The real story of what happened to the Middle East After the First World War

The British who besides the Ottoman's (with whom they had a good relationship at the time) was the first major European power to be in that region, and in order to secure their Suez Canal route to India already in 1881-82 gave up stage-managing events behind the scenes and simply moved onto the stage by taking over Egypt. The alleged proximate cause was the attempted coup against the government by Urabi Pasha, a disaffected Arab Egyptian army officer chafing under the Turkish yoke.

Also in 1914-18 participants in the Middle East had their own reasons for entering the conflict: the British fought to secure the Suez canal and the Gulf oilfields; the Turks feared Russian encroachment and hoped to regain territory lost before the great war; the Germans sought to destabilize the British empire, the Russians coveted Istanbul and Anatolia…

Following the rebellion sparked by the Hussein-McMahon correspondence; the Sykes-Picot agreement; and memoranda such as the Balfour Declaration the at first British (closely followed by the French) in 1918 became very influential in the Middle East.

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The discussions between the British and the French who would control what following the break down of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East would reach fever pitch during the Versailles deliberations.

Although its centennial is to come up next, while even very few people are aware of the various aspects of the Treaty of Versailles, one should add that there  was also the Treaty of Saint-Germain with Austria on September 10, 1919, the Treaty of Neuilly with Bulgaria on 27 November 1919, the Treaty of Trianon on June 4, 1920 with Hungary, and the Treaty of Sevres with the Ottoman Empire on August 10, 1920, which subsequently was superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne made on June 24, 1923 with the new Republic of Turkey.

The Treaty of Sevres covered the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire and determining the nature of the post-war political entities that took its place. Following the initial meetings in Paris in the spring and summer of 1919, the negotiations continued into 1920 with substantive meetings at the Conference of London (February 12-24) and the San Remo Conference (April 19-26). And it was the San Remo agreement and the mandate policies that were applied to the newly created Arab countries in Al Mashriq that replaced the Sykes-Picot agreement. Nothing was left of the Sykes-Picot agreement except the initial demarcation of Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine borders.


For many Arabs who until then simple felt themselves to be inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire, now broken in pieces, a search for identity would ensue, once a search for survival had been satiated.


Against the backdrop of soon to be rising nationalist movements across the Middle East and an assertive Turkish military and nationalist alliance sweeping away the final vestiges of Ottoman rule, the wartime allies attempted to maintain political control by devising and distributing a system of mandates for administering the region.


At the end of WWI the history of the making of the modern Middle East thus could be seen as the exercise of imperial power, skilled at advancing its interests over those of others.


In 1939, Turkey seized Syria’s Iskenderun province, in collaboration with the French mandate authorities.


The British-French colonization remained in the Al Mashriq countries, except in the regions of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Transjordan, until the beginning of World War II in 1939. Egypt and Iraq signed treaties with Britain that practically prevented them from getting their independence until the two monarchies were overthrown respectively in 1952 and 1958. During the war, France’s government pledged to grant independence to the countries under its mandate, amidst the loudening voices of the local political class that called for independence. Syria and Lebanon gained independence in 1943, two years before the end of WWII.


The end of the Second World War instead was greeted in the Middle East as a new beginning. With peace came the promise of an end to the vast military machine that the British had built all across the region, a super-imperialism that had turned the Arab states and Iran (also partially occupied by Russian troops) into mere auxiliaries of the imperial war effort. Once that had gone, political life might begin again. Better still, the British had decided (for their own convenience) to lever the French out of Syria and Lebanon, France's pre-war mandates, and secure their independence (1946). This was a promising start. They had also encouraged the formation of the Arab League in 1944-5. The British intended the League to be a channel of their influence, a way of keeping the Arab states together under a British umbrella. But it might also serve as a vehicle for Arab cooperation to exclude or contain the influence of outside powers. The new geopolitical scene in which Soviet and American power was seen to balance (if not outweigh) that of Britain made this far less unlikely than it would have been before 1939. To many young Arabs, there seemed reason to hope that the post-war world would be a new 'national age'. The false dawn of freedom from Ottoman power after 1918 - which had led instead to Britain's regional overrule - might at last give way to the glorious morning of full Arab nationhood. Almost immediately the barriers piled up. The British rejected the 'logic' of withdrawal: instead they dug themselves in. (1)


