The Middle East is history, home to a roll call of some of the most important landmarks ever built. Mesopotamia (now Iraq) was the undisputed cradle of civilisation. Damascus (Syria), Aleppo (Syria), Byblos (Lebanon), Jericho (Israel and the Palestinian Territories) and Erbil (Iraq) all stake compelling claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. And it was here in the Middle East that the three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – were born.
Ancient Middle East
Cradle of Civilisation
The first human beings to walk the earth did just that: they walked. In their endless search for sustenance and shelter, they roamed the earth, hunting, foraging plants for food and erecting makeshift shelters as they went. The world’s first nomads, they carried what they needed; most likely they lived in perfect harmony with nature and left next to nothing behind for future generations to write their story.
The first signs of agriculture, arguably the first major signpost along the march of human history, grew from the soils surrounding Jericho in what is now the Palestinian Territories, around 8500 BC. Forced by a drying climate and the need to cluster around known water sources, these early Middle Easterners added wild cereals to their diet and learned to farm them. In the centuries that followed, these and other farming communities spread east into Mesopotamia (a name later given by the Greeks, meaning ‘Between Two Rivers’), where the fertile soils of the Tigris and Euphrates floodplains were ideally suited to the new endeavour. For some historians, this was a homecoming of sorts for humankind: these two rivers are among the four that, according to the Bible, flowed into the Garden of Eden.
In around the 5th century BC, the Sumerians became the first to build cities and to support them with year-round agriculture and river-borne trade. In the blink of a historical eye, although almost 2000 years later in reality, the Sumerians invented the first known form of writing: cuneiform, which consisted primarily of pictographs and would later evolve into alphabets on which some modern writing systems are based. With agriculture and writing mastered, the world’s first civilisation had been born.
Elsewhere across the region, in around 3100 BC, the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were unified under Menes, ushering in 3000 years of Pharaonic rule in the Nile Valley.
Birth of Empire
The moment in history when civilisations evolved into empires is unclear, but by the 3rd century BC, the kings of what we now know as the Middle East had heard the fragmented news brought by traders of fabulous riches just beyond the horizon.
The Sumerians, who were no doubt rather pleased with themselves for having tamed agriculture and invented writing, never saw the Akkadians coming. One of many city-states that fell within the Sumerian realm, Akkad, on the banks of the Euphrates southwest of modern Baghdad, had grown in power, and, in the late 24th and early 23rd centuries BC, Sargon of Akkad conquered Mesopotamia and then extended his rule over much of the Levant. The era of empire, which would convulse the region almost until the present day, had begun.
Although the Akkadian Empire would last no more than a century, Sargon’s idea caught on. The at-once sophisticated and war-like Assyrians, whose empire would, from their capital at Nineveh (Iraq), later encompass the entire Middle East, were the most enduring power. Along with their perennial Mesopotamian rivals, the Babylonians, the Assyrians would dominate the human history of the region for almost 1000 years.
The 7th century BC saw the conquest of Egypt by Assyria and, far to the east, the rise of the Medes, the first of many great Persian empires. In 550 BC the Medes were conquered by Cyrus the Great, widely regarded as the first Persian shah (king). In the 7th century BC the king of one of the Persian tribes, Achaemenes, created a unified state in southern Iran, giving his name to what would become the First Persian Empire, the Achaemenids. His 21-year-old great-grandson Cyrus II ascended the throne in 559 BC, and within 20 years it would be the greatest empire the world had known up until that time.
Having rapidly built a mighty military force, Cyrus the Great (as he came to be known) ended the Median Empire in 550 BC. Within 11 years, Cyrus had campaigned his way across much of what is now Turkey, east into modern Pakistan, and finally defeated the Babylonians. It was in the aftermath of this victory in 539 BC that Cyrus established a reputation as a benevolent conqueror. Over the next 60 years Cyrus and his successors, Cambyses (r 525–522 BC) and Darius I (r 521–486 BC), battled with the Greeks for control over Babylon, Egypt, Asia Minor and parts of Greece.
Egypt won independence from the Persians in 401 BC, only to be reconquered 60 years later. The second Persian occupation of Egypt was brief: little more than a decade after they arrived, the Persians were again driven out of Egypt, this time by the Greeks. Europe had arrived on the scene and would hold sway in some form for almost 1000 years until the birth of Islam.
The definition of which territories constitute ‘the Middle East’ has always been a fluid concept. Some cultural geographers claim that the Middle East includes all countries of the Arab world as far west as Morocco. But most historians agree that the Middle East’s eastern boundaries were determined by the Greeks in the 4th century BC.
In 336 BC Philip II of Macedon, a warlord who had conquered much of mainland Greece, was murdered. His son Alexander assumed the throne and began a series of conquests that would eventually encompass most of Asia Minor, the Middle East, Persia and northern India. Under Alexander, the Greeks were the first to impose any kind of order on the Middle East as a whole.
In 331 BC, just five years after taking control, Alexander the Great’s armies swept into what is now Libya. Greek rule extended as far east as what is now the Libyan city of Benghazi, beyond which the Romans would hold sway. Ever since, the unofficial but widely agreed place where the Middle East begins and ends has been held to be Cyrenaica in Libya.
Upon Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire was promptly carved up among his generals. This resulted in the founding of three new ruling dynasties: the Antigonids in Greece and Asia Minor; the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt; and the Seleucids. The Seleucids controlled the swath of land running from modern Israel and Lebanon through Mesopotamia to Persia.
But, this being the Middle East, peace remained elusive. Having finished off a host of lesser competitors, the heirs to Alexander’s empire then proceeded to fight each other. It took an army arriving from the west to again reunite the lands of the east – this time in the shape of the legions of Rome.
Even for a region accustomed to living under occupation, the news of massed, disciplined ranks of Roman legions marching down across the plains of central Anatolia must have struck fear into the hearts of people across the Middle East. But this was a region in disarray and the Romans chose their historical moment perfectly.
Rome’s legionaries conquered most of Asia Minor (most of Turkey) in 188 BC. Syria and Palestine soon fell, if not without a fight then without too much difficulty. When Cleopatra of Egypt, the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, was defeated in 31 BC, the Romans controlled the entire Mediterranean world. Only the Sassanids in Persia held Rome at bay.
Foreign occupiers they may have been, but the Romans brought much-needed stability and even a degree of prosperity to the region. Roman goods flooded into Middle Eastern markets, improving living standards in a region that had long ago lost its title as the centre of the world’s sophistication. New methods of agriculture increased productivity across the region and the largely peaceful Roman territories allowed the export of local products to the great markets of Rome. Olive trees, with their origins in Turkey and the Levant, were, like the oilfields of today, a lucrative product, with insatiable demand in Rome driving previously unimaginable growth for local Middle Eastern economies.
