A Century of Western Meddling in the Middle East: A Backgrounder



Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Egypt and gave a speech at American University in Cairo. Secretary Pompeo criticized President Obama’s foreign policy in the region by referring to his famous speech, “A New Beginning,” given in Cairo after he became the president in 2009. He blamed Obama of retreating American presence in the region and said: “America is a force for good in the Middle East. Period.[…] When America retreats, chaos follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. When we partner with enemies, they advance.”

Two questions arise from the speech: Is Western involvement for good in the Middle East? Does Western involvement in the region serve the interests of the Western countries? A brief overview of the European and the U.S. presence in the Middle East shows that the Western states worked with the elite in the region without paying much attention to what masses thought or felt about their involvement. This relationship that neglected the popular sentiments resulted in major backlashes. As a result, the Western powers retreated and lost legitimacy in the long run.

The European presence in the Middle East reached its zenith after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire that put the Asian lands of the Middle East in the hands of Britain and France. By the start of the First World War, most of North Africa was already under European control. During the war, Britain promised Sharif Hussein, the Hashemite emir of Mecca and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, to become the king the Arab lands provided that he rebelled against the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Britain and France signed a secret agreement -the Sykes-Picot Agreement- that specified their spheres of influence in the Middle East in the postwar era. Britain also promised the Zionist movement a Jewish homeland in Palestine during the war. Hussein revolted against the Ottoman Empire; however, his dream of becoming the king of the Arabs in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Hijaz has never been realized.

After the war, France set mandate regimes in Lebanon and Syria while Britain took control of the mandates of Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine. France divided Lebanon and Syria into smaller states and ruled through its representatives. Britain put Sharif Hussein’s two sons as kings in Iraq and Transjordan. Hussein himself became the King of Hijaz, but because of his increasing resentment against Britain, the British leaders kept acquiesce when Saudis invaded the Hijaz region in 1924. After the Saudi invasion, Hussein left Mecca and the Saudis soon took control of the entire Hijaz region. Britain ruled the mandate of Palestine through a relationship with prominent Jewish groups and Palestinian families.

Although the European powers took control of the Middle East in the wake of the First World War, their influence disappeared over time, and their colonial experience in the Middle East became a liability. The deals that the Europeans made with prominent local elite provoked strong anti-Western and populist nationalist movements in places such as Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. The almost unconditional support of the West, especially the U.S., to Israel became a convenient tool for anti-West ideologies and groups to recruit members. The heavy U.S. meddling in Iran created one of the strongest sources of anti-Westernism in the region.

In Syria, the French mandate continued until the end of the Second World War. Between 1946 and 1970, the legacies of the French colonial rule shadowed the Syrian politics. Syria became a battlefield of several competing factions that emerged due to the administrative divisions of the French mandate rule. As a result, Syria experienced a long period of instability with frequent military coups. Taking group interests and differences aside, what united all the fighting parties was an appeal to a populist version of Arab nationalism that emerged as a reaction to the European meddling. The last military coup staged by Hafez Asad in 1970 resulted in relative stability until 2011 with a cost of thousands of deaths and a repressive police state. Hafez Asad and his son Bashar Asad, who came to power after his father’s death in 2000, allied with anti-Western policies in most of their rule in Syria.

In Iraq, after 37 years of pro-British Hashemite rule, a group of military officers staged a coup, removed the king from power, and established a republic based on a unique mix of socialism and Arab nationalism in 1958. The new Iraqi regime, until the U.S. invasion destroyed it in 2003, took a strong anti-Western stance and allied with the Soviets in most of the Cold War period. The events that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion did not end the anti-Western sentiments in Iraq as many had hoped; in contrast, the invasion sowed the seeds of a new wave of anti-Western feelings, and the fruits of these feelings have not yet been harvested fully.

Egypt formally separated from the Ottoman Empire and became a British protectorate in 1914. Fuad became the king of Egypt in 1922. Although Egypt gained its independence in 1936, Britain enjoyed privileges and played a pivotal role in Egyptian politics. The British hegemony in Egyptian politics provoked a nationalist backlash from the military. In 1952, a group of young officers staged a coup against the king. Gamal Abdel Naser, a leading figure of the revolution, became the president in 1954. Naser embraced Arab nationalism and established a populist authoritarian regime. Naser sought to pursue an independent foreign policy during the Cold War years, but his policies mostly served to anti-Western interests. He took the side of socialists during the Yemeni Revolution in 1962. His successors Sadat and Mubarak developed friendly relations with the U.S. after Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978, but they lost their popularity and could not prevent the rise of anti-Western attitudes among the Egyptians. Over time, the U.S. was seen as a strong supporter of the authoritarian regimes not only in Egypt but also in places such as Tunisia and Yemen until the 2011 Arab uprisings.