Arguments of strategy and heavy dependence on oil (still mainly from Iran) made retreat unthinkable. The strategic vulnerability and economic weakness with which Britain had entered the peace (London hoped they were temporary) ruled out the surrender of imperial assets unless (as in India) they had become untenable. In the Middle East, the British still believed that they had a strong hand. Their position was founded on their alliance with Egypt, the region's most developed state, with more than half the population of the Arab Middle East - I9 million out of some 35 million. (2)


The long-standing conflict between the Egyptian monarchy and the landlord class gave them enormous leverage in the country's politics. If more 'persuasion' was needed, they could send troops into Cairo from their Canal Zone base in a matter of hours. To improve relations after the strains of war, they now dangled the promise of a smaller military presence. They assumed that sooner or later the Wafd or the king would want to come to terms, because Egypt's regional influence, like its internal stability, needed British support. So, when negotiations stalled, the British stayed put, intending to wait until things 'calmed down'. They could afford to do so, or so they thought. For they could also count certain of their historic claim to head the Arab cause: it was they, after all, who had led the rising after 1916 and proclaimed an Arab nation. Their long-standing ambition was a great Hashemite state uniting Syria (lost to the French in 1920) and Palestine with Iraq and Jordan. Their fiercest enmity, returned with interest, was towards the house of Saud. (3)


It was the Saudi monarch who had seized the holy places of Mecca and Medina from their Hashemite guardian and turned Hashemite Hejaz into a province of what became 'Saudi' Arabia. Much of the rivalry between Egypt, the Hashemites and the Saudis were focused on Syria, whose religious and regional conflicts made it a fertile ground for influence from outside. (4)


This rough equilibrium of political forces in the post-war Middle East was quickly upset by the volcanic impact of the Palestine question. The British had planned to keep their regional imperium by a smooth transition. All the Arab states would be independent; some would be bound by treaty to Britain; the rest would acknowledge its de facto primacy as the only great power with real strength on the ground. It was always going to be difficult to manage this change in the case of Palestine, ruled directly by Britain under a League of Nations mandate since the First World War. Reconciling the promise of a Jewish 'national home', in which Jews could settle, with the rights of the Arabs who were already there had been hard enough in the 1920's. The flood of refugees from Nazi oppression in the 1930's made it all but impossible. London's pre-war plan was to appease the anger of the Palestine Arabs at the growing Jewish migration by fixing a limit to ensure a permanent Arab majority. With its future settled as an Arab state, Palestine could be edged towards a form of self-rule. After 1945 this ingenious solution was soon blown to pieces. The practical difficulty and political embarrassment of excluding Jewish refugees, diplomatic pressure from the United States against the attempt to do so, and the scale and ferocity of the terrorist campaign waged by Jewish settlers destroyed any semblance of British authority by mid-1948. (5)


The result was the worst of all colonial worlds: an ungovernable territory whose control was disputed between two seemingly irreconcilable foes; outside encouragement that hardened the resolve of both contending parties; and the absence of either the means or a method to impose any decision. The partition proposed by the United Nations could not be enforced. The war that followed between the Jews and Arabs (local Palestinians and the contingents sent by the Arab states) brought a Jewish victory. The new state of Israel was strong enough to impose a second and more favorable territorial partition. But it was not strong enough to force the Arab states to accept this outcome as a permanent condition.