What the Mesopotamians began with their city-states, the Romans perfected in the extravagant cities that they built to glorify the empire but which also provided new levels of comfort for local inhabitants. Their construction or development of earlier Phoenician and Greek settlements at Ephesus, Palmyra, Baalbek and Jerash announced that the Romans intended to stay.
So was the Roman Middle East a utopia? Well, not exactly. As just about any foreign power has failed to learn right up to the 21st century, Middle Easterners don’t take kindly to promises of wealth in exchange for sovereignty. The Jews living in Palestine in particular found themselves stripped of political power and operating in an ever-diminishing space of religious and economic freedom. By the middle of the 1st century AD, Jews across the Roman Empire had had enough. Primary among their grievances were punitive taxes, the Roman decision to appoint Jewish high priests and the not-inconsiderable blasphemy of Emperor Caligula’s decision in AD 39 to declare himself a deity. Anti-Roman sentiment had been bubbling away for three decades, in part because of one rebellious orator – Jesus of Nazareth – and due also to a Jewish sect called the Zealots, whose creed stated that all means were justified to liberate the Jews.
Led by the Zealots, the Jews of Jerusalem destroyed a small Roman garrison in the Holy City in AD 66. Infighting within the revolt and the burning of food stockpiles to force wavering Jews to participate had disastrous consequences. Jerusalem was razed to the ground and up to 100,000 Jews were killed in retaliation; some Jewish historians claim that the number of dead over the four years of the revolt reached a million.
The failed uprising and the brutal Roman response (which came to be known as the First Jewish-Roman War) would have consequences that have rippled down through the centuries. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman city and the Jews were sent into exile (which, for many Jews, ended only with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948). Few people in the Middle East dared to challenge the Romans after that.
In AD 331 the newly converted Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’, with its capital not jaded, cynical Rome but the newly renamed city of Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, later to become İstanbul). Constantinople reached its apogee during the reign of Justinian (AD 527–65), when the Byzantine Empire consolidated its hold on the eastern Mediterranean.
But the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire, as it became known, would soon learn a harsh lesson that the Ottomans (ruling from the same city) would later fail to heed. Spread too thinly by controlling vast reaches of the earth and riven with divisions at home, they were vulnerable to the single most enduring historic power in Middle Eastern history, stirring in the deserts of Arabia: Islam.
Islamic Middle East
Arrival & Spread of Islam
No one in sophisticated Constantinople, an opulent city accustomed to the trappings of world power, could have imagined that the greatest threat to their rule would come from a small oasis community in the desert wastes of Arabia. The Byzantines, it is true, were besieged in their coastal forts of the southern Mediterranean, their power extending scarcely at all into the hinterland. And the Sassanid empire to the east was constantly chipping away at poorly defended Byzantine holdings. But there was little to suggest to the heirs of the Roman domain that these were anything more than minor skirmishes on the outer reaches of their empire.
In the 7th century AD, southern Arabia lay beyond the reach of both the Byzantines and the Sassanids. The cost and difficulty of occupying the Arabian Peninsula simply wasn’t worth the effort, home as it was only to troublesome nomads and isolated oases. Thus it was that when, far from the great centres of power, in the nondescript town of Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), a merchant named Muhammad (b AD 570) began preaching against the pagan religion of his fellow Meccans, no one in Constantinople paid the slightest attention.
Muhammad died in 632, but within a few short decades the entire Middle East would be under the control of his followers. Under Muhammad's successors, known as caliphs (from the Arabic word for ‘follower’), the new religion spread rapidly, reaching all of Arabia by 634. By 646 Syria, Palestine and Egypt were all in Muslim hands, while most of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan were wrested from the Sassanids by 656. By 682 Islam had reached the shores of the Atlantic in Morocco.
Having won the battle for supremacy over the Muslim world, Muawiyah, the Muslim military governor of Syria and a distant relative of Muhammad, who became the fifth caliph, moved the capital from Medina to Damascus and established the first great Muslim dynasty – the Umayyads. Thanks to the unrelenting success of his armies, Muawiyah and his successors found themselves ruling an empire that held sway over almost a third of the world’s population.
The decision to make Damascus the capital meant that, for the first time in the Middle East’s turbulent history, the region was ruled from its Levantine heartland. The Umayyads gave the Islamic world some of its greatest architectural treasures, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus – lavish monuments to the new faith, if a far cry from Islam’s simple desert origins.
History, however, has not been kind to the Umayyads. Perhaps seduced by Damascus’ charms, they are remembered as a decadent lot, known for the high living, corruption, nepotism and tyranny that eventually proved to be their undoing. News of Umayyad excesses never sat well with the foot soldiers of Islam and even confirmed their long-held suspicions about their adherence to Islamic tenets.
In 750 the Umayyads were toppled in a revolt fuelled, predictably, by accusations of impiety. Their successors, and the strong arm behind the revolt, were the Abbasids. The Abbasid caliphate created a new capital in Baghdad, and the early centuries of its rule constituted what’s often regarded as the golden age of Islamic culture in the Middle East. The most famous of the Abbasid caliphs was Haroun Ar Rashid (r 786–809) of The Thousand and One Nights fame. Warrior-king Haroun Ar Rashid led one of the most successful early Muslim invasions of Byzantium, almost reaching Constantinople. But his name will forever be associated with Baghdad, which he transformed into a world centre of learning and sophistication.
After Haroun Ar Rashid’s death, the cycle that had already scarred Islam’s early years – a strong, enlightened ruler giving way upon his death to anarchy and squandering many of the hard-won territorial and cultural gains of his reign – was repeated.
By the middle of the 10th century, the Abbasid caliphs were the prisoners of their Turkish guards, who spawned a dynasty of their own, known as the Seljuks (1038–1194). The Seljuks extended their reach throughout Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Anatolia, where the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum made its capital at Konya. The resulting pressure on the Byzantine Empire was intense enough to cause the emperor and the Greek Orthodox Church to swallow their pride and appeal to the rival Roman Catholic Church for help.
What happened next would plant the seeds for a clash of civilisations, whose bitterness would reverberate throughout the region long after the swords of Islam and Christianity had been sheathed.
Genghis Khan & the Mongol Invasion
In the early 13th century, the Seljuk Empire came to a final and bloody end when the rampaging Mongols swept across the Persian plateau on their horses, leaving a trail of cold-blooded devastation and thousands of dismembered heads in their wake.
