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Imperialism and Nationalism in Middle Eastern Politics Essay

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Updated: Jun 15th, 2022

In many senses, politics is the continuation of history, as the goals pursued by today’s politicians and the resources they possess to achieve them are largely defined by the events of the past. This statement is as true as ever when applied to the famously complex and even convoluted politics of the Middle East. Thus, in order to understand the political situation in the region, one needs proper knowledge of its history and the driving forces that led to the emergence of its contemporary countries. Western imperialism influenced Middle Eastern Politics since the 19th century, and nationalism, first driven by the opposition to colonialism and then by the conflicts between the new nation-states, was also a crucial factor.

The great powers of Europe began interfering in Middle Eastern affairs at least since the early 19th century. The Industrial Revolution made it hard to compete with Europe in terms of manufactured goods, achievements in exploration and transportation ensured its near-monopoly in global commerce, and technological advancements provided military advantages. Relying on these strengths, the great powers of Europe began furthering their interests in the region dominated by the declining Ottoman Empire. Napoleon’s brief invasion of Egypt was the first notable instance of Western imperialist interests in the Middle East, but more were soon to follow. During the first half of the 19th century, Great Britain, France, and Russia energetically carved their spheres of influence in the Ottoman Empire and even fought over its fate, as in the Crimean War of 1853-1856. Both the Ottoman Empire and Persia attempted to emulate Western ways to secure corresponding competitive advantages, but the Tanzimat reforms or Qajar dynasty’s half-hearted attempt failed to produce meaningful results. As a result, the 19th century was characterized by the gradually increasing involvement of imperialist powers into Middle Eastern affairs.

This imperialist involvement only grew in importance and magnitude during the first half of the 20th century. World War I proved fatal for the Ottomans and led to the dissolution of the empire. In accordance with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, much of the Ottoman legacy fell into the hands of the victorious Entente members. France got Syria and Lebanon, while Britain received Jordan and Iraq, with the latter’s profitable oil fields. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 left the status of Palestine intentionally unclear but encouraged Jewish immigration to the region. Imperialist powers controlled these territories through the system of mandates issued by the League of Nations, but while France ruled its possessions directly, Britain preferred indirect rule. Turkey enacted an ambitious campaign of modernization and secularization, while Iran struggled to get better control of its resources. After World War II, the British project of Palestine as separated into Arab and Jewish zones failed utterly, and, in the course of a brief war, Israel secured its independence. Whatever were the situations of the Middle Eastern countries by the mid-20th century, they were a direct result of imperialist policies.

The centuries-long involvement of foreign powers into Middle Eastern Affairs was bound to create a reaction, which manifested as the rise of nationalism in the region. Opposition to foreign influence and the drive for independence in both name and truth were the major factors behind the nationalist developments in many Middle Eastern countries. Egypt, long opposed to the Ottoman imperial center, established its first nationalist government in 1822 but almost immediately became a British protectorate for the next 40 years. As a result, Egyptian nationalism was vehemently anti-colonial and anti-British. With its vision of a united Arab federation stretching from the Arabian Peninsula to Syria thwarted after WWI, the Arab nationalism in other parts of the region was also rather anti-European. Finally, Iran’s Prime Minister Mossadegh also engaged actively in nation-building, but his attempts to secure economic independence put him at odds with the foreign powers as well.

However, every nascent nationalism in the Middle East was necessarily anti-Western. The events of World War I prompted Turkey to become Turkish rather than Ottoman and build a new identity on national rather than religious grounds. The country gradually did under the leadership of Atatürk, who, while being an autocrat himself, created grounds for Turkey to eventually approach the status of Western-style democracy. Widespread Jewish immigration to Palestine, further encouraged by the Balfour declaration, led to the rise of Jewish nationalism in the form of Zionism. While there were conflicts between the hardline Jewish nationalists and the British authorities of Palestine, Jewish nationalism per se was not anti-Western, especially since Britain itself looked rather favorably upon it. Thus – with the possible exception of Turley – one could divide middle Eastern nationalisms of the first half of the 20th century into those opposing foreign imperialists and those enjoying their support.

By 1950, most countries of the Middle East were at least de jure independent, but it did not mean that imperialism ceased to be a factor in regional politics. With the onset of the Cold War, the USA and USSR both sought to gain allies in the region – the former to set a cordon against Soviet influence and the latter to undermine its opponent. Britain continued exercising economic influence in both Egypt and Iran, and many political conflicts of the 1950s were brought by these countries’ attempts to nationalize the British-owned industries or infrastructure objects. USSR supported Arab nationalism in Syria and, briefly, Egypt to gain footholds in the area, while the CIA staged a coup in Iran to remove Prime Minister Mossadegh from power. Although in subtler forms, imperialist powers’ influence was still notable in the region with newly independent states and weak economies.

Another notable development during the Cold War period was the rise of pan-Arab nationalism. As mentioned above, the correspondence between Sheriff Husain of Mecca and the British commissioner in Egypt Arthur McMahon already envisaged a united Arab state after World War I. While this project was never fulfilled due to British and French claims on the former Ottoman territories, the idea of pan-Arab nationalism remained and resurged with new force after World War II. Its most notable manifestation was the United Arab Republic – a federation of Egypt and Syria that briefly existed from 1958 to 1961. While the project itself proved to be short-lived, the idea of Arab unity surpassing the borders once drawn by the imperialist powers, as in the Sykes-Picot agreement, was a relatively consistent feature during the Cold War.

Another notable happening in the development of nationalism in the Middle East was the change of their focus. As mentioned above, during the early stage of nationalist developments in the region, the impetus for nation-building often came from the opposition to foreign imperialist influence, most notably in Egypt and Iraq. However, after the countries of the region gained at least formal independence, the political reality of the region soon prompted them to forge national identities in conflicts or cooperation with each other. The most notable of such clashes of nationalisms would be the long-running Arab-Israeli controversy, which sparked wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, not to mention the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1989 may also serve as an example of this tendency. Up to the 1950s, many of Middle Eastern nationalisms defined themselves through their relation to foreign imperialist powers. Yet after achieving independence, the new countries and their infant nations had to gradually redefine their political priorities with the focus on relationships between each other.

As one can see, both imperialism and nationalism were prominent forces in defining the political outlook of the Middle East. Foreign powers had actively interfered in Middle Eastern affairs since the 19th century, capitalizing on their military and economic superiority. After World War I, the victorious powers divided the heritage of the fallen Ottoman Empire and carved spheres of influence in the region that were to become its new states. This process coincided with and largely influenced the development of Turkish, Jewish, Iranian, and Arab nationalism. While imperialist powers largely sympathized with the Jews’ Zionist aspirations, Arab and Iranian nationalists were generally anti-Western due to their quest for political and economic independence. During the Cold War, foreign powers continued their active involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, often to the chagrin of the newly independent states. However, the nationalist forces gradually shifted their political focus from the once-dominant foreign powers to each other, resulting in new alliances and new conflicts. Thus, imperialism outlined the borders of most Middle Eastern states in existence, while nationalism largely defined their political priorities – first related to the foreign powers and then to each other.

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