The Arab catastrophe marked a crucial stage in the end of empire in the Middle East. It galvanized the sentiment of pan-Arab nationalism and gave it a cause and a grievance. It was a crushing humiliation for the ruling regimes in the main Arab states, where post-war inflation and hardship were fostering mass discontent: the violent demonstrations of the Wathbah (the 'Leap') in Baghdad in January 1948 had already stopped the renewal of the Anglo-Iraqi treaty. (6)


It provoked bitter resentment in the ranks of the armies, who blamed their defeat on their civilian leaders. The impact on Egypt was the greatest of all. The king had insisted on sending an army, to boost his domestic prestige and assert Egypt's first place among the Arab states. (7) The shock of defeat was felt all the more deeply. To make matters worse, he could make little progress towards evicting the British from their massive Canal Zone, the great visible symbol of Egypt's subaltern status. Nor indeed could his old political foes, the leaders of the Wafd. Where diplomacy failed, direct action stepped in. The struggle with the British became increasingly violent. Strikes, assassination and other acts of terror exploited British dependence on Egyptian labor and the vulnerable state of British installations and personnel. Retaliation and revenge spread to Egypt's main cities. As the sense of order broke down, the king planned a putsch to purge discontent in the army. Before he could act, the 'Free Officers' movement seized control of the government in July 1952, and forced him into exile.


The effects at first seemed far from radical. The new regime set out to restore order. It crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that enjoyed mass support. It accepted the loss of Egyptian influence in the upper Nile when British-ruled Sudan was promised independence as a separate state (the British rejected Cairo's demand to respect the 'unity of the Nile valley'). Above all, it secured British agreement to leave the Canal Zone base by conceding a right of return if its use were needed to repel an outside attack (code for a Soviet invasion) on the Middle East region. The British had concluded that, with a nuclear deterrent that they could deliver by air, the base was redundant in its present form as well as politically costly. (8)


What they probably hoped was that the new Nasser regime would turn its attention to internal reform. Egypt, they thought, would exert limited influence in the Arab world. This was the judgment of the British ambassador in Cairo in July 1954. (9)


Meanwhile, they would remodel their imperium around a closer alliance with the Hashemite states and a new military pact. American influence, helpful in making the Suez agreement, would be thrown on their side. Egypt would be isolated and on its best behavior. But Nasser's response was not to comply. Instead, his astonishing revolt against the British 'system' was the central event in the Middle East's decolonization. (10)


As an Egyptian nationalist (one of the first acts of the new officers' government was to bring a statue of Ramses II to Cairo), Nasser had every reason to mistrust the British and plot their departure from the Middle East as a whole. He was also influenced by pan-Arab feeling and the Palestine war. He wanted a cleansing tide of revolutionary politics to smash the old regime of landlords and kings, left over from the Middle East's colonial era. He also feared that time was against him. Any ruler in Cairo would have faced much the same dilemma. Sudan was lost. There was high tension with Israel. The Arab East (the Mashreq) was being closed to Egyptian influence and perhaps even its trade. Without markets or oil, he faced stagnation at home and growing social unrest. He would be dangerously dependent on economic aid from the West. His regime was untried. His critics would multiply. His revolution would fail. So, as the British assembled their 'Baghdad Pact' (with Turkey, Iraq and - they hoped - Jordan: Syria was next on the list), Nasser launched a counter-attack. He embraced pan-Arabism. With Saudi support, he backed the anti-Iraqi faction in Syrian politics. He encouraged opposition in Jordan to joining the pact. Then in September 1955 came a spectacular coup. Nasser broke free from the embargo on arms imposed by the West and arranged a supply from the Soviet bloc.


Egypt would now be a real military power. By early 1956 he had declared an open political war on Britain's Middle East influence. The rising level of violence along the borders with Israel played into his hands. With what seemed amazing ease, he had seized the initiative in regional politics. He had made Egypt the champion of the pan-Arab cause, and pan-Arab feeling into a dynamic force. The reaction in London was one of panic and rage. The Suez Crisis in 1956 grew directly out of this confrontation.