Under the leadership first of Genghis Khan, and then his grandsons, including Hulagu, the Mongol rulers managed to seize all of Persia, as well as an empire stretching from Beijing (China) to İstanbul (Turkey). Eventually they established a capital at Tabriz. The Mongols destroyed many of the Persian cities they conquered, obliterating much of Persia’s documented history. But they also became great arts patrons, leaving many fine monuments.
The empire fragmented when Abu Said died without a successor, and soon succumbed to invading forces from the east led by Tamerlane (Lame Timur).
The Crusades & Their Aftermath
Preparing for War
With the Muslim armies gathering at the gates of Europe, and already occupying large swaths of Iberia, Pope Urban II in 1095, in response to the eastern empire’s alarm, called for a Western Christian military expedition – a ‘Crusade’ – to liberate the holy places of Jerusalem. Rome’s motives were not entirely benevolent: Urban was eager to assert Rome’s primacy in the east over Constantinople. The monarchs and clerics of Europe attempted to portray the Crusades as a ‘just war’. In the late 11th century, such a battle cry attracted zealous support.
Bitterly fought on the battlefield, the Crusades remain one of the region’s most divisive historical moments. For the Muslims, the Christian call to arms was a vicious attack on Islam itself, and the tactics used by the Crusaders confirmed the Muslim suspicion that Christianity’s primary concern was imperial conquest. So deep does the sense of grievance run in the region that US President George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was widely portrayed as the next Christian crusade. In the Christian world view, the Crusades were a necessary defensive strategy, lest Islam sweep across Europe and place Christianity’s very existence under threat.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, the crusading rabble enjoyed considerable success. After linking up with the Byzantine army in 1097, the Crusaders successfully besieged Antioch (modern Antakya, in Turkey) and then marched south along the coast before turning inland, towards Jerusalem, leaving devastation in their wake. A thousand Muslim troops held Jerusalem for six weeks against 15,000 Crusaders before the city fell on 15 July 1099. The victorious Crusaders then massacred the local population – Muslims, Jews and Christians alike – sacked the non-Christian religious sites and turned the Dome of the Rock into a church.
Curiously, even after the gratuitous violence of the Crusades, Christians and Muslims assimilated in the Holy Land. European visitors to Palestine recorded with dismay that the original Crusaders who remained in the Holy Land had abandoned their European ways. They had become Arabised, taking on Eastern habits and dress – perhaps it was not an unwise move to abandon chain mail and jerkins for flowing robes in the Levantine heat. Even with their semi-transformation into locals, the Crusaders were never equipped to govern the massive, newly resentful Middle East. A series of Crusader ‘statelets’ arose through the region during this period.
These statelets aside, the Middle East remained predominantly Muslim, and within 50 years the tide had begun to turn against the Crusaders. The Muslim leader responsible for removing the Crusaders from Jerusalem (in 1187) was Salah Ad Din Al Ayyoub, better known in the West as Saladin.
Saladin and his successors (a fleeting dynasty known as the Ayyubids) battled the Crusaders for 60 years until they were unceremoniously removed by their own army, a strange soldier-slave caste, the Mamluks, who ran what would today be called a military dictatorship. The only way to join their army was to be press-ganged into it – non-Muslim boys were captured or bought outside the empire, converted to Islam and raised in the service of a single military commander. They were expected to give this commander total loyalty, in exchange for which their fortunes would rise (or fall) with his. Sultans were chosen from among the most senior Mamluk commanders, but it was a system that engendered vicious, bloody rivalries, and rare was the sultan who died of natural causes.
The Mamluks were to rule Egypt, Syria, Palestine and western Arabia for nearly 300 years (1250–1517), and it was they who finally succeeded in ejecting the Crusaders from the Near East, prising them out of their last stronghold of Acre (modern-day Akko in Israel) in 1291.
The Ottoman Middle East
Rise of the Ottomans
Turkey, saved for now from an Islamic fate by the Crusaders, had remained largely above the fray. But the Byzantine rulers in Constantinople felt anything but secure. The armies of Islam may have been occupied fighting the Crusaders (and each other) in the so-called Holy Lands, but the Byzantines looked towards the south nervously, keeping their armies in a state of high readiness. Little did they know that their undoing would come from within.
In 1258, just eight years after the Mamluks seized power in Cairo and began their bloody dynasty, a boy named Osman (Othman) was born to the chief of a Turkish tribe in western Anatolia. He converted to Islam in his youth and later began a military career by hiring out his tribe’s army as mercenaries in the civil wars, then besetting what was left of the Byzantine Empire. Payment came in the form of land.
Rather than taking on the Byzantines directly, Osman’s successors (the Ottomans) deliberately picked off the bits and pieces of the empire that Constantinople could no longer control. By the end of the 14th century, the Ottomans had conquered Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary and most of present-day Turkey. They had also moved their capital across the Dardanelles to Adrianople, today the Turkish city of Edirne. In 1453 came their greatest victory, when Sultan Mehmet II took Constantinople, the hitherto unachievable object of innumerable Muslim wars almost since the 7th century.
Sixty-four years later, on a battlefield near Aleppo, an army under the gloriously named sultan Selim the Grim routed the Mamluks and assumed sovereignty over the Hejaz. At a stroke, the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt and much of Arabia, was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. By capturing Mecca and Medina, Selim the Grim claimed for the Ottomans the coveted title of the guardians of Islam’s holiest places. For the first time in centuries, the Middle East was ruled in its entirety by a single Islamic entity.
The Ottoman Empire reached its peak, both politically and culturally, under Süleyman the Magnificent (r 1520–66), who led the Ottoman armies west to the gates of Vienna, east into Persia, and south through the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and into Yemen. His control also extended throughout North Africa. A remarkable figure, Süleyman was noted as much for codifying Ottoman law (he is known in Turkish as Süleyman Kanunı – law bringer) as for his military prowess. Süleyman’s legal code was a visionary amalgam of secular and Islamic law, and his patronage of the arts saw the Ottomans reach their cultural zenith.
Another hallmark of Ottoman rule, especially in its early centuries, was its tolerance. In general, Christian and Jewish communities were accorded the respect the Quran outlines for them as ‘People of the Book’ and were given special status. The Ottoman state was a truly multicultural and multilingual one, and Christians and Muslims rose to positions of great power within the Ottoman hierarchy. In a move unthinkable for a Muslim ruler today, Sultan Beyazıt II even invited the Jews expelled from Iberia by the Spanish Inquisition to İstanbul in 1492.
