The years after World War II were a turbulent and transformative time for the entire globe. As the dust has seemingly settled across the rest of the world, the Middle East continues to exist in a sandstorm.
Rather torturous poetics aside, the Middle East has experienced its share of modest achievements and devastating short comings in terms of government. Whether it be the struggle which is still playing out between that of the Israelis and the Palestinians; to the sense of disappointment felt by some to the oil-rich government in Saudi Arabia; the tight but slipping grip on power by the government in the Islamic Republic of Iran; and the destabilization and possible breakup of Iraq, the Middle East has known at times a shaky sense of peace, and complete chaos in most others.
This writing will focus on the major achievements and upsets of some of the largest players in the Middle East from World War II to modern times: Saudi Arabia, Israel-Palestine, Iran, and Iraq. Each state has provided a unique theater for its many inhabitants, and foreign actors, to play out the fate of each country. The populations have, in some cases, grown to be complacent with a cordial relationship with the government, wherein the government can quash rebellions with simple promises. Other populations, such as we will see with Iraq, threaten the very existence of the nation-state model in the region. Understanding why groups of people who live relatively close to each other geographically have responded in so many different ways requires an examination of the governments which they live under.
Saudi Arabia in 1948 was ruled by Saud bin Abdulaziz and was an absolute monarchy. As medieval as this may seem to many westerners, the monarchy has proved to be an incredibly resilient form of government in Saudi Arabia. It also happens that at this time Saudi Arabia, as well as other members of the Arab League, experienced one of the most upsetting and demotivating events in Middle Eastern history for the Arabs. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war was an attempted occupation of Israel by many Arab states, which failed with huge implications for Arab moral. The fallout from this invasion was a perceived affirmation of Israel’s existence and, ultimately, a sense of helplessness or disappointment in the Arab’s ability to contain Israel. The result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict was a loss of legitimacy for many monarchies in the Middle East, most notably neighboring Egypt, which in 1952 was overthrown by Gamal Nasser. Elements of this disappointment would compound with other ill-effective attempts at governance by King Abdulaziz that in 1964 would result in the appointment of King Faisal, much to the ire of his brother.
We can consider the appointment of King Faisal an overall achievement for Saudi Arabia and its people. First and foremost, he had the backing of the religious establishment. Time has proven that a truly secular government in the Middle East is prone to extreme opposition and loss of legitimacy at some point in its existence, and it may very well had been a calculated move on behalf of the Faisal to court the religious establishment while also guaranteeing certain modernizing reforms, such as women’s education. Perhaps Faisal did not strike this balance well enough, as he was eventually assassinated in 1975 by a relative. Faisal’s rule is important, because this trend of modernization has not since given way.
While the government in Saudi Arabia is formally obligated, since the 1990s, to follow the Sharia and Quran in its governance, it has taken significant strides to bringing many western and modern practices to the state. This great balancing act is no doubt evident in the latest Arab uprisings of 2010, where the Saudi Arabian government was essentially able to quell protesters by offering concessions and promises. On the whole, Saudi Arabia’s domestic policy over the last few decades has not been as secular as one in the west might hope, but it certainly has been progressive in some noteworthy capacity. It is not to be said that there does not exist any down sides to the way that Saudi Arabia has been governed over the last few decades. For example, the Saudis have not made it easy to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine, even going as far as to sever diplomatic relations with Egypt after it made peace with Israel. Still, taken as a whole, Saudi Arabia certainly does reflect some attributes of its largest supporter: the United States.
Egypt making peace with Israel was only one event in the much larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has persisted in the region in some shape or other form over the course of the last decades. To give some perspective as to the length of the conflict, just consider that, at sixty-eight years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has persisted through and after the Cold War, which ended nearly twenty-five years before the date of this writing. The conflict, without a doubt, has been the single greatest failure of all of the governments in the modern Middle East. This is because a myriad of Arab states have been directly involved in the conflict, and even powers as far north as Iran have managed to intertwine themselves at one time or another. The attempts to resolve the conflict, then, have given rise to an entirely appropriate term: the peace process (emphasis added). Several events have been pivotal in this process, and taken on their own, could be considered achievements for the governments in the region even if it they seem relatively insignificant compared to the greater conflict. A series of events ranging from the initial Arab-Israeli war in 1948 to the peace agreement with Egypt and Israeli in 1982 would create a state of constant tension in the region and, moreover, a sense of urgency to resolve the conflict by the international community. The interim of this time period was marked with events such as the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, where Israeli occupied the canal, and the Lebanese Civil War.
Ultimately, the peace process would come to be defined by peace agreements between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, the Oslow accords, and the Camp David summit. The Oslow accords, which began in 1993, would culminate in a number of significant advances towards resolving the conflict.
