The Middle East has been one of the world’s most troubled regions, especially since 1945. Wars and civil wars have raged almost non-stop. The Middle East consists of Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, the Yemen republics, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Most of these states, except Turkey and Iran, are peopled by Arabs; Iran, though not an Arab state, contains many Arabs living in the area around the northern end of the Persian Gulf. The Middle East also contains the small Jewish state of Israel, which was set up by the United Nations in 1948 in Palestine.
The creation of Israel in Palestine, an area belonging to the Palestinian Arabs, outraged Arab opinion throughout the world (other Arab states outside the Middle East are
Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). The Arabs especially blamed Britain, who, they felt, had been more sympathetic to the Jews than to the Arabs; most of all they blamed the USA, which had supported the idea of a Jewish state very strongly. The Arab states refused to recognize Israel as a legal state and they vowed to destroy it. Although there were four short wars between Israel and the various Arab states (1948-9, 1956, 1967 and 1973), Arab attacks failed, and Israel survived. However, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians dragged on and no permanent peace agreement had been reached.
The Arab desire to destroy Israel tended for much of the time to overshadow all other concerns. However, two other themes ran through Middle East affairs which became mixed up with the anti-Israel struggle:
- the desire of some Arabs to achieve political and economic unity among the Arab
- the desire of many Arabs to put an end to foreign intervention in their countries.
The Middle East attracted a lot of attention from both western and communist powers, because of its strategic position and rich oil resources. In addition, there were a number of conflicts involving individual Arab states:
- There was civil war in the Lebanon which lasted for close on 15 years from 1975.
- There was a war between Iran and Iraq lasting from 1980 until 1988.
In the First Gulf War (1990-1) Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait and were driven out again by an international coalition led by the USA.
Interpretations of the Middle East situation vary depending on whose viewpoint one looks
at. For example, many British politicians and journalists regarded Colonel Nasser (Egyptian leader 1954-70) as some kind of dangerous fanatic who was almost as bad as Hitler. On the other hand, most Arabs thought he was a hero, the symbol of the Arab people’s move towards unity and freedom.
ARAB UNITY AND INTERFERENCE FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD
(a) Arabs have several things in common
They all speak the Arabic language, they are nearly all Muslims, except for about half the population of Lebanon, who are Christian; and most of them wanted to see the destruction of Israel so that the Palestinian Arabs could have back the land which they feel is rightfully theirs. Many Arabs wanted to see the unity carried much further into some sort of political and economic union, like the European Community. As early as 1931 an Islamic conference in Jerusalem put out this announcement:
‘The Arab lands are a complete and indivisible whole … all efforts are to be directed towards their complete independence, in their entirety and unified.’
Several attempts were made to increase unity among the Arab states.
- The Arab League, founded in 1945, included Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen; membership later expanded to include 20 states in 1980. However, it achieved very little politically and was constantly hampered by internal squabbles.
- In the mid-1950s Arab unity (sometimes known as pan-Arabism) received a boost with the energetic leadership of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who gained enormous prestige in the Arab world after the 1956 Suez Crisis (discussed later on). In 1958 Syria joined Egypt to form the United Arab Republic, with Nasser as president. However, this only lasted until 1961 when Syria withdrew because of resentment at Nasser’s attempts to dominate the union.
- After Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor, President Sadat, organized a loose union between Egypt, Libya and Syria, known as the Federation of Arab Republics; but it never amounted to much.
In spite of their similarities, there were too many points on which the Arab states disagreed for unity ever to be really close. For example:
- Jordan and Saudi Arabia were ruled (and still are) by fairly conservative royal families who were often criticized for being too pro-British by the governments of Egypt and Syria, which were pro-Arab nationalist as well as socialist.
- The other Arab states fell out with Egypt in 1979 because Egypt signed a separate peace treaty with Israel. This caused Egypt to be expelled from the Arab League.
