Recent happenings, such as international terrorist attacks and eruption of violence and wars within the region, have highlighted how the links among Western powers and Middle East countries represent an indissoluble knot for our societies. Currently, The West is increasingly polarizing the Middle East, and as a result, the region is paralyzed among old and new forces; while, oppositely, the international forces are strengthening their ties with state and private companies to ensure a continuous flow of fuel in their territories. This duplicity shows how the Middle East “requires an [immediate] alternative approach to Western interventionism or to negligent pragmatism” (as M. Bishara pointed out), and how today such an alternative approach is missing.
This article’s main purpose is to highlight how the historical developments of the West-Middle East relationship have massively shaped the current political situation there, and how the western countries have produced mistakes in mainly two fields: social misunderstandings and power-related quarrels. In the first section, an historical background is given. Here the relationship among Europe/US- Middle East is analyzed from the Napoleonic wars till the start of the Cold War. In the second one, then, the Arab- Israeli war, the Iraq- Irani war, and the 1st Gulf War are summarized to highlight how the Western powers had produced enormous, and sometimes unintended, effects. And finally, in the last section, an operationalizing attempt had been carried out to identify the two major categories of the mistakes in the region.
Middle East culture had always influenced enormously the western societies, economically, philosophically, and culturally. For a significant part of the late millennium, Arabs were the undisputable “Kings of the Mediterranean”. However, for this article’s purpose, a subjective starting point is pinpointed in the XIX century, when Napoleonic and British naval forces were deployed in the East Mediterranean area. Here, for the first time, Muslims encountered the European development of weapons and technology, and from then on Arabs passed from influencing neighboring cultures to being influenced. Such a meeting had a great social impact on the area, and from then on, commercial partnerships among the two areas became closer and more frequent. The same Goethe affirmed: “East and West cannot be longer separated” (even if the predominant voice had become Kipling’s one: “East is East, and West is West”).
In 1914, when the I World War started, and when the European powers’ rivalry went beyond the national borders, the Arab World remained shocked by its effects. Particularly, the Ottoman Empire, an important economic partner for Germany, was dragged into World War I and the Suez Channel became, strategically and geopolitically, a fundamental node to cut the link between Britain and British India. After Germany’s defeat, the Ottoman Empire disappeared definitively, and from its ashes, the New State of Turkey was established. However, all the ex-Ottoman provinces were put under the influence of Britain and France, and the whole Arab World was now under European domination. Nationalism became now the main ideology and the only possible political alternative to foreign interference (it was worsened even more by the 1917 British encouragement to create a Jewish state in Palestine).
After WWII ended, Arab Nationalism was still present. It was aimed at a closer partnership of Arab countries, at achieving independence from Superpowers, and at proper equality among Muslims. This idea had been embodied for a while by Jamal Nasser, the Egyptian prime minister. However, the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordan defeat against Israel in 1967 stopped this ideology and opened a period of disunion and growing dependency by one or the other Superpowers: Turkey and Saudi Arabia were pro-US, while Syria, Libya, and Iran were under USSR’s influence.
Main influences of Western Powers to Middle East domestic affairs
As said, the vacuum of power that originated during the Cold War had fostered divisions and isolation in the Arab World. From now on, Western powers have no longer officially the control of the region, but their impact did not expire: their interests are now persecuted through supporting or mining the authority of the regional actors and governments. Indeed, in the post-WWII scenario, several, if not all, the conflicts within the area experienced a high involvement of international forces. Just to name some: the Arab-Israeli conflict (since 1948), the Iraq- Irani war (1980-1988), and the 1st Gulf War (1990-1991).
In 1917, the British government expressed its commitment to help Jews people to build their home country. In fact, since the first years of the XX century, an unstoppable flow of people started migrating to Palestine, due to a new nationalistic movement, Zionism. This movement’s purpose was to group Hebrew communities, who were living separately in several countries, under a single, unified, nation. It is important to say, here, that it has nothing to share with the Arab nationalism: Arab movement was aimed at unifying the already existing Arab countries in a single, unified “world”; whereas Zionism wanted to create an ex-Novo country, from no common basis.
Moreover, consequently to this will, a peculiar feature can be detected within the general definition of state too. According to academia: “a nation is formed by people who share the same history, culture, and language”; while Zionism considered such aspects of secondary importance (just to name one, a common language was missing). Due to it, back in those years, the Zionist movement represented just a 3% minority of the whole Jewish population, while the majority of them felt primary to belong and to be citizens of their home country (the largest communities were in Great Britain, Germany, Italy, France, US, and USSR). As a result, the first registered immigration flows in Palestine counted just a few thousands of people.
The main breaking point was the end of WWII, it changed everything. In 1947, in accordance with the UK and US, the UN published the so-called “Partition Plan”. Its purpose was to divide the Palestinian territory into two areas, one under Arab influence, and the other under the Jews one, as compensation for WWII Holocaust. This UN decision had, however, generated long-lasting tensions and conflicts that are not concluded yet. Terrorist attacks, invasive policies, and war rhetoric are still present, and both parties, supported by international forces, do not seem to want to step back on their claims. In this way, such management of the issue should help in representing a clear example of the first mistakes’ categorization protracted by international powers within the area, the “social misunderstandings” ones.
