by Syrian occupation, and continued violence and attacks lasting until 1991 took their toll on Lebanon.
  • The country’s infrastructure is seriously damaged, relationships between Christians and Muslims are tense, and there has been uncontrolled growth of debt. However, Syria has since withdrawn from Lebanon.


  • Of all the Middle Eastern states, Oman has the singular distinction of having achieved independence prior to the twentieth century.
  • It was in the mid-seventeenth century that Omani tribes expelled the Portuguese from the region. Because of its favorable location, Oman grew to be a valuable trading partner with various European countries. This commerce brought Oman considerable wealth even prior to the discovery of oil.
  • However, it is important to note that the British did exercise considerable influence in the region during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The British became allies of the Omani rulers in disputes over land ownership—for example, British forces assisted in reestablishing Oman’s sovereignty over the Būraimī area, which Saudi Arabia also claimed—and this led to a quid-pro-quo relationship between the two.
  • Oman is ruled, as it has been for centuries, by a sultan who acts simultaneously as the head of state, prime minister, and minister of foreign affairs, finance, and defense. A consultative body called the majlis al-shūra assists him in making all decisions and policies.
  • Oman has only recently decided to embark on a path of modernization. Indeed, the sultan’s refusal to modernize and liberalize the country had previously been so unbending that in 1964 it prompted an uprising on the part of the Jibali hill tribes people.
  • The economy of the country is entirely government-controlled, and public utilities, education, trade, commerce, and employment have all been closely regulated.
  • Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al bū Said, however, has introduced new modernizing policies and promises an open and bright future for this strategically situated nation-state.


  • A tiny state whose ruler is a member of the ath-Thānī family, Qatar is currently home to the popular television station Al-Jazeera.
  • The history of this little country is similar to that of the other countries that were British mandates, that is, from the mid-1800s to the twentieth century, Qatar was a British protectorate.
  • In 1971 Qatar became an independent state. In 1968 Britain had announced its intention to withdraw from the Gulf region.
  • The ath-Thānī family negotiated with the sheikhs of neighboring areas (which were soon to become the United Arab Emirates). Qatar declared independence from the British, though it continued relations with them through the formal signature of the Treaty of Friendship.
  • In 1971 Qatar joined the Arab League and the United Nations.
  • Qatar’s economy is heavily dependent on oil and natural gas. It has been more liberal than many of its Arab neighbors, and has a close relationship with the United States even though its identity is strongly Arab.
  • Qatar plays a small but vital role in the deliberations of the GCC countries.

Saudi Arabia

  • Saudi Arabia is arguably the leading kingdom in the Middle East. It fought for and regained its autonomy first from the Ottomans in 1902 and then from Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, in 1924 when Ibn Saud and his Wahhābi tribesmen warriors invaded the Hejāz and captured Mecca.
  • Prior to 1924, the British had made some unsuccessful attempts to reconcile Ibn Saud with the Hashemite Hussein.
  • In 1933 the Ibn Saud family became the uncontested rulers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; today, the country is still a hereditary monarchy and the Ibn Saud family is still in power.
  • King Fahd bin Abd al-Az al-Saud (r. 1982–2005) transformed Saudi Arabia into the greatest economic power in the Middle East. Following Fahd’s death in 2005, his half-brother Abdallah became king.
  • Western powers have had varying degrees of influence and presence in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the twentieth century the country was, largely, an independent, powerful, sovereign kingdom.
  • Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the Middle East, and indeed globally, is guaranteed by its reserves of oil, which are the largest in the world, its leadership in OPEC, and its spiritual and religious importance as the keeper of Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities of Islam.


  • As mentioned above, Syria was originally a part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1920 the independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established, under Feisal, the commander of the Arab forces and the third son of the Sherif of Mecca.
  • Feisal only ruled for a few months, however, before Syria was attacked and then occupied by French forces. In 1922 Syria became a French mandate. The French faced a series of uprisings from 1925 to 1927.
  • Syria declared its independence in 1941 and achieved recognition as an independent republic in 1944, but didn’t win real independence until 1946, when France pulled its troops out of the country.
  • The newly independent country adopted a republican form of government; its constitution required that the president be a Muslim.
  • Since 1963 Syria has been ruled by a succession of Ba’ath Party military governments, who have been suspicious of Western nations, leading to some tensions.
  • Syria is a heterogeneous society with Muslims, Christians, Druze, Alawites, and a small minority of Jews.
  • The economy of Syria is dependent on textiles and handicrafts; the infrastructure of this new country in an ancient land needs immediate improvement if the economy is to grow and provide sustainable livelihoods for Syria’s many inhabitants.


