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The Ottoman Empire was among the most influential geopolitical entities in the history of the Arab World. Despite its power and influence, it showed a trend of decline followed by the fall in the early twentieth century. One of the popular views attributes the fall of the empire to the severe military underperformance in its latter years. The following paper presents evidence of the involvement of the numerous economic, political, and ideological factors that contributed to the event and played at least an equally significant role. Also, an overview of the impacts on the Arab World is provided to enhance the understanding of the issue and its significance for the region.
One of the prevailing views on the matter suggests that the fall of the Ottoman Empire can be attributed either solely or mostly to the increased rate of internal and external military activity. This point is convincing for several reasons. First, the military performance of the empire was in a noticeable decline by the end of the nineteenth century. Historically, the state was known for its exceptional characteristics as a military power and maintained high-profile warfare.
Nevertheless, with the Age of Exploration and the emergence of the New World, the European countries obtained an outstanding resource base and began to accumulate wealth. This change is inevitably reflected in the state of the military complex, with the key players in the European theater demonstrating an outstanding rate of development of warfare-related technologies. As a result, starting from the seventeenth century, the balance of power shifted away from the Ottomans. The situation was further aggravated by the emergence of leaders whose governing capacity was insufficient for enabling the region’s potential.1
Second, as a direct consequence of the described setting, the military operations from as early as the seventeenth century often ended in defeat. These events correlate with the most widely accepted dates of the fall of the empire. Several conflicts are cited as the most influential in the described pattern. The first is a series of conflicts with Habsburg forces. These include the battle of Mohacs and the battle of Zenta, during both of which the empire lost to far better trained and equipped forces.2
These events also have a direct impact on the Ottoman Empire’s decrease of influence in the Eastern European region. The second event was the success of the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon. Napoleon’s victory had a major impact on the perception of the power associated with the empire for Europeans and compromised their authority in the region. The subsequent reform by Mohammad Ali further strengthened the country’s position and undermined the Ottomans’ influence.
The third event was a series of conflicts between the empire and Russia from 1768 to 1774. The eventual victory of Russians prompted the signing of the Kukuk Kaynarca treaty, which had several important effects. Most notably, it resulted in the loss of Crimean military forces and the disruption of monopoly over the Black Sea.3 Some of these losses were later reversed, but the net effect was negative for the Ottoman Empire.
The fourth most cited event was the declaration of independence by Greece in 1830. The event was accompanied by a series of devastating military losses in Greek revolts and set off a trend among Christian states to seek independence from Muslim governance.
Despite the evident correlation between the military underperformance and the overall decline of the Ottoman Empire, it would be unreasonable to limit the scope to a single domain. Fist, it can be argued that the complexity of the geopolitical and cultural setting pertinent to the issue suggests that the economic, ideological, and political factors cannot be excluded from the analysis as their combined effect was probably at least as significant as that of the events described above.
Second, the descriptions of both the prerequisites and the outcomes of the events in question contain numerous elements that align with the assumption, which suggests that additional inquiry might reveal other significant factors. Therefore, it is suggested that economic, ideological, and political factors play at least a significant role in the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
One of the most significant turning points that changed the economic landscape of the empire was the Age of Exploration – a phenomenon associated with the emergence of the New World and resulting in the rapid development of the naval power worldwide. As was mentioned above, it had an indirect impact on the buildup of military power among European countries, which, by extension, transpired in the relative weakness of the Ottomans.
However, it also had a much broader effect on the economic influence of the state. First, the improvements made by Europeans in the naval domain allowed them to expand their trade routes on an unprecedented scale. For the Ottoman Empire, this meant that Suez, which was among the world’s most significant trade hubs before the seventeenth century, became virtually irrelevant as Europeans started trading with Asia directly through the sea.4
Second, the sudden influx of silver from the New World seriously decreased the price of the metal compared to gold. The monetary system of the empire relied heavily on silver, so the decline in price immediately undermined its financial stability. Third, the industrial revolution put additional pressure on several key industries in the region, including the textiles and metallurgy. The latter two had a cumulative effect since the financial instability contributed to the decrease in prices of the raw materials, which expanded the opportunities of the European manufacturers.5 While the resulting goods could rarely compete in quality with those produced by local craftsmen, their abundance became the and, by extension, low price became a decisive factor in the suppression of local businesses.
Another significant economic change was related to the growing presence of firearms as an essential component of the battlefield. For the population of the empire, such change meant the change in a taxation system that created a growing pressure on the farmers.6 As the military power declined, taxes continued to grow, leading to the deterioration of the country’s agriculture. Eventually, such a setting created a shortage of food and made the region even less attractive for traders from Europe. The resulting financial instability slowed down the country’s development and contributed to the fall of the empire.
The economic decline and resulting inflation had an overwhelming effect on numerous areas within the empire. For instance, the Janissaries, who served as one of the cornerstones of the country’s military might, were directly impacted by financial instability. As soon as the government lost the ability to provide monetary compensation for their services, their determination and discipline quickly deteriorated. The majority of troops had to seek alternative sources of funding and often found them by adopting the civil lifestyle. This also meant that they abandoned the principles of celibacy, married, and had children, who were subject to hereditary recruitment.7
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The blending of the Janissaries with the urban population shifted the political power in favor of the latter, who now could make more decisions. Besides, the emergence of the heredity factor essentially created an influential political party that had influence sufficient to threaten the governing elite. On several occasions, such as the decision to decline the Sultan Selim II’s right to the throne, this power was successfully put into practice.