First, Oslow I would result in recognition of both powers by both powers. That is, the Palestinian Liberation Organization would recognize Israel and its people and, in turn, Israel would recognize the PLO. Oslow II, struck at later date, expanded upon this. Oslow II would establish the Palestinian Authority, which gained certain rights to govern the Palestinian people in two areas (zones A and B) with which the West Bank was divided. This was a significant step in the peace process because, although it did not prevent future conflicts, it provided legitimacy for the Palestinian people and gave Israel assurance that its existence would no longer be refuted by its neighbors. Making note of prior discussion regarding Saudi Arabia and it’s breaking off of relations with Egypt over its recognition of Israel in 1982 showcases just how significant the Oslow I accord was. The Camp David summit, however, would not prove as fruitful.
In 2000 President Clinton would host a peace summit at Camp David, the Presidential retreat in the United States, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Despite significant concessions by the Israelis, the Palestinians failed to present any counter offers or agree to any of the offers made to them. The inability to resolve all of the questions, such as the fate of Jerusalem, seems to have been Arafat’s motivation in being so reluctant. It was later remarked by President Clinton that Arafat almost seemed to be dooming the negotiations from the beginning, with a purist stance. Nevertheless, the parties would reconvene at a later date with the Palestinians ready to engage in high-level peace talks. The talks took place in 2001 inside the Sinai, and seemed to be the closest that the two powers ever came to a comprehensive and promising peace agreement. Subsequent elections in Israel, unfortunately, would undo this progress, with a more conservative and nationalist Lekud party taking hold. After this election, the new government in Israel choose not to participate in more settlement talks.
This is perhaps the most disappointing moment for Middle Eastern governments which will be discussed in this writing, because never before had peace been so obtainable in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The failure of the new government in Israel to follow in the good-faith footsteps of its predecessor has resulted in well over another decade on intermittent bloodshed, poverty, and suffering for Israelis and certainly many Palestinians. Events in the region after 9/11 would further complicate any chance for another set of peace talks, and no significant concessions or advancements have been made by either side since. It seems that the spirit of compromise which provided such sense of optimism in 2001 has long since disappeared from the region, with the efforts of the United States, the principal mediator in the conflict, being focused on combating international terrorism across the region.
That being said, many of the early achievements of the peace process continue to endure. Most notably is the recognition achieved as part of the Oslow accords and prior agreements between Israel and, for instance, Egypt. Even though the hypothetical “house” could not be considered livable at the moment, there at least has been scaffolding set for it. In understanding the many ups and downs of this peace process through the years, how they’ve impacted the region, and how they continue to impact the region, one can truly understand why the series of negotiations and hopes for peace and a two state solution in this region of the Middle East is referred to as a process, and not an agreement.
This discussion now heads north in the region, to Iran. The Iranian people have faced a particularly interesting series of events over the last century. After the conclusion of World War II, the Iranian parliament moved to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian oil company. Quite obviously this did not sit well with Great Britain, which owned rights to the company, the Iranian oil, and thus profited off of the drilling there. A blockade was imposed by Great Britain, and a series of events would lead to the 1953 overthrowing of Mohammad Mossaddegh, who was the Prime Minister at the time, so that the Shah, the monarch in Iran, might regain power. The Shah, of course, was sympathetic to British intentions. Once returned to power, the Shah embarked on a White Revolution to modernize the country. This was an incredible step towards autocracy and sultantistic behavior by Iran’s Shah.
This would ultimately lead to an alienation of the clergy, which, as has been previously discussed, can be detrimental for governments in the extremely religious Middle East region. The Shah would continue modernizing Iran and developing a secular form of government until 1979, when the Iranian revolution occurred, leading to the removal of the Shah and the ascension to power of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Ayatollah proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the country would head in a far different direction than Western powers would had liked. This series of events, especially considering the 444 day hostage situation which ensued at the American Embassy in Iran, could be considered the greatest downfall, and the culmination of, decades of foreign involvement in the government of Iran. The meddling of international powers in the affairs of the national government in Iran instilled popular distrust in the government and the outside world, fueled by a call for a return to the fundamentals of Islam. Modernizing is a necessity in any society, and it has been achieved in many forms in the modern Middle East; however, when such reforms happen at a rate too expedient for the populations to come to terms with, it is a lesson learned from history that a rebellion against the government will likely follow. As a consequence of their lack of foresight, the United States would experience chilled and tense relations with the Iranian government well into the present day. The accusations levied against Iran would range from disputes regarding oil, to nuclear arms, to accusations (some correct) of sponsoring terrorism. The tensions that can be caused by rapid modernization, though, are true in the converse. That is, when an ultra conservative and particularly religious government exists in the Middle East, history will show that if it is too repressive — as it often is — it will be confronted with opposition from the people it governs. Such a thing has been the case in recent years across the Middle East, as has been demonstrated by the Arab uprisings. In Iran, demonstration against the government goes back even farther than the 2009 revolutions in the Arab world, stretching well into the 1990s. For example, after the government in Iran shut down a popular newspaper in the 90s, students protested against the action and were subsequently arrested. In the 2009 Iranian Revolution, that specific instance of unrest centered around allegations of election fraud, wherein the conservative government allegedly rigged the elections in their favor. These demonstrations would stretch across multiple cities and eventually end in the death of 36 people, officially, at the hands of the government and the arrest of thousands. The 2009 uprisings are bear further significance because of the advent of the internet, where broadcasting the execution of a protester was a very real possibility. In fact, such a thing did happen, as a video of a protester being executed was uploaded to YouTube.