  • The Republic of Turkey was proclaimed in 1923, after a War of Independence in which Turkey ousted the Greeks, who had occupied the formerly Ottoman territory between 1918 and 1922.
  • During World War I there were a number of wartime agreements made between the European powers intended to carve up the Ottoman Empire into their spheres of influence; some of these included the Istanbul Agreements; Sykes-Picot Agreement, London Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration.
  • Post-war conditions reopened negotiations on territorial claims. A tripartite agreement between Britain, France, and Italy would have defined Turkey as a French and Italian area of control. However, it was abrogated by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, as a result of resolute resistance of Mustafa Kemal whose singular aim was total independence for Turkey.
  • In October 1923, Turkey was declared a republic, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was its first president. The Ottoman caliphate was abolished the following year; all members of the family were banished from the country. A republican constitution was adopted in 1924, which retained Islam as the state religion. But in 1928 the state religion clause was dropped, converting Turkey into a secular republic.
  • Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey underwent a sweeping program of modernization based on progressive and secular ideas.
  • Turkey is a republican parliamentary democracy and its constitution is founded on six basic principles: republicanism, Turkish nationalism, populism, secularism, statism (close state control of the economy), and revolutionism.
  • The growth of the Turkish economy has been erratic, as the country has been disrupted by political scandals, internal strife, and conflicts with other nations. The long-range picture for Turkey’s economy is, perhaps, relatively positive, however.
  • Turkey is currently seeking alliances and trading partnerships with European nations; it hopes to become a member of the European Union (EU) on the basis that Turkey already has considerable economic trade with the EU.
  • However, Islamist resistance at home and questions about Turkey’s human rights record from abroad have stalled all EU membership discussions.

The United Arab Emirates

  • One of the more unusual nations of the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was under the control of the British from 1853 until 1971, when it declared its independence.
  • During the years of the British mandate, the region was known as the Trucial States. The Trucial States were essentially sheikhdoms, that is, they each were ruled by a family whose leader was the emir (ruler). The trucial state system was itself an emendation of an earlier arrangement.
  • In 1820 the emirates Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah, Umm al-Quwain, and Fujairah were forced to sign agreements with Britain, which sought to protect its naval and merchant carriers in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
  • However, even after the treaty signing, various uprisings continued to cause the British some concern. In 1853, after a truce was brokered between Britain and the emirates, the trucial state system—a relationship that allowed Britain to exert influence in the emirates’ foreign affairs—was established. This arrangement was maintained until 1971, when Sheikh Zāyed bin al-Nahyān and Sheikh Rāshid bin al-Maktoum created the present independent federation.
  • This federation has a federal government, but each of the emirates also has some of its own powers. A president, currently Sheikh Khalīfa bin Zāyed al-Nahyān since Sheikh Zāyed’s death in November 2004, is elected head of the federation by the Supreme Council of Rulers, which is the highest body in the country.
  • The cabinet’s posts are divided among members of different emirates; the current minister for economy is a woman, Sheikhā Lubnā al Qasimi.
  • The UAE is a progressive and modern Islamic nation. Its remarkable features include a high standard of living, modern infrastructure and housing, a diversified economy, a stress on education, good healthcare, public utilities, and amicable relationships with both Western nations and the UAE’s Arab neighbors.
  • The UAE is perhaps the most multicultural society in the Middle East, which has led to its nickname, “the crossroads of continents.”


  • The various peoples and nations of the Middle East have all experienced different decolonization and independence processes. While Islam is a common factor that binds together these peoples and nations, there are many regional cultural differences as well.
  • Each of these nations follows different paths toward development, modernization, social change, and economic growth.
  • The issue of Occupied Palestine remains a contentious and unresolved matter that has made lasting peace in the region impossible.
  • Arab nations are bound together by the politics of Arab identity, but this can be a nebulous connection at times. For their part, Iran and Turkey have national identities that are remarkably different from those of Arab nations.
  • As far as relations between the Middle East and the rest of the world are concerned, the countries and peoples of the region see themselves as part of a larger whole, yet wish to remain independent and to develop at their own pace and in their own way.

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