Another important political aspect that must be acknowledged was the gradual decentralization. Over the seventeenth and the early eighteenth century, political power moved from Sultan to the local viziers, who often pursued their interests and agendas. While initially viziers were loyal to the ruler and pursued common interests. However, as the military expenses rose and the central authority was unable to fulfill its obligations, the viziers started abusing the taxation system by withholding a certain percentage of the collected funds. By the end of the nineteenth century, this behavior resulted in major gaps in state revenues, with more than three-quarters of the funds remaining in the hands of local elites.8 As can be seen, both factors had a similar deteriorating effect on the authority and influence of the central power in the country.
The lack of technological and scientific development was among the core causes of some of the described military, economic, and political issues. While there is no single cause for such discrepancy, it can be traced to the ideological context. For instance, the sense of superiority over the Christian world that formed after the victory over the Byzantine Empire contributed to the inhibition of the progress offered by the Western World. The phenomenon was grounded in conservative suspicion and adversely impacted several important technological advancements by preventing their timely adoption.9
Next, the newly emerged movements played a significant role in the loss of the Sultan’s power. The first was a revision of the existing religious system known as Wahhabism, which suggested that the Sultan was not a true leader and therefore could be disobeyed. The second was a result of the external influence and was brought into the empire during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. The ideas communicated by the movement aligned well with the economic and social state of life in the country, for which reason nationalism quickly gained a significant following. It should also be noted that it resonated in the citizens of those parts of the country who were less loyal to the Sultan, further disrupting the integrity of the empire.
Impact on the Arab World
As a result of the combination of military, economic, political, and ideological complications, the empire disintegrated in the early twentieth century, leaving behind several attractive territories and resources. This setting immediately triggered a reaction of the Western countries that attempted to impose their rule in the region. Naturally, such a highly dynamic and unpredictable environment had a direct effect on the development of the country. However, it should be noted that while many of the past events are related to the fall of the empire, it is also possible to connect some of the modern-day phenomena to it.
The immediate and most prominent outcome of the Ottoman Empire’s decline was the introduction of the Western players into the Arab World. The British Empire was interested in obtaining control over the natural resources of the vacant territories, and a pressing competition from the other European countries prompted it to act as quickly as possible. Under such conditions, caution remained among the least significant priorities, and the cultural context was excluded from the equation almost always.
Simply put, the Western powers established their governance guided mostly by their material interests and operating within the frameworks adopted from the European setting. Since the territories of the former Ottoman Empire consisted of territorial entities with a distinct cultural background, such strategy has led to the creation of the improbable combination of highly diverse components.
At this point it should be acknowledged that the late Ottoman Empire shared some of the features with the resulting entity – specifically, it had disagreements within the country that led to internal tensions and, in some cases, open conflicts. Nevertheless, the unique style of governance that relied on local authorities and decentralized management, as well as the understanding of the cultural specificities of the region greatly reduced the possibility of disagreement between parties.
Therefore, the fall of the Ottoman Empire essentially created the setting where numerous territories became the subject of attention of the powerful force that could not govern it appropriately. One example of the consequences experienced by the Arab World is the dispersion of Kurds over several nations during the process of region division by the Western powers following the empire’s disintegration.
The aftermath of the situation can be observed as far as the recent years, when the Kurds continue to seize land in the region, such as the Iraqi territories containing oil fields.10 The social and ideological turbulence that emerged as a result of the materialistic approach to the Arab World territories governance also impacted the development of certain countries, with Iraq being the easiest example.
The country was initially identified without acknowledging its complex history of occupation by various authorities, making it vulnerable to the almost century-long instability. To a certain degree, the same outcome is observed in Syria, a country that suffers from the vicious civil war. Finally, the emergence of ISIS can be traced to the ideological vacuum created by the attempt to introduce a poorly fitting neoliberal reform without acknowledging the ideological requirements of the population. Since the latter is essentially a trend established soon after the fall of the empire, it is possible to assume that the consequences of the Ottoman Empire’s fall are still observed today to a significant degree.
The importance of the Ottoman Empire is unquestionable. It played an important role in numerous aspects of the region’s development. Therefore, a clear understanding of the reasons for its decline is crucial for obtaining a complete profile of the Arab World. Despite the popular assumption that the fall of the empire can be directly connected to its poor military performance, the available information suggests that a complex interconnection of the economic, political, and ideological factors collectively contributed to its decline. While most of the direct consequences of the fall occurred immediately after the event, some of them transpired into long-term effects, and few can be traced in the contemporary world today.
Black, Antony. History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
Hanssen, Jens, ed. Arabic Thought beyond the Liberal Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Nahda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Mather, Yassamine. “The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and Current Conflict in the Middle East.” Critique 42, no. 3 (2014): 471-485.
Stanton, Andrea, ed. Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa: An Encyclopedia. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2012.
Sugar, Peter, ed. Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804. Vol. 5. Washington: University of Washington Press, 2014.
Van der Steen, Eveline. Near Eastern Tribal Societies During the Nineteenth Century: Economy, Society, and Politics Between Tent and Town. New York: Routledge, 2014.
- Jens Hanssen, ed., Arabic Thought beyond the Liberal Age: Towards an Intellectual History of the Nahda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 18.
- Peter Sugar, ed., Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804. Vol. 5 (Washington: University of Washington Press, 2014), 324.
- Andrea Stanton, ed., Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa: An Encyclopedia (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2012), 215.
- Eveline Van der Steen, Near Eastern Tribal Societies During the Nineteenth Century: Economy, Society, and Politics Between Tent and Town (New York: Routledge, 2014), xi.
- Antony Black, History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 257.
- Andrea Stanton, ed., Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa: An Encyclopedia (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2012), 187.
- Ibid, 198.
- Yassamine Mather, “The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and Current Conflict in the Middle East,” Critique 42, no. 3 (2014): 474.