When a loan to pay for Egypt's Aswan High Dam was stalled in Washington, there was no going back. Nasser expropriated the Suez Canal, then jointly owned by Britain and France. It seemed an act of bravado. But perhaps Nasser guessed that the British would find it hard to defeat him. They no longer had troops in the old Suez base. An open attack would enrage all Arab opinion. International pressure (through the United Nations) was unlikely to bring what they really wanted: his political downfall. Nasser may also have sensed that London's relentless hostility was not shared fully in Washington. Indeed, the riposte, when it came, revealed Britain's political weakness. Thinly disguised as an intervention between the forces of Egypt and Israel (in whose invasion they colluded), the Anglo-French occupation of the Suez Canal was meant to humiliate Nasser and ensure his collapse. The key to Nasser's survival was the enormous appeal of his act of defiance to patriotic Arab opinion. It convinced President Eisenhower that allowing the British their victory would unite Arab feeling against the West as a whole, throw open the door to more Soviet influence, and wreck American interests into the bargain. By a painful irony, the economic fragility that had helped spur the British into their struggle with Nasser - fear that his influence would damage their vital sources of oil- now proved decisive. Without Washington's nod, they faced financial collapse. The British withdrew and ate humble pie. Nasser kept the canal. So It was not he who fell through the political trapdoor, but the British prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden. (11)


Suez signaled the end of British ambition to manage the politics of the whole Arab world. It created a vacuum of great-power influence. It was the moment to forge a new Middle East order. Nasser stood forth as an Arab Napoleon. His prestige was matchless: he was the rais (boss). With its large middle class, its great cities and seaports, its literature and cinema, its journalists and teachers, Egypt was the symbol of Arab modernity. Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism (formally inscribed in Egypt's new constitution) chimed with a phase of sharp social change in most Middle Eastern states. To the new urban workers, the growing number of students, the expanding bureaucracy, the young officer class, it offered a political creed and a cultural programme. It promised an end to the Palestinian grievance, through the collective effort of a revitalized nation. Within less than two years of his triumph at Suez, Nasser drew Syria into a political union, to form the United Arab Republic. The same year (1958) saw the end of Hashemite rule in Iraq. Nasser still had to reckon with American power (the United States and Britain intervened jointly to prevent the overthrow of Jordan and Lebanon by pro-Nasser factions). But American fears of rising Soviet influence and Nasser's opposition to Communism allowed a wary rapprochement. It looked indeed as if Nasser had achieved a stunning double victory. He had displaced the British as the regional power in favor of a looser, more tolerant American influence. He had made himself and Egypt the indispensable partners of any great power with Middle East interests. Pan-Arab solidarity under Egyptian leadership (the new Iraqi regime with its Communist sympathies had been carefully isolated) opened vistas of hope. It could set better terms with the outside powers. It could use the oil weapon (oil production was expanding extremely rapidly in the 1950's). It might even be able to 'solve' the question of Palestine.


But, as it turned out, the Middle East's decolonization fell far short of this pan-Arab ideal. Nasser might have hoped that the oil-rich sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf (especially Kuwait) would embrace his 'Arab socialism' and throw off their monarchs. But the British hung on in the Gulf and backed its local rulers against Nasser's political challenge. Secondly, the pan-Arab feeling on which Nasser relied faced a powerful foe. In the early post-war years, the new Arab states seemed artificial creations. The educated Arab elite moved easily between them. So did their ideas. State structures were weak and could be easily penetrated by external influence. By 1960 this had begun to change. New 'local' elites began to man the states' apparatus. Every regime acquired its Mukhabarat, a secret police. The sense of national differences between the Arab states became clearer and harder: the charismatic politics of Nasser's pan-Arabism faced an uphill struggle. His union with Syria broke up after three years. Thirdly, the Israeli state proved much more resilient than might have been hoped, and its lien on American sympathy showed no sign of failing: if anything, it was growing steadily stronger by the early 1960s. (12)


Fourthly (and largely in consequence), the pan-Arabist programme could not be achieved without help from outside. The search for arms, aid and more leverage against Israel (and their own local rivalries) drew the Arab states into the labyrinth of Cold War diplomacy. Lastly, a twist of geological fate placed the oil wealth of the region in the states least inclined to follow Cairo's ideological lead: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Britain's Gulf protectorates. Nor did oil become (as coal had once been for Britain) the dynamo of social and industrial change. In fact, Arab prosperity (or the prospect of it) seemed grossly dependent on an extractive industry over which real control lay in foreign hands the 'seven (multinational) sisters' who ruled the world of oil. (See A. Sampson, The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Made (London, 1975).


