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9-08-2015, 22:21


The Middle East is ridden with strife thinly papered over. Arab nation is divided from Arab nation, fundamentalist Muslims from moderate Muslims who accept the secular state, Persians (Iranians) from Arabs, feudal tribal monarchies from secular republics, the oil-rich from the poor nations. Why is there so much conflict? Is there one root cause? If the Zionists had not created Israel, would there have been peace? Were the Arabs set against each other by outside powers, by the Russians, by the British, by the Americans? Or do the problems of the region derive from a backlash against the imposition of alien Western traditions on a traditional Islamic society? Is the conflict of terror waged in the twenty-first century by extreme Muslim groups in the Middle East and the West, a so-called ‘clash of civilisations’? How artificial are the national frontiers, the result of great-power bargains imposed on the region after the First World War? Central to the Middle East’s geopolitical importance is its oil, a commodity vital since 1945 to the prosperity of the oil states, the West and Japan. Before the Second World War Middle Eastern oil was less significant: the US, Mexico and Venezuela were the major oil exporters, Venezuelan oil production alone in 1939 exceeding that of the entire Middle East. But during the war, Iraqi oil became vital to Britain, which occupied the country jointly with the Soviet Union. It was the dramatic expansion of oil consumption after the Second World War, the industrial changeover from coal to oil and the expansion of motor and air travel that gave the Middle Eastern oil-producing nations so important a role in Western economies. The US then ceased to be an exporter of oil and became an importer. Between 1919 and 1939 the US, Britain and the Netherlands had secured a virtual monopoly of Middle Eastern oil concessions and so came to dominate world marketing. Iran was the region’s major oil producer, and Britain was able to keep out foreign competition, retaining control until the nationalisation dispute of 1951. The US oil giants, meanwhile, worried about oil reserves in the US, with the backing of the American administration, gained a large share of the oil concessions, which were to prove the richest of the Middle East after the Second World War: Aramco, a consortium of US companies, secured oil rights in Saudi Arabia; Gulf Oil, a half-share of the oil resources of Kuwait; and the US also gained a share in Iraqi oil. Britain further agreed to share Iraqi oil with France, whose spheres of influence in the Middle East contained little oil. French-controlled Syria, and the Lebanon before 1945, earned additional royalties from the pipelines carrying oil from the Iraqi Kirkuk field to Tripoli; a ‘British’ line ran through Transjordan and Palestine to Haifa. Until the mid-1950s Britain remained not only the dominant political power in the Middle East but also the most important oil power. During the last decade of the twentieth and the early years of the new century, the Western wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dominated world attention. Another essentially Western conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians appeared no nearer to a solution. Other enmities and conflicts within the Arab world or between Arabs, Persians, Kurds and ethnic and religious minorities have received far less attention in the West. Westerners tend to see these societies of complex religious and ethnic diversity as much more homogeneously Arab and Islamic than they are. Understanding the complex divisions is a key to understanding the conflicts of the Middle East. It is also true that, apart from Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Jews and the Persians of Iran, the Middle East is predominantly Arab, and that the majority of Arabs are followers of Islam. This has created a sense of cultural unity: the Koran and the Arab spoken language help Arabs to feel that they belong to one civilisation, and hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, Palestinians and other Arab nationals, mainly technicians, teachers and students, work and feel at home in Arab countries other than their own, principally in the oil-rich Gulf states. Although Islam is the dominant faith of the great majority of the peoples of the Middle East, not all Muslims are Arabs. The Turks, the Iranians and the Kurds are ethnically quite distinct from the Arabs, as are many converts to Islam. The ebb and flow of conquests is reflected in the diverse cultures and religions of the Middle East. This becomes clearer as one looks at the populations country by country. Modern Turkey, shorn of its Arab empire in 1919, was the most homogeneous of the large Middle Eastern states. It was much less so by the twenty-first century, with a minority of 14 million Kurds among its total population of 73 million. Syria’s population was about 17.2 million at the beginning of the twenty-first century, of whom more than 1 million belong to some eleven different Christian sects. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, but a minority, the Alawite Muslim sect, has built up a dominant military and political role in recent years, though the Druze is another Muslim sect of importance in Syrian political life. In Aleppo there is a large Christian minority. Iran (Persia) has a mainly Persian Shia Muslim population of 36 million out of the whole population of 70.3 million in 2004. The division of Islam into Sunni and Shia occurred a generation after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in AD 632, following a dispute over the succession to the caliphate. Ali, Mohammed’s first cousin, lost this contest, and his followers founded the Shia branch, whose members look to their spiritual leaders for divine guidance on the interpretation of the Koran. The Sunni are also known as orthodox Muslims. Differences between Shia and Sunni have important political implications, for the Shias are in a majority in Iran and in significant minorities in neighbouring Lebanon. Worldwide, the Shia branch comprises only one in ten Muslims. It should be remembered that there are also non- Arab Muslims such as the Sunni and Shia Kurds of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. There are two major minorities in Iran, 16 million Azeri Shiite Muslims and some 5 million Kurds bordering Iraq’s Kurds. Iraq reflects the chequered composition of Middle Eastern countries. The majority of the population at the start of the twenty-first century are Shia Muslim Arabs, 16 million out of the total population of 26 million (2004). They live in the south of the country. Northern Iraq is predominantly Kurd. But there are also Turcoman and Assyrians. The Kurds follow the Sunni branch of Muslims. They are not Arabs, have preserved their national identity, language and culture despite being partitioned between their neighbours, Turkey, USSR, Iran and Iraq all anxious to suppress them as dangerous minorities. In Iraq there are 4.6 million Kurds. The country between the north and south is inhabited by 8.9 million dominant Sunni Arabs placed in key positions of power by Saddam Hussein, who is a Sunni Arab. There is enmity between the Sunni Arab centre and the Kurdish north despite the religious link. In the capital Baghdad there was a large and prosperous Jewish community until persecution led to their mass exodus in 1950 to 1951. In the region around oil-rich Mosul there is an Assyrian Christian minority. Iraq is an artificial creation, once a pawn in the Middle Eastern carve-up by the strongest powers in the region who intended Iraq to create balance and stability to the region with its important oil resources. After the First World War it became a British League of Nations Mandate. In the major cities, with rapid urbanisation, there is a mix of religions and ethnicity. Baghdad is mainly Sunni and Basra, Shiite. The most religiously and ethnically divided country is mountainous Lebanon, among whose population of 3.7 million today no one group has an overall majority. The Muslim population is divided between Shia, Sunni and the Druze; the Maronite Catholic Christians, who have their own patriarch but accept the Pope as head of the Church, are the largest single Christian group and, together with other Christian communities, once made up about half the total population. Today the Muslims form the majority. So sensitive an issue have precise population numbers been in the Lebanon that no official census of the communities has been taken for half a century. The breakdown in 1957 of a power-sharing agreement between Maronites and Sunni, the so-called National Pact, plus interference by neighbours, as well as by the militant Palestinian Liberation Organisation, plunged the Lebanon into bloody civil war. At the opening of the twenty-first century the main divisions were between 1.5 million Shiite Arabs, 1.6 Sunni Arabs and 1.4 million Christians. The population of the territory under Jordanian control after the 1967 war with Israel was about 3.8 million in 1987. In the West Bank, assigned to Jordan (Transjordan) in 1949 after the first Arab–Israeli War, there were a further 500,000 Arab Palestinians under Israeli control. The relationship between Arab Jordanians and Arab Palestinians who are seeking their own independence has been a strained one. The Jordanians are Sunni Muslims; in the West Bank there is a minority of Christians. In 2004, the total population of Israel is 7 million. In the occupied West Bank and Gaza occupied since 1967 there are more than 3 million Palestinians and over 200,000 Israeli settlers. In Israel itself there are more than 1 million Arabs. The Arabian peninsula’s most important state is Saudi Arabia, unified by Ibn Saud and his zealous followers, the Wahhabi, after the defeat of his rival Hussain Sharif of Mecca in the 1920s, and in 2002 having a population of about 23.5 million. Originally the poverty-stricken Bedouins of Saudi Arabia and their tribal chiefs were of political importance because they ruled over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and so, with British backing, could be set up as rival caliphs appealing to the Muslims of the Ottoman and Indian empires against the Caliph Sultan of Turkey. This proved of some value to Britain in the First World War but its sponsorship proved insufficient to unite the Arabs. The tribes of the Arabian peninsula were among the poorest in the Middle East, and most of the peninsula, except for the pilgrimage routes and the coastline, was isolated from the rest of the world. Ibn Saud’s new kingdom of Sunni Arabs was backward and poor, his rule patriarchal. Patriarchal rule has continued to the present day, but the kingdom has become one of the richest in the world as a result of the post-war development of the huge oil discoveries made