But as so often happened in Middle Eastern history upon the death of a charismatic leader, things began to unravel soon after Süleyman died fighting on the Danube. The Ottomans may have held nominal power throughout their empire for centuries to come, but the growing decadence of the Ottoman court and unrest elsewhere in the countries that fell within the Ottoman sphere of influence ensured that, after Süleyman, the empire went into a long, slow period of decline.
Only five years after Süleyman’s death, Spain and Venice destroyed virtually the entire Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto (in the Aegean Sea), thereby costing the Ottomans control over the western Mediterranean. North Africa soon fell under the sway of local dynasties. Conflict with the Safavids – Persia’s rulers from the early 16th century to the early 18th century – was almost constant.
To make matters worse, within a century of Süleyman’s death, the concept of enlightened Ottoman sultans had all but evaporated. Assassinations, mutinies and fratricide were increasingly the norm among Constantinople’s royals, and the opulent lifestyle was taking its toll. Süleyman was the last sultan to lead his army into the field, and those who came after him were generally coddled and sequestered in the fineries of the palace, having minimal experience of everyday life and little inclination to administer or expand the empire. The Ottomans remained moribund, inward looking and generally unaware of the advances that were happening in Europe – the Ottoman clergy did not allow the use of the printing press until the 18th century, a century and a half after it had been introduced into Europe.
Just as it had under the similarly out-of-touch Umayyads in the 8th century, the perceived impiety of the sultans and their representatives gave power to local uprisings. The Ottoman Empire lumbered along until the 20th century, but the empire was in a sorry state and its control over its territories grew more tenuous with each passing year.
Europe had begun to wake from its medieval slumber and the monarchs of France and Great Britain, in particular, were eager to bolster their growing prosperity by expanding their zones of economic influence. More than that, the prestige that would accompany colonial possessions in lands that had held an important place in the European imagination was undeniable. The reflected glory of ‘owning’ the Holy Lands or becoming the rulers over what was once the cradle of civilisation was too much for these emerging world powers to resist, and fitted perfectly within their blueprint for world domination. They may have talked of a ‘civilising mission’. They may even have believed it. But it was prestige and greed that ultimately drove them as they cast their eye towards the Middle East.
In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt. It was not by accident that he chose the Middle East’s most populous country as his first conquest in the region. By conquering the one-time land of the pharaohs, this ruler with visions of grandeur and an eye on his place in history announced to the world that France was the world power of the day. The French occupation of Egypt lasted only three years, but left a lasting mark – even today, Egypt’s legal system is based on a French model.
The British, of course, had other ideas. Under the cover of protecting their own Indian interests, they forced the French out of Egypt in 1801.
Four years later, Mohammed Ali, an Albanian soldier in the Ottoman army, emerged as the country’s strongman and he set about modernising the country. As time passed it became increasingly obvious that Constantinople was becoming ever more dependent on Egypt for military backing rather than the reverse. Mohammed Ali’s ambitions grew. In the 1830s he invaded and conquered Syria, and by 1839 he had effective control of most of the Ottoman Empire.
While it might have appeared to have been in Europe’s interests to consign the Ottoman Empire to history, they were already stretched by their other colonial conquests and holdings (the British in India, the French in Africa) and had no interest, at least not yet, in administering the entire region. As a consequence, the Europeans prevailed upon Mohammed Ali to withdraw to Egypt. In return, the Ottoman sultan gave long-overdue acknowledgement of Mohammed Ali’s status as ruler of a virtually independent Egypt, and bestowed the right of hereditary rule on his heirs (who continued to rule Egypt until 1952). In some quarters the Ottoman move was viewed as a wise strategy in keeping with their loose administration of their empire. In truth, they had little choice.
The emboldened Europeans were always at the ready to expand their influence in the region. In 1860 the French sent troops to Lebanon after a massacre of Christians by the local Druze. Before withdrawing, the French forced the Ottomans to set up a new administrative system for the area guaranteeing the appointment of Christian governors, over whom the French came to have great influence.
While all of this was happening, another import from the West – nationalism – was making its presence felt. The people of the Middle East watched with growing optimism as Greece and the Ottomans’ Balkan possessions wriggled free, marking the death knell of Ottoman omniscience and prompting Middle Easterners to dream of their own independence. In this they were encouraged by the European powers, who may have paid lip service to the goals of independence, but were actually laying detailed plans for occupation. Mistaking (or, more likely, deliberately misinterpreting or ignoring) the nationalist movement as a cry for help, the European powers quickly set about filling the vacuum of power left by the Ottomans.
The Ottoman regime, once feared and respected, was now universally known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. European diplomats and politicians condescendingly pondered the ‘Eastern question’, which in practice meant deciding how to dismember the empire and cherry-pick its choicest parts. In 1869 Mohammed Ali’s grandson Ismail opened the Suez Canal. But within a few years, his government was so deeply in debt that in 1882, the British, who already played a large role in Egyptian affairs, occupied the country. It was a sign of things to come.
Colonial Middle East
With the exception of Napoleon’s stunning march into Egypt, Britain and France had slowly come to occupy the Middle East less by conquest than by stealth. European advisers, backed by armed reinforcements when necessary, were increasingly charting the region’s future and it would not be long before their efforts were rewarded.
With the outbreak of WWI in 1914, the Ottoman Empire made its last serious (and ultimately fatal) error by throwing its lot in with Germany. Sultan Mohammed V declared a jihad (holy war), calling on Muslims everywhere to rise up against Britain, France and Russia (who were encroaching on Eastern Anatolia). When the British heard the Ottoman call to jihad, they performed a masterstroke – they negotiated an alliance with Hussein bin Ali, the grand sherif (Islamic custodian and descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) of Mecca, who agreed to lead an Arab revolt against the Turks in return for a British promise to make him ‘King of the Arabs’ once the conflict was over. This alliance worked well in defeating the Ottomans.
There was just one problem. With the Ottomans out of the way, the British never had any serious intention of keeping their promise. Even as they were negotiating with Sherif Hussein, the British were talking with the French on how to carve up the Ottoman Empire. These talks yielded the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement – the secret Anglo-French accord that divided the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence. With a few adjustments, the Sykes-Picot Agreement determined the post-WWI map of the Middle East. Not surprisingly, this remains one of the most reviled ‘peace agreements’ in 20th-century Middle Eastern history.