The second catastrophe of the 1967 Six Day War, fought between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria, was a savage reminder that mineral wealth was not the same as power and that oil dollars did not mean industrial strength. By 1970, the year of Nasser's premature death,the promise of post-imperial freedom had become the 'Arab predicament’. (13)


The three largest states in the Middle East were Egypt, Turkey and Iran (each of which was to reach a population of 66 million in 2001). With the failure of Nasser's struggle to make Egypt the center of an Arab revolution, his successor, Anwar Sadat, turned back (like Mehemet Ali in the 1840's) towards an accommodation with the West. By the late 1970's Egypt had become the second largest recipient (after Israel) of American aid.


Turkey, under Ataturk's shrewd former lieutenant Ismet Inonu, remained carefully neutral during the Second World War. But the huge forward movement of Soviet power at the end of the war, and Stalin's open avowal of his designs on the Straits - 'It was impossible to accept a situation where Turkey has a hand on Russia's windpipe,' he declared at Yalta - pushed Ankara firmly towards the Western camp. Under the Truman Doctrine (1947), Turkey was included in the sphere of American help and protection, however vague at this stage. By 1955 it had become a full member of NATO. In a way that Kemal Ataturk could hardly have dreamed of, the pattern of Cold War conflict had opened the door for Turkey's acceptance as a part of the West, with, a claim to enter the European Union. Tensions with Greece and over the future of Cyprus (which Turkey invaded and partitioned in the 1970s) made relations fretful at times. Within Turkey itself, the key question for much of the half-century after 1945 was how far Ataturk's grand project of a strong bureaucratic state, with a modern industrial base and a secular culture, was compatible with representative democracy (Ataturk's Turkey had been a one-party state) and an open (not state-dominated) economy.


The case of Iran is the most intriguing of all. Iran had been jointly occupied by Soviet and British forces in 1941, partly to block Reza Shah's approaches to Germany, mainly to secure a free passage for supplies from Britain to an embattled Russia. Reza Shah abdicated and was sent off into exile. The result was to unravel his authoritarian state. Resentful notables (the powerful landowning class), radical movements in the towns (like the Tudeh Party), tribal leaders (of the Qashgai and Bakhtiari) and ethnic minorities (Kurds, Arabs and Azerbaijanis) challenged the new young shah's authority and scrambled for a favor from the occupying powers. At the end of the war, this instability grew. The Red Army stayed on in Iranian Azerbaijan until 1946. The effects of wartime inflation ravaged the economy. The supporters of the Shah struggled with the radicals and notables for control of the Majlis, or parliament. The government faced increasing resistance from tribal, provincial and ethnic groups. By 1949, however, the Shah was close to reasserting control, perhaps because the alternative seemed a further fragmentation of the Iranian state and a deepening cycle of social unrest.


Before this could happen, a huge crisis broke out. To restore his position, the shah had been anxious to swell Iran's revenue from its main source of wealth, the vast oilfields in the south-west of the country, controlled by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (today's BP). In July 1949 a so-called 'supplemental agreement' proposed to increase the royalty that the company paid from 15 to 20 percent, with further increases envisaged. But this agreement ran afoul of two massive obstructions. The first was the fear among the shah's opponents that this newfound wealth would seal the revival of his power along pre-war lines. The second was the much wider hostility across Iranian opinion against continued foreign control of Iran's key resource and against the influence the company was believed to exert To make matters worse, while the matter was debated in the Majlis it became known that Aramco, the Arab-American Oil Company, had offered a 50 percent share of profits to its host government in Saud Arabia. As negotiations with Anglo-Iranian ground on, the political temperature rose and in March 195I the Majlis passed a law to nationalize the company. A few days later Mohamed Mossadeq, a veteran antagonist of the Shah and his father, took office as prime minister. (14)  The result was a stand-off. British talk of armed intervention war vetoed in Washington, where London's approach was regarded as reckless and retrograde. (15)