In Israel/Palestine, under the mandate regime, Britain allowed several waves of Jewish immigration that changed the demographics between Jews and Arabs. The Jewish immigration incited an Arab backlash and led to conflict between the two groups. In 1947, Britain applied to the United Nations to terminate its mandate. The United Nations passed a partition plan to divide the land between Jews and Arabs. To the plan, Jews with a population of 600,000 took 55 % of the land while Arabs with a population of 1.3 million took 42 % of the land. 3 % of the land including Jerusalem would be under the control of the United Nations. The Arabs rejected the plan; Jews occupied the lands included in the plan and declared the state of Israel in 1948. In response, the neighboring Arab counties waged a war against Israel. After the war, Israel took control of the 78 % of the Palestine Mandate. The conflict between Jews and Palestinians continued since then. The U.S. supported Israel in every major turning point especially after 1967. The Western support to Israel became a major recruitment tool for the anti-Western ideologies and groups from communists to Islamists for decades.

In Iran, Western involvement structured the trajectory of political development in the last century. Although Iran did not become a colony after the First World War, Russia and Britain played a key role in Iranian politics until the end of the Second World War. In the post-war era, the U.S. became the major Western power influencing Iranian politics. In 1941, Mohammad Reza Shah, the young and inexperienced ruler of Iran, gave up some of his powers and yielded a system of constitutional monarchy with a relatively stronger parliament. This quasi-democratic era did not last long. In 1951, the Iranian parliament passed a law to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In 1953, to reverse the nationalization program, the U.S. intelligence (CIA), the British intelligence, and the Iranian military staged a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. Shah reinstituted his power and ruled the country with an iron fist. Shah’s close collaboration with the Western states, particularly the U.S., deprived him of popular legitimacy and led a revolution in 1979, which removed him from power. Soon after the revolution, mullahs took control of the Iranian political system and put anti-Westernism as a key pillar of Iranian foreign policy. The cost of extreme foreign meddling of the U.S. in Iran was the loss of a key ally in the region.

While almost all the Middle Eastern countries were ruled by Western-imposed rulers a century ago in the wake of the First World War, the situation has changed since then. Today, the Hashemite rule is restricted only in Jordan while Iran and Syria are no longer under the Western influence. In contrast, they have strong anti-Western orientation in their foreign policymaking. Despite the U.S. invasion of 2003, Iraq is a very vulnerable ally to the Western powers. Saudi Arabia and small monarchies in the Gulf region seem to have relatively better relations with the Western countries, but most of these monarchies lack popular support and have an uncertain future. The oil income and the support of the U.S. keep these authoritarian regimes alive; not the support of their people. The U.S. administration seems to have a working relationship with the Sisi regime in Egypt, but the popular support behind Sisi is very dubious given his extremely authoritarian rule. The future of Egypt and its relations with the U.S. is uncertain.

The historical overview of Western meddling in the Middle East shows that the U.S. and European powers could not develop a relationship with the regional states that is beneficial for both parties. The legacies of colonialism put the Middle East politics into a cycle of instability with the unresolved conflicts for many years. The Western hegemony in the region through its local intermediaries created a strong sense of populism and nationalism and led the emergence of long-standing anti-Westernism across the region. The U.S. and Europe could have had a long-term beneficial partnership with Middle Eastern countries if they had considered the popular sentiments and built their relations based on mutual respect. Given this brief history, if Secretary Pompeo meant the pursuit of a new U.S. hegemony in the Middle East in his speech in Cairo last week, then only time will show what will be the price of today’s policies tomorrow.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2018-aota-kilinc100.jpg

Ramazan Kılınç is an associate professor of political science and director of Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. @KilincRamazan

Photo and Credit: The arrival of British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel to Palestine Mandate in 1920. From left to right: Thomas Edward Lawrence, Emir Abdullah, Geoffrey Salmond, Herbert Samuel, and Wyndham Deedes. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

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