In 1980, both Iraq and Iran were internationally isolated and extremely scarce resources. Indeed, it was clear that, even if Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini depicted the conflict as a “Shia” war against infidels, the reasons for the conflict were primarily economical and because important energetic resources were at stake. However, the conflict resulted in a disaster: it was one of the bloodiest wars of the XX century, both the countries exhausted their resources without gaining so much, and it caused an economic loss of more than USD 1.2 billion for both the parties involved.
The pivotal feature was the international support given to the countries. Most of the World’s Powers supported Iraq (US, USSR, UK, France, and many other European countries), whereas Iran was backed mainly by Israel, China, and North Korea. According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, the Soviet Union, and France accounted for over 90% of the value of Iraq’s arms imports, and the United States, by their side, pursued policies in favor of Iraq by reopening diplomatic channels, lifting restrictions, and providing operational intelligence on the battlefield. A further fundamental role had been also played by other Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which financed enormously Iraq. Nonetheless, on the other hand, Israel clandestinely financed the majority, if not all, Iran’s armaments. Its main aims were to provide a counterweight to Iraq; to re-establish their influence in Iran, and to create business for the Israeli weapons industry. Moreover, the Israeli arms sales facilitated the unhindered immigration of the Persian Jewish community from Iran to Israel and to the US too.
Here, the International Powers’ commitment shows selfish management of the issue. Indeed, all these foreign countries joined the conflict for increasing their power and their influence in the area: US, UK, and France’s main purposes were to test and to face indirectly Iran’s weapons’ development; while Israel, as said, targeted the economy of weapons’ trafficking and the possibility to foster Jews migration toward Palestine.
1st Gulf War
The international support slightly changed with the 1st Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. The US had huge interests over Kuwait’s oil, and from a supporting condition, in just one year, they started fighting a conflict, which had enormous repercussions in the Middle East and worldwide. Several calls for Human Rights breaches and Ius in Bello infringements had been carried out, and when the war ended, with Iraq’s withdrawing from Kuwait, the US adopted a new invasion operation claiming that: 1) UN’s UNMSC mission (aimed at foreseeing and investigating over any Iraqi’s WMD and chemical arsenal) was incorrect, and 2) Iraq was a supporter of Al- Qaeda’s terrorist organization. Both claims resulted unfounded, but Iraq’s economic situation, which was already disastrous because of the Iraqi-Irani war, could not recover anymore.
This clearly shows how international support in the Middle East may vary according to the interests at stake. Until Iraq represents an ally in combating threatening Iran, the US and western powers are ready to sustain economically and logistically the conflicts’ efforts. However, when their economic stocks are at risk, international armies are deployed rapidly against those who were considered allies the moment before. Here, again the power-related quarrels are easily demonstrated, and they may help in understanding how hugely such considerations shaped the Middle East political map across history.
The ratio of the World Powers’ mistakes within the Area
For all these reasons, the Western countries contributed enormously to shape the current geopolitical equilibrium of the Middle- East. However, in doing so, they did not consider the distinctiveness of the environment, and they are still trying to manage the consequences they originated. Nowadays, both Europe and the US are massively influencing all the social, cultural, and economic aspects of the Middle East. Just think to UK support given to building the Israeli state or the US military interventions both in the Iraq-Irani war and in the 1st Gulf War. Particularly, it is also detectable that international intervention is not always beneficial to the area: Palestine is far away from being recognized as a sovereign country, and Iraq faced enormous economic problems after the 1980 war against Iran and the Gulf War. Therefore, in this last section, the main mistakes in the area are grouped and shown into two major categories: social misunderstandings and power-related quarrels.
The first set of mistakes comes from a misinterpretation of the Middle-East’s social background. Indeed, while western countries attempted to adopt a homogeneous- western approach, the Middle East represents a heterogeneous and peculiar context. Particularly, most western operations were aimed at preserving and fostering the government’s capability to act, while the true source of power is usually widespread among religious and ethnical leaders (“political fidelity only follows”). In such an environment, tribes, and ethnic groups, which are usually considered as “groups of people with a common ancestry, language, historical and cultural tradition, and an identifiable territory”, here, are no longer grouped under a single, defined territory, but they are decoupled among different, and sometimes very distant, zones. Due to this etymological, but fundamental aspect, the Middle East cannot be longer considered as a group of several sovereign countries, but it must be analyzed as a single, regional actor.
On the other side, world countries adopted measures to defend exclusively their interests in the area. They did not operate for the true development of the region but acted in a self-centered way to achieve their own national political goals. The already mentioned 1st Gulf War is a clear example of that: the US, from an Iraqi supportive condition during the Iraqi-Irani war, suddenly, shifted to a more aggressive position when Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait’s oil reserves; furthermore, when the Iraqi government fell, in April 2003, the US nullified the popular democratic elections held in Mosul (a Kurdish town), Samara (with a Sunni Arab majority), Hilla and Najaf (both Shia towns), and Baghdad to appoint reliable (and unelected) people. In this way, a true economic and social evolution resulted being impossible, and the dependence from superpowers during the Cold War, instead of transforming into political autonomy, only moved toward a dependence from Western Powers.
Written by Matteo Boccia
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