Brief History of Western Influence in the Middle East

The 16 countries of the Middle East were part of the huge Ottoman Empire that ruled for 400 years. The Oghuz Turks founded their empire in 1453 with the conquest of Constantinople—the capital, later called Istanbul. The Turkish-speaking Sultan was the head of Muslims, called a Caliphate, and head of the imperial harem. Christians were second-class citizens. During its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, the empire controlled much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North African and the Horn of Africa. It dissolved after World War 1 when it sided with the Germans. The British (Iraq and Palestine), and French (Syria and Lebanon) moved in to fill the vacuum, partitioning parts of the Middle East between them. The boundaries weren’t based on logical geographical but rather arbitrary lines, not a good foundation for stability. Ibn Saud created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. In 1948 Israel was established, resulting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, followed by many others.

The US attempted to control the region for the oil, opposed by anti-western regimes in the 1950s and 60s with ideologies of secular Arab socialism. The US competed with the Soviet Union for influence until its dissolution in 1991. With the loss of the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967, militant Muslims tried to assert Arab power and Arab nationalism replaced state socialism in Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Iraq. Shia clerics took control of Iran while the Wahhabi sect of Islam controls Saudi Arabia. Post-Islamism developed as an alternative to undemocratic Islamist movements, such as the Ennhada Party in Tunisia. Since the Persian Gulf War in 1990, the US maintains a permanent military establishment in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Its influence is not progressive, supporting dictators like Hosni Mubarak–few Middle Eastern countries are democracies. Turkey and Israel are the most prominent exceptions, recently joined by Tunisia.

A major influence on the Middle East was the discovery of world’s largest oil reserves in Persia in 1908, in Arabia in 1938, and then other Persian Gulf states, plus Libya and Algeria. Oil revenue is controlled by kings and emirs who use it to consolidate their power and inhibit any expansion of the secular democratic model created by Kemal Atatürk in Turkey. Colonial rule discouraged autonomous development and literacy rates in the Middle East remained lower than other developing countries—half the women were illiterate in 1995.[i] A Tunisian activist put the cause of the Arab Spring under one umbrella, “the struggle of the whole south under colonialism.” Another Tunisian mentioned their goal to end “savage capitalism.” Minor protests occurred in Lebanon, Mauitania, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan with little impact except the tens of thousands political prisoners held in deplorably crowded conditions.[ii] The government was also able to keep the lid on lively protests in Iran.

[i] Henry, 2006.

[ii] Alastair Sloan, “Who are the ‘Political Prisoners’ in Saudi and Iran?”, Middle East Monitor, Aril 30, 2014.

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