(b) Interference in the Middle East by other countries
- British and French involvement in the Middle East stretched back many years. Britain ruled Egypt from 1882 (when British troops invaded it) until 1922, when the country was given semi-independence under its own king. However, British troops still remained in Egypt and the Egyptians had to continue doing what Britain wanted. By the Versailles settlement at the end of the First World War, Britain and France were given large areas of the Middle East taken from the defeated Turks, to look after as mandates. Although Britain gave independence to Iraq ( 1932) and to Jordan ( 1946), both remained pro-British. France gave independence to Syria and Lebanon (1945) but hoped to maintain some influence in the Middle East.
- The Middle East held a very important strategic position in the world – it acted as a sort of crossroads between the western nations, the communist bloc and the Third World countries of Africa and Asia.
- At one time the Middle East produced over a third of the world’s oil supplies, the main producers being Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In the days before North Sea oil was available, and before the advent of nuclear power, the European nations were heavily dependent on oil supplies from the Middle East and wanted to make sure that the oil-producing states had friendly governments which would sell them oil cheaply.
- The lack of unity among the Arab states encouraged other countries to intervene in the Middle East.
Most of the Arab states had nationalist governments which bitterly resented western influence. One by one, governments that were thought to be too pro-West were swept away and replaced by regimes which wanted to be non-aligned; this meant being free to act independently of both East (Communist bloc) and West.
At the end of the Second World War, British troops stayed on in the canal zone (the area around the Suez Canal). This was to enable Britain to control the canal, in which over half the shares were owned by the British and French. In 1952 a group of Egyptian army officers, tired of waiting for the British to leave, overthrew Farouk, the King of Egypt (who was thought not to be firm enough with the British), and seized power themselves.
By 1954 Colonel Nasser had become president and his policy of standing up to Britain soon led to the Suez War of 1956 (discussed later). This brought complete humiliation for Britain and was the end of British influence in Egypt.
King Abdullah had been given his throne by the British in 1946. He was assassinated in 1951 by nationalists who felt that he was too much under Britain’s thumb. His successor, King Hussein, had to tread very carefully to survive. He ended the treaty which allowed British troops to use bases in Jordan (I 957), and all British troops were withdrawn.
King Faisal of Iraq and his prime minister, Nuri-es-Sajd, were pro-British; in 1955 they signed an agreement with Turkey (the Baghdad Pact) to set up a joint defence and economic policy. Pakistan, Iran and Britain also joined, Britain promising to help Iraq if she was attacked. The British humiliation in the 1956 Suez War encouraged the anti-British movement in Iraq to act: Faisal and Nuri-es-Said were murdered and Iraq became a republic (1958). The new government was sympathetic towards Egypt and it withdrew Iraq from the Baghdad Pact. This marked the end of Britain’s attempt to play a major role in Arab affairs.
Important changes were taking place in Iran, the only Middle East state which had a frontier with the USSR. In 1945 the Russians tried to set up a communist government in northern Iran, the part that bordered on the USSR and which had a large and active communist party. The western-educated Shah (ruler) of Iran, Reza Pahlevi, resisted the Russians and signed a defence treaty with the USA (1950); they provided him with economic and military aid, including tanks and jet fighters. The Americans saw the situation as part of the Cold War – Iran was yet another front where they thought it vital to prevent a communist advance.
However, there was a strong nationalist movement in Iran which resented all foreign influence. Feelings soon began to turn against the USA and against Britain too. This was because Britain held a majority of the shares in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and its refinery at Abadan. It was widely felt that the British were taking too much of the profits, and in 1951 the Premier of Iran, Dr Mussadiq, nationalized the company.
However, most of the world, encouraged by Britain, boycotted Iran’s oil exports and Mussadiq was forced to resign. In 1954 a compromise was reached in which British Petroleum was allowed 40 per cent of the shares. Iran now took 50 per cent of the profits, which the Shah was able to use for a cautious modernization and land reform programme.
This was not enough for the left and for the devout Muslims. They resented the Shah’s close ties with the USA, which they considered to be an immoral influence on their country. They also suspected that a large slice of the country’s wealth was finding its way into his private fortune. In January 1979 he was forced to leave the country, and an Islamic republic was set up under a religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Nasser, he wanted his country to be non-aligned.