in the 1930s. Before then, there had been nothing to attract the British, who maintained friendly relations and did not interfere in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs. Desperate for revenue, Ibn Saud in 1933 granted concessions for oil-prospecting to American oil companies which were exploited after the war by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). Similarly, the discovery and development of oil wells along the Persian Gulf, in Kuwait and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (Trucial States) and Oman, transformed those regions of the Arabian peninsula into one of the wealthiest in the world. In contrast, Yemen, with a population estimated at 19 million in 2002, has few valuable resources and is very poor. But a number of companies are continuing exploration for gas and oil and production is expanding. The Yemenites belong to a branch of the Shia Muslims – most Arabs are Sunni. Britain’s interests in the Arabian peninsula, before the irruption of oil, were mainly strategic. To safeguard commercial routes and the oil supplies from Iraq and Iran, Britain held on to Aden and maintained protectorate relationships with the tribal sheikhs along the coastline of the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. Egypt is among the largest Middle Eastern states but also one of the poorest. As elsewhere in the region, the population has increased very rapidly in the twentieth century and efforts to modernise, and especially to improve the lot of the peasants, can scarcely keep pace with the rate of population growth from some 18 million in 1947 to an estimated 73 million fifty-seven years later. The great majority of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, but there is a minority of Arab-speaking Copts (Greek for Egyptian), who have followed Christianity under their own patriarchs. Most members of an ancient community of Jews were expelled after 1956. The Sudan, to the south, which shares the lifegiving Nile with Egypt, was nominally under Anglo-Egyptian rule from 1899 until independence in 1956 but it was, in reality, controlled by Britain. The main ethnic division is between the mixed, mainly Sunni Muslim peoples of the northern and central regions and the southern tribes, which tend to be either pagan or Christian converts. Some have been converted to Islam, others resist northern attempts at Islamisation. This division, which has often led to conflict and warfare, remains one of the most serious internal problems facing the modern Sudan’s 31.1 million inhabitants (2000 figure), of whom just under a third belong to one of the black African peoples. In western Sudan in the Darfur region, African people started a revolt and one million were driven out by Arab militias, villages burnt and 50,000 killed in 2004. The great majority of Libya’s 5.3 million people in 2000 were Sunni Muslims; Arabic is the national language, though some Berber-speaking districts remain. Once one of the poorest Arab countries, comprised as it is largely of desert, the discovery of oil in the 1960s transformed the economy and the ambitions of the Libyan political leadership. The Middle East is overwhelmingly Arab and Islamic. There are constant appeals to Arab unity and Islamic solidarity, as well as calls for the political organisation of an Arab League. Unions of different Arab nations are talked about and even established, though only for short periods. The State of Israel was seen as the common enemy, the intruder that has seized Arab lands and alienated most of Palestine from Arab rule. By the twenty-first century the Arab world has accepted that Israel has established itself securely and its neighbours, with more or less willingness, are accommodating themselves to reality. As we have seen, the sense of a common civilisation and language and the pride in Islam are shared by millions of Arabs, and the educated classes are conscious of these links across national frontiers. But nationalism is relatively new to the Arabs, except in Egypt, which was influenced by the Napoleonic invasion and Western ideas in the nineteenth century. Socialism, industrial development and demands for constitutional government are other signs of the Western impact on the Middle East of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but they have not got very far. After the defeat of 1918 the Turks became a strongly nationalist country under Mustafa Kemal, known as Kemal Atatürk (Father of the Turks). Modern Turkey with a population in 2000 of 66.7 million is based on the military success of Atatürk, who defied the Western Allies and by 1923 had reestablished complete Turkish sovereignty over its territories, shorn of the Arab empire, by threatening to fight again for his country. The legacy was bitter rivalry with Greece, which had to abandon its own attempted expansion in Asia Minor. It is a rivalry that persists to the present day, with disputes in the Aegean and over the future of Cyprus. Mustafa Kemal broke with Ottoman and Muslim traditions and during the fifteen years of his rule as president forced Westernisation on the Turks, breaking the power of the clergy. The Atatürk tradition, under which the military became the guardian of the nation, lives on. In modelling institutions on the West in the 1930s, Atatürk combined a parliamentary system with his own virtual one-party rule and cult of personality. His protegé and successor was Ismet Inönü, who was