In the closing year of the war, the British occupied Palestine, Transjordan, Damascus and Iraq. After the war, France took control of Syria and Lebanon, while Britain retained Egypt in addition to its holdings elsewhere. The Arabs, who’d done so much to free themselves from Ottoman rule, suddenly found themselves under British or French colonial administration, with the prospect of a Jewish state in their midst not far over the horizon thanks to the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
When the newly minted League of Nations initiated its system of mandates in 1922, thereby legitimising the French and British occupations, the sense of betrayal across the region was palpable. As was the colonial way, no one had thought to ask the people of the region what they wanted. As the Europeans set about programs of legal and administrative reform, their occupying forces faced almost continual unrest. The Syrians and Lebanese harried the French, while the predominantly Arab population of Palestine battled the British.
The problems in Palestine were particularly acute. Since taking control of Palestine in 1918, the British had been under pressure to allow unrestricted Jewish immigration to the territory. With tension rising between Palestine’s Arab and Jewish residents, they refused to do this and, in the late 1930s, placed strict limits on the number of new Jewish immigrants. It was, of course, a crisis of Britain’s own making, having promised to ‘view with favour’ the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
As Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine simmered, Turkey was going its own way, mercifully free of both the Ottoman sultans and their European successors. Stripped of its Arab provinces, the Ottoman monarchy was overthrown and a Turkish republic was declared under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk’, a soldier who became Turkey’s first president in 1923.
His drive toward secularism (which he saw as synonymous with the modernisation necessary to drag Turkey into the 20th century) found an echo in Persia, where, in 1923, Reza Khan, the commander of a Cossack brigade who had risen to become war minister, overthrew the decrepit Ghajar dynasty. After changing his name from Khan to the more Persian-sounding Pahlavi (the language spoken in pre-Islamic Persia), he moved to set up a secular republic on the Turkish model. Protests from the country’s religious establishment caused a change of heart and he had himself crowned shah instead. In 1934 he changed the country’s name from Persia to Iran.
Looking back now at the turbulent years between the two world wars, it’s easy to discern the seeds of the major conflicts that would come to define the Middle East in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Turkey’s struggle to forge an identity as a modernising Muslim country.
For the past 70 years, no issue has divided the Middle East quite like Israeli independence. Four major conflicts, numerous skirmishes and an unrelenting war of words and attrition have cast a long shadow over everything that happens in the region. If a way could be found to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the Middle East would be a very different place.
There is very little on which the two sides agree, although the following historical chronology is probably among them: in early 1947 the British announced that they were turning the entire problem over to the newly created UN. The UN voted to partition Palestine, but this was rejected by the Arabs. Britain pulled out and the very next day the Jews declared the founding of the State of Israel. War broke out immediately, with Egypt, Jordan and Syria weighing in on the side of the Palestinian Arabs. Israel won.
Beyond that, the issue has become a forum for claim and counter-claim to the extent that for the casual observer, truth has become as elusive as the peace that all sides claim to want. What follows is our summary of the main bodies of opinion about Israeli independence among Israelis and Palestinians as they stood in 1948.
The Israeli View
For many Israelis in 1948, the founding of the state of Israel represented a homecoming for a persecuted people who had spent almost 2000 years in exile. Coming so soon as it did after the horrors of the Holocaust, in which more than six million Jews were killed, Israel, a state of their own, was the least the world could do after perpetrating the Holocaust or at the very least letting it happen. The Holocaust was the culmination of decades, perhaps even centuries of racism in European countries. In short, the Jewish people had ample reason to believe that their fate should never again be placed in the hands of others.
Although the Jews were offered a range of alternative sites for their state, it could never be anywhere but on the southeastern shores of the Mediterranean. By founding a Jewish state in Palestine, the Jews were returning to a land rich in biblical reference points and promises – one of the most enduring foundations of Judaism is that God promised this land to the Jews. Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of this land for a people whose traditions and sacred places all lay in Palestine, especially Jerusalem. This may have been the driving force for many observant religious Jews. But the dream of a return had deeper cultural roots, maintained down through the generations during an often difficult exile and shared by many secular Jews. This latter branch of Jewish society hoped to create an enlightened utopia, an egalitarian society in which a strong and just Israel finally took its rightful place among the modern company of nations. It was, according to the popular Zionist song that would become Israel’s national anthem, ‘the hope of 2000 years’.
The Palestinian View
For many Palestinians in 1948, the founding of the state of Israel was ‘Al Naqba’ – the Catastrophe. Through no fault of their own, and thanks to decisions made in Europe and elsewhere, and on which they were never consulted, the Palestinians were driven from their land. While the British were promising Palestine to the Jews in 1917, the Palestinians were fighting alongside the British to oust the Ottomans. Later, subject to British occupation, Palestinians suffered at the hands of Jewish extremist groups and found themselves confronted by an influx of Jews who had never before set foot in Palestine but who claimed equal rights over the land. Many Palestinians who had lived on the land for generations could do nothing without international assistance. No one came to their aid. In short, when they were offered half of their ancestral homelands by the UN, they had ample reason to reject the plan out of hand.
As with the Israelis, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of this land for Palestinians, many of whose traditions and sacred places lay in Palestine. Jerusalem (Al Quds) is the third-holiest city for Palestinian Muslims after Mecca and Medina (the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven from the Al Aqsa Mosque), and the holiest city on earth for Palestinian Christians. But this was never really about religion. Had they not lived alongside the Jews for centuries, many Palestinians asked, considered them equals and given them the respect that their religion deserved? For the Palestinians forced to flee, it was about the right to the homes in which people had lived and to the fields that they had farmed. As they fled into their own exile, they longed for a Palestinian homeland taking its rightful place among the modern company of nations.
Arab Middle East
The Arab countries that waged war against Israel were in disarray, even before they went to war. Newly independent themselves, they were governed for the most part by hereditary rulers whose legitimacy was tenuous at best. They ruled over countries whose boundaries had only recently been established and they did so thanks to centuries of foreign rule, ill prepared to tackle the most pressing problems of poverty, illiteracy and the lack of a clear national vision for the future. Although united in the common cause of opposing Israel, they were divided over just about everything else.
The disastrous performance of the combined Arab armies in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War had far-reaching consequences for the region. People across the Middle East blamed their leaders for the defeat, a mood fuelled by the mass arrival of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and, most of all, Jordan, whose population doubled almost overnight. Recriminations over the humiliating defeat and the refugee problem it created laid the groundwork for the 1951 assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan. Syria, which had gained its independence from France in 1946, became the field for a seemingly endless series of military coups.