Instead, the large British staff was withdrawn from the fields and the Abadan refinery. The major oil companies, fearing that others might follow the Iranian example, imposed an inter national boycott on Iranian oil that was very effective. Mossadeq had seemed on the brink of achieving a constitutional revolution, but hi support - never very cohesive - now began to break up. In the Wes he was suspect as a dangerous demagogue, paving the way for Communist rule. In August 1953 he was overthrown by a military coup aided and part-funded by American agents with some British support and replaced by a premier who was loyal to the shah. Under a new oil agreement, Iran's oil was sold through a cartel of British and American companies. The shah's oil income rose spectacularly: tenfold between 1954-5 and 1960-61, to $358 million; and aHurthe fifteen fold by 1973-4. So did his military and political power. By the early 1960s, he was firmly established as a major ally of the West whose value as a bulwark against a Soviet southward advance was offset periodically by the fear that his drive to be master of the Gulf would set off a conflict with the Arab states of the region.


1. For a good account of British policy, W. R. Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East I945-I9F: Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Postwar Imperialism (Oxford, I984).


2. This estimate is explained in, W. B. Fisher, The Middle East: A Physical, Social and Regional Geography (London, I950), p. 249.)


3. Ghada Hashem Talhani, Palestine and Egyptian National Identity (New York, 1992), p. 9.


4. P. Seale, The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics 1945-1958 (London, 1966); A. Rathmell, Secret War in the Middle East: The Covert Struggle for Syria 1949-1961 (London, 1995); P. Seale, 'Syria', in Y. Sadiqh and A. Shlaim (eds.), The Cold War and the Middle East (Oxford, 1997); M. Ma'oz, 'Attempts to Create a Political Community in Syria', in I. Pappe and M. Ma'oz, Middle East Politics and Ideas: The History from Within (London, 1997).


5. M. J. Cohen, Palestine and the Great Powers 1945-1948 (Princeton, 1982) is the standard account.


6. H. Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton, I978), pp. 470-72, 545-66, 680.


7. Talhani, Palestine, pp. 48-50.


8. For details see R. McNamara, Britain, Nasser and the Balance of Power in the Middle East 1952-1967 (London, 2003), ch. 3.


9. See James Jankowski, Nasser's Egypt, Arab Nationalism and the United Arab Republic (Boulder, Colo., 2002), p. 56.


10. The standard account is K. Kyle, Suez (London, 1991).


11. For Eden's political fate, D. Carlton, Anthony Eden (London, I98I). 52. See Rathmell, Secret War, pp. 160-62; Abdulaziz A. al-Sudairi, A Vision of the Middle East: An Intellectual Biography of Albert Hourani (London,1981).


12. For the intensification of America's 'special relationship' with Israel from the late 1950s, see D. Little, The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and Israel 1957-1968, International Journal of Middle East Studies 25,4 (1993), pp. 563-85; G. M. Steinberg, Israel and the United States: Can the Special Relationship Survive the New Strategic Environment?, Middle East Review of International Affairs 2, 4 (1998).


13. The title of the influential study by Fouad Ajami (London, 1981).


14. For the onset of the crisis, E. Abrahamian, Iran between Two Revolutions (Princeton, 1982), ch 5. For Anglo-Iranian, J. Bamberg, The History of the British Petroleum Company, vol. 2: The Anglo-Iranian Years 1928-1954 (Cambridge, 1994).


15. For the American view, see for example Rowntree to McGhee, 20 Dec. 1950, in FRUS 1950, vol. 5: The Near East, South Asia and Africa (Washington, 1978), p. 634. For British policy, Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East, pp. 632-89.








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