president from 1938 to 1950 and prime minister from 1961 to 1965. But in the aftermath of the Second World War and in alliance with the US, there was both external and internal pressure for more democratic rule. Strife-ridden civilian governments have been replaced intermittently by repressive military rule. The democratic tradition is weak. Three peoples were denied the right to form their own independent nations in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire: the Armenians, the Palestinian Arabs and the Kurds. The Armenians, with a history of independence and subjection going back to ancient times, seemed the most likely to gain independence after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, under whose rule they had suffered genocidal atrocities. Britain and France hoped that the US would accept a mandate over Armenia, still partitioned between Turks and Russians, but the US Senate rejected the notion. Nevertheless, by the Treaty of Sèvres an independent Armenian republic was recognised in 1920, but the West made no attempt to defend the new state when Turkey and Soviet Russia attacked and divided the republic between them in December of that year. The Kurds, who had struggled for independence when under Ottoman rule, took heart from Wilson’s promise of self-determination and from the defeat of the Turks. The same Treaty of Sèvres recognised the creation of independent Kurdistan, but Kemal Atatürk tore up the treaty and forced the Allies to revise it by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923; by then he had conquered Kurdistan. In the final disposition of the Ottoman Empire the Kurds found themselves minorities in five states. In 2000 it is estimated 600,000 lived in the USSR, 4.7 million in Iran, 3.6 million in Iraq, 1.7 million in Syria and 14 million in Turkey. They have rebelled sporadically, always to be savagely repressed. The tragedy of the Kurds in the aftermath of the second Gulf War, when in March 1991 they rose against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, is that no nation wants to raise the issue of an independent Kurdistan. The US wishes to build a ‘stable peace’ in the region through an alliance of Arab states, Iran, Turkey and the Soviet Union and these have a common interest in suppressing Kurdish nationalism in their own countries. The Palestinian diaspora also had its origins in the aftermath of the First World War. For more than half a century the sense of national identity which characterises these three peoples has not been extinguished – nor, as the twentyfirst century begins, is it likely to be. Radio and television can mobilise the masses in ways not dreamed of in the days of the Ottoman Empire. In addition, the movement of the rural population to the cities has been a phenomenon throughout much of the less developed world, including the Middle East. In 2000 some 6 million have crowded into Teheran, Iran’s capital; Cairo’s population exceeds 10 million; and even in the Lebanon, a country with a small population, close to a million live in Beirut. The explosive growth of urban living, the increase, especially in towns, of literacy, the frustrations and the thirst for activity among student groups, the restlessness of unemployed labour existing on the margins of subsistence, the abject poverty of most of the peoples of the Middle East, all these have added greatly to the volatility of the region and created a gulf between the urban and rural populations. In the rural areas, despite some ambitious projects, high population growth has negated the advances in crop yields and agricultural methods, leaving the peasants no less backward and poor. In the oil-rich states – Saudi Arabia and those along the Persian Gulf – agriculture is of little importance. In Iran and Iraq, however, despite the revenues from oil, agriculture must absorb the labour and provide a subsistence living for up to half the population. So the possession of oil alone does not solve the economic problems of these states. The purchasing power of the oil-rich states has turned them into vital elements in the Western world’s economic advancement. Underdevelopment and backwardness rub shoulders with ambitious modern projects and international airports in the Middle Eastern states. In great-power contests it remains a region of strategic importance. The continuities of cultures and religions provide links with the past, but there are also huge differences as a result of the transformation that occurred in the twentieth century. The resurgence of militant fundamentalism, especially after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, threatened to destabilise the whole region. It was not only a reaction against Western dominance, whether Russian, British or American, but also a reversal of the road to Western modernisation taken by Turkey under Mustafa Kemal after the First World War. Thus rival Islamic ideological conflicts were added to the Western ideological confrontations of ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’. Among the more powerful nations there is also a continuous struggle for regional predominance. In the 1980s there were several such national and international conflicts. A bloody war between Iraq and Iran was followed by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, which lined Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Western powers up against him and led to the second Gulf War in January 1991.