Rise of Nasser
It was in Egypt, where the army blamed the loss of the war on the country’s corrupt and ineffective politicians, that the most interesting developments were taking shape. In July 1952 a group of young officers toppled the monarchy, with the real power residing with one of the coup plotters: Gamal Abdel Nasser. King Farouk, descendant of the Albanian Mohammed Ali, departed from Alexandria harbour on the royal yacht, and Colonel Nasser – the first Egyptian to rule Egypt since the pharaohs – became president in elections held in 1956. His aim of returning some of Egypt’s wealth to its much-exploited peasantry struck a chord with Egypt’s masses. He became an instant hero across the Arab world.
Nasser’s iconic status reached new heights in the year of his inauguration, when he successfully faced down Britain and France in a confrontation over the Suez Canal, which was mostly owned by British and French investors. On 26 July, the fourth anniversary of King Farouk’s departure, Nasser announced that he had nationalised the Suez Canal to finance the building of a great dam that would control the flooding of the Nile and boost Egyptian agriculture. A combined British, French and Israeli invasion force, which intended to take possession of the canal, was, to great diplomatic embarrassment, forced to make an undignified retreat after the UN and US applied pressure. Nasser emerged from the Suez Canal crisis the most popular Arab leader in history.
Attempts at Unity
Such was Nasser’s popularity that the Syrians joined Egypt in what would prove to be an ultimately unworkable union, the United Arab Republic, in 1958. At the time, it seemed as if Nasser’s dream of pan-Arab unity was one step closer to reality. But behind the staged photo opportunities in which the region’s presidents and monarchs lined up to bask in Nasser’s reflected glory, the region was as divided as ever. With the United Arab Republic at Jordan’s borders to the north and south, King Hussein feared for his own position and tried a federation of his own with his Hashemite cousins in Iraq; it lasted less than a year before the Iraqi Hashemite monarchy was overthrown, and British troops were sent in to Jordan to protect Hussein. Egypt and Syria went their separate ways in 1961.
Meanwhile, Lebanon was taking an entirely different course, exposing the fault lines that would later tear the country apart. The Western-oriented Maronite Christian government that held sway in Beirut had been, in 1956, the only Arab government to support the US and UK during the Suez Canal crisis, a deeply unpopular decision among Lebanon's Muslim community.
And yet, for all the division and gathering storm clouds, there was a palpable sense of hope across the Arab world. Driven by Nasser’s ‘victory’ over the European powers in the 1956 Suez crisis, there was a growing belief that the Arab world’s time was now. While this manifested itself in the hope that the region had acquired the means and self-belief to finally defeat Israel when the time came, it was also to be found on the streets of cities across the region.
Rise of the PLO
All too often, the Arab-Israeli conflict, as with so many other events in the Middle East, has been explained away as a religious war between Jews and Muslims. There has at times indeed been a religious dimension, especially in recent years with the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian Territories and the religious right in Israel. But this has always been fundamentally a conflict over land, as was shown in the years following Israel’s independence. Governments – from the Ba’ath parties of Syria and Iraq to Nasser’s Egypt – invariably framed their demands in purely secular terms.
This again became clear after the formation in 1964 of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Although opposed by Jordan, which was itself keen to carry the banner of Palestinian leadership, the PLO enjoyed the support of the newly formed Arab League. The Palestine National Council (PNC) was established within the PLO as its executive body – the closest thing to a Palestinian government in exile. The PLO served as an umbrella organisation for an extraordinary roll call of groups that ranged from purely military wings to communist ideologues. Militant Islamic factions were, at the time, small and drew only limited support.
Just as the PLO was at risk of dissolving into an acrimony born from its singular lack of a united policy, an organisation called the Palestine National Liberation Movement (also known as Al Fatah) was established. One of the stated aims of both the PLO and Al Fatah was to train guerrillas for raids on Israel. Al Fatah emerged from a power struggle as the dominant force within the PLO, and its leader, Yasser Arafat, would become chair of the executive committee of the PLO in 1969 and, later, the PLO’s most recognisable face.
At the same time, Islam as a political force was starting to stir. Nasser may have been all-powerful, but there was a small group of clerics who saw him, Egyptian or not, as the latest in a long line of godless leaders ruling the country. Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian radical and intellectual, was the most influential, espousing a return to the purity of grassroots Islam. He also prompted the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, who would withdraw from society and prepare for violence and martyrdom in pursuit of a universal Muslim society. Qutb was executed by Nasser in 1966, but the genie could not be put back in the bottle, returning to haunt the region, and the rest of the world, decades later.
With the Arab world growing in confidence, war seemed inevitable. In May 1967 the Egyptian army moved into key points in Sinai and announced a blockade of the Straits of Tiran, effectively closing the southern Israeli port of Eilat. The Egyptian army was mobilised and the country put on a war footing. On 5 June Israel responded with a devastating pre-emptive strike that wiped out virtually the entire Egyptian air force in a single day. The war lasted only six days (hence the ‘Six Day War’), and when it was over, Israel controlled the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank (including Jerusalem’s Old City) and the Golan Heights.
After more than a decade of swaggering between Cairo and Damascus, and empty promises to the Palestinians that they would soon be returning home, the Six Day War was viewed as an unmitigated disaster throughout the Arab world and sent shock waves across the region. Not only were leaders such as Nasser no match for the Israelis, despite the posturing, but also tens of thousands more Palestinian refugees were now in exile. The mood across the region was grim. A humiliated Nasser offered to resign, but in a spontaneous outpouring of support, the Egyptian people wouldn’t accept the move and he remained in office. In November 1970 the president died of a heart attack, reportedly a broken man.
With Palestinian militancy on the rise, the year 1970 saw the ascension of new leaders in both Egypt (Anwar Sadat) and Syria (Hafez Al Assad). Preparations were also well under way for the next Middle Eastern war, with these radical new leaders under constant pressure from their citizens to reclaim the land lost in 1967. On 6 October 1973, Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal, taking Israel (at a standstill, observing the holy day of Yom Kippur) almost entirely by surprise. After advancing a short distance into Sinai, however, the Egyptian army stopped, giving Israel the opportunity to concentrate its forces against the Syrians on the Golan Heights and then turn back towards Egypt. Although the war preserved the military status quo, it was widely portrayed throughout the region as an Arab victory.
When the war ended in late 1973, months of shuttle diplomacy by the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, followed. Pressure on the USA to broker a deal was fuelled when the Gulf States embargoed oil supplies to the West 10 days after the war began. The embargo’s implications were massive, achieving nothing less than a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. The oil states, rich but underpopulated and militarily weak, gained at the expense of poorer, more populous countries. Huge shifts of population followed the two oil booms of the 1970s, as millions of Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians and Yemenis went off to seek their fortunes in the oil states.