While such unrest does overall seem to be a negative thing for those who live there, perhaps recent developments in Iran can break from the disappointing trend of events since the British and United States sponsored assassination of Mossadeq so many decades ago. For example, as upsetting as it is that deaths were the result of the Green Movement’s inception in 2009, the fact that such a movement was so popular is significant. Moreover, when one considers the seemingly impossible achievement of a nuclear agreement with Iran, struck in 2015, they cannot help but wonder if massive demonstrations of civil unrest at home prompted the government to sway from its ultra-conservative and threatening rhetoric. For a country that often seemed content with being isolated from the rest of the western world, and often painted the United States as evil, recent diplomatic developments between Iran and the rest of the world seem to indicate a major shift in foreign policy by the Iranian government. In sum, though the last few decades have been entirely disappointing for any party involved in Iran, recent trends seem to induce a sense of optimism for global integration of the country. This, of course, can not be achieved without equal respect. The United States, and other western powers, would do well to not repeat their past actions.
We now turn to Iraq. If the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most disappointing event in recent Middle Eastern history, well, the current state of Iraq may be giving it a run for the title. Iraq has not ever historically known stability outside of the Ottoman Empire. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, it was a monarchy. However, when World War II began Britain promptly occupied the state for the duration of the conflict. This was not necessarily bad, as the instability did not begin until about a decade after the conclusion of the war, but it shows that, very rarely, has the Iraqi government been able to exist without foreign intervention. In 1958, the monarchy in Iraq was overthrown by the military and proclaimed a republic. Over the next decade a series of coupes would overthrow leaders until 1968, when Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr obtained and retained control until Saddam Hussein succeeded him in 1979. In this time, al-Bakr nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Company and granted some limited authority to the northern Kurdish region, which still does, and had for decades prior, wished to be independent from Iraq. How interesting is it, then, that most of the oil in Iraq is concentrated in the northern region?
Hussein was not ever shy to use force to meet his goals, and escalated tensions with neighboring Iran by invading the country in 1980 in the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 revolution. This move by Hussein is particularly intriguing, because it shows Hussein’s intent as promoting Iraq as a powerful regional player while also defending the state from internal threats. Iraq had long been home to oppressed minorities, and Hussein feared that the revolutions in Iran would inspire similar protests in Iraq. Furthermore, Hussein felt that Iraq needed to be the most powerful gulf state. After a disappointing defeat, Hussein turned his attention to neighboring Kuwait, which was rich in oil reserves.
Following an escalation of the conflict and a swift defeat by the United States, Iraq under Saddam Hussein would begin its countdown towards collapse. Following 9/11, the United States, in 2003, invaded Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. One would had hoped that after decades of disastrous policies in the Middle East by the United States that this move would not had occurred, especially given that all defenses offered by the West for the war have now all been proven to be little more than a farce and a play on traumatized citizen’s emotions. While it has since been proven that there were no weapons of mass destruction, the effects of this war on Iraq continue to threaten to rip apart the historically divided country.
It can be said then with relative certainty that there has been little success in Iraq over the last few decades, and certainly not much in the last few years. Rejection of the monarchy, decades long power struggles, the repression of minorities, the growing sectarian divides, and the aggressive attitude of Saddam Hussein have essentially composed the history of Iraq. Even though the country was able to hold elections after the US led invasion, is the achievement of a democracy really worth the effort? Rather, given the major issues now facing this government, does the fact that it is a democracy really matter? In fact, could this impede progress and prove detrimental for the future of the people’s will in Iraq? On the later, I answer in the affirmative.
Considering militant opposition in Iraq has grown since the United States involvement, it is easy to understand where this trail of thought might head. First, consider how past attempts at imposing any kind of reform in the Middle East too quickly have resulted in a return to the “fundamentals.” That is, a forgoing of most modern forms of government in favor of an Islamic republic or equivalent state. When one considers that the Islamic State had occupied one third of the state, this sort of future for Iraq (or at least, part of it) does not seem very far fetched and, in the absence of the US led coalition intervening in the conflict, it likely would had been certain to happen.
Second, there should rightly