Peace & Revolution
By the mid 1970s the Middle East had reached a temporary stalemate. On one side, Israel knew that it had the wherewithal to hold off the armed forces of its neighbours. But Israel also lived in a state of siege and on maximum alert, all the time facing escalating attacks at home and abroad on its citizens from Palestinian terrorist groups aligned to the PLO. On the other side, Arab governments continued with their rhetoric but knew, although none admitted it, that Israel was here to stay. To the north, Lebanon was sliding into a civil war that was threatening to engulf the region. Something had to give.
On 7 November 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made a dramatic visit to Israel to address the Israeli Knesset with a call for peace. The Arab world was in shock. That the leader of the Arab world’s most populous nation, a nation that had produced Gamal Abdel Nasser, could visit Israeli-occupied Jerusalem had hitherto been inconceivable. The shock turned to anger the following year when Sadat and the hardline Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, shepherded by US president Jimmy Carter, signed the Camp David Agreement. In return for Egypt’s long-coveted recognition of Israel’s right to exist, Egypt received back the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt did rather well out of the deal, but was widely accused of breaking ranks and betrayal for one simple reason: the Palestinians received nothing. Arab leaders meeting in Baghdad voted to expel Egypt from the Arab League and moved the group’s headquarters out of Cairo in protest. The peace treaty won Sadat (and Begin) a Nobel Peace Prize, but it would ultimately cost the Egyptian leader his life: he was assassinated in Cairo on 6 October 1981.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution
Before his death, and with Sadat basking in the acclaim of the international community, one of the few friends he had left in the region was facing troubles of his own. Discontent with the Shah of Iran’s autocratic rule and his personal disregard for the country’s Shiite Muslim religious traditions had been simmering for years. Political violence slowly increased throughout 1978. The turning point came in September of that year, when Iranian police fired on anti-shah demonstrators in Tehran, killing at least 300. The momentum of the protests quickly became unstoppable.
On 16 January 1979, the shah left Iran, never to return (he died in Egypt a year later). The interim government set up after his departure was swept aside the following month when the revolution’s leader, the hitherto obscure Āyatollāh Ruhollāh Khomeini, returned to Tehran from his exile in France and was greeted by adoring millions. His fiery brew of nationalism and Muslim fundamentalism had been at the forefront of the revolt, and Khomeini achieved his goal of establishing a clergy-dominated Islamic Republic (the first true Islamic state in modern times) with brutal efficiency. Opposition disappeared, executions took place after meaningless trials and minor officials took the law into their own hands.
For decades, the Middle East’s reputation for brutal conflict and Islamic extremism owed much to the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was the worst of times in the Middle East, a seemingly relentless succession of bloodletting by all sides. The religious fervour that surrounded Khomeini’s Iran and the images of the masses chanting ‘Marg bar amrika!’ (‘Death to America!’) also marked the moment when militant Islam became a political force and announced to the world that the West was in its sights. While this development applied to only a small proportion of the region’s Muslims, the reputation has stuck.
The events that flowed from, or otherwise followed, the Iranian Revolution read like a snapshot of a region sliding out of control. In 1979 militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They were ejected several weeks later only after bloody gun battles inside the mosque itself, leaving more than 250 people dead inside Islam’s holiest shrine. In November of that year, student militants in Tehran overran the US embassy, taking the staff hostage. They would be released only after 444 days in captivity. Away to the north, in 1980, Turkey’s government was overthrown in a military coup, capping weeks of violence between left- and right-wing extremists. The same year, Saddam Hussein, supported by the US, invaded Khuzestan in southwestern Iran, on the pretext that the oil-rich province was historically part of Iraq. The resulting war lasted until 1988 and claimed millions of lives as trench warfare and poison gas were used for the first time since WWI.
One corner of hope in a troubled region at this time was the Arabian Peninsula. In 1981 the GCC (the official title of which today is the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf) was formed, creating an opportunity for political and economic collaboration. Despite recent spats that have seen Qatar left out in the cold, the GCC is largely considered a force for good as Peninsula countries focus their efforts on modernisation and economic diversification away from oil.
Lebanon Falls Apart
In June 1982 Israel marched into Lebanon, joining Syria, the PLO and a host of Lebanese militias in a vicious regional conflict from which no side emerged with clean hands. The PLO had long been using the anarchy at large in Lebanon to set up a state within a state, from where they launched hundreds of rocket attacks across the Israeli-Lebanese frontier. Led by Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel entered the war claiming self-defence. But these claims lost considerable credibility when, weeks after the PLO leadership had already left Beirut for Tunis, Israeli soldiers surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut and stood by as their Phalangist allies went on a killing rampage. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians were killed. Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon in 1983, but continued to occupy what it called a self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon.
The Lebanese Civil War rumbled on until 1990, but even when peace came, Israel controlled the south and Syria’s 30,000 troops in Lebanon had become the kingmakers in the fractured Lebanese polity. In the 15 years of war, more than a million Lebanese are believed to have died.
Down in the Palestinian Territories, violence flared in 1987 in what became known as the ‘First Intifada’ (the grass roots Palestinian uprising). Weary of ineffectual Palestinian politicians having achieved nothing of value for their people in the four decades since Israeli independence, ordinary Palestinians took matters into their own hands. Campaigns of civil disobedience, general strikes and stone-throwing youths were the hallmarks of the intifada, which ran until 1993.
War & Peace
While all of this was going on, elsewhere in the region there were a few bright spots. Turkey had returned to democratic rule in 1983, albeit with a new constitution barring from public office anyone who had been involved in politics prior to the 1980 coup. In 1988 Iran and Iraq grudgingly agreed to a ceasefire. A year later Egypt was quietly readmitted to the Arab League and Jordan held its first elections in more than 20 years. But these important landmarks were overshadowed by events in Lebanon, which had led many people to wonder whether the region would ever be at peace.
Iraq, Kuwait & the West
Just as the region was breathing a collective sigh of relief at the end of the Lebanese Civil War and the cessation of hostilities between Iraq and Iran, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The 1990s were, it seemed, destined to repeat the cycle of violence that had so scarred the previous decade.
Fearful that Saddam Hussein had Saudi Arabia in his sights, King Fahd requested help from the US. The result was a US-led coalition whose air and ground offensive drove Iraq out of Kuwait. In the process, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (previously supported by the West in his war against Iran) became world public enemy number one. When the US-led coalition stopped short of marching on Baghdad, the Iraqi leader used his reprieve to attack the country’s Shiite population in the south and the Kurds in the north with levels of brutality remarkable even by his standards. Not willing to wait around for Saddam’s response to the Kurds’ perceived support for the US-led coalition, hundreds of thousands of Kurds streamed across the border into Turkey in one of the largest refugee exoduses in modern history.
There was another, less immediately obvious consequence of the war. The presence of US troops on Saudi soil enraged many in a country known for its strict (some would say puritanical) adherence to Wahhabi Islamic orthodoxy. To have the uniformed soldiers of what many considered to be Islam’s enemy operating freely from the same soil as the holy cities of Mecca and Medina was considered an outrage. From this anger, many respected analysts argue, would come Al Qaeda.
From the ashes of war came an unlikely movement towards peace. While attempting to solicit Arab support for the anti-Iraq coalition, US president George H W Bush promised to make Arab-Israeli peace a priority once the Iraqis were out of Kuwait. Endless shuttling between Middle Eastern capitals culminated in a US-sponsored peace conference in Madrid in October 1991. It achieved little, but by late summer 1993 it was revealed that Israel and the Palestinians had been holding secret talks in Norway for 18 months. The ‘Oslo Accords’ were cemented with one of the most famous handshakes in history, between Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in September 1993.
An unprecedented era of hope for peace in the Middle East seemed on the horizon. Lebanon had just held its first democratic elections for 20 years and the mutually destructive fighting seemed well and truly at an end. In 1994 Jordan became the second Arab country to sign a formal peace treaty with Israel.
But, sadly, it was not to last. The peace process was derailed by the November 1995 assassination of Rabin and the subsequent election of hardline candidate Benjamin Netanyahu. A blip of hope re-emerged when Netanyahu lost office to Ehud Barak, a prime minister who pulled his troops out of occupied south Lebanon and promised to open negotiations with the Syrians and the Palestinians. But critical momentum had been lost. When these talks came to nothing at two high-stakes summits at Camp David and in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh during the last months of the Clinton presidency, everyone knew that an opportunity had been lost.
In September 2000, after Ariel Sharon, by then the leader of the right-wing Likud Party, visited the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, riots broke out among Palestinians. This was the trigger, if not the ultimate cause, for the second Palestinian intifada that has continued in one form or another in the years since. The election of that same Ariel Sharon – a politician as reviled by Palestinians as Yasser Arafat was by Israelis – as Israeli prime minister in 2001 was another nail in the coffin of the already much-buried peace process. Although the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004 offered some signs for hope, the violent occupation of Palestinian land and bloody suicide bombings targeting Israeli citizens continued. By then, the hope that had spread like a wave across the Middle East in the early 1990s had come to seem like a distant memory.
Prelude to the Arab Spring
Some things don’t change in the Middle East. Israel and the Palestinians still trade accusations of bad faith and no solution has been found to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees (including second- and third-generation exiles) languish in refugee camps, many still holding on to the keys of homes they left in 1948 or 1967. And wars great and small continue to flare around the region.
In 2003 US and UK forces, with support from a small band of allies, invaded Iraq. Their military victory was swift, driving Saddam Hussein from power, but the aftermath has proved to be infinitely more complicated. With large communities of Shiites, Kurds and the hitherto all-powerful Sunnis vying for power, the country descended into a sectarian conflict with strong echoes of Lebanon’s civil war. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Iraqis fled the fighting, placing huge pressure on the resources of neighbouring countries. Iraqis have paid a terrible price for their freedom.
Seeds of Change
In 2006 Israel and Hezbollah fought a bitter month-long war that shattered the Lebanese peace, while fighting broke out between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government in 2008. The power of Hezbollah, and the shifting of Palestinian power from Al Fatah to Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, has confirmed a process that had begun with the PLO in the 1960s: the rise of non-state actors as powerful players in the Middle East.
Governments of Arab countries have singularly failed to meet the aspirations of their people, from bringing about a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians to providing the basic services necessary to lift them out of poverty. Little wonder then that many Middle Easterners have turned to organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas who, in the eyes of many Arabs, have matched their words with actions. Both groups have built up extensive networks of social safety nets and, with limited success, taken on Israel on the battlefield. That these groups are avowedly Islamic in focus and enjoy the support of arch-enemy Iran has only served to widen the gulf between Israel (and the US) and its neighbours.
By 2010 the region had reached something of an impasse, with the issues of the past 60 years frozen into seemingly perpetual division that sometimes spilled over into open warfare, but more often festered like an open wound. The Palestinians still dream of returning home. The Israelis still dream of a world free from fear. In the meantime, the two sides come no closer to a resolution. These are real issues that make life a daily struggle for ordinary people and the sad fact remains that, for many Middle Easterners, life is no easier than it was 60 years ago. If a scrap of consolation can be found amid the ashes of failed peace processes, it is that such a time frame is the mere blink of a historical eye for this part of the world.
The Arab Spring
When a young, unemployed man named Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, few imagined the firestorm of change his desperate suicide would ignite across the region. Within months the 30-year dictatorship of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had been overthrown in a popular uprising. Soon, leaders of similarly long standing had been swept from power in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Power had, it seemed, been returned to the people, ushering in a brief interlude of hope in a region desperately in need of good news.
But as Iraqis had long ago learned, getting rid of despotic governments was to prove far easier – except in Syria – than building the open, democratic societies which many of those who had demonstrated for freedom craved. With the dictators gone, most countries faced a profound political vacuum. In the heady days that followed the revolution in Egypt, for example, it became clear that those who had led the push for change did not have the unity, experience nor political program needed to build what came next. The well-organised Muslim Brotherhood swept to power, the army threw the Brotherhood out and seized power for itself. This Egyptian model – idealistic young protesters sidelined by better-organised Islamist groups – was a cautionary tale for those seeking change.
Elsewhere, Jordan seemed to have learned the lesson. For a brief moment in the spring of 2011, it looked as though Jordanians were set to join protesters elsewhere. Comprised largely of young students, and peaceful in their approach, Jordanian protesters argued on the streets of Amman for higher wages and a fuller embracing of democracy. Perhaps fearful of what might follow, the demonstrations soon petered out, however, leaving only weekly gatherings of die-hards after Friday prayers.
Across the countries of the GCC, only Bahrain experienced serious unrest. In the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula, demonstrations were largely about a show of solidarity with Muslim brothers and sisters across the region rather than grave disenchantment with Peninsula governments. Government solutions towards the unrest took various forms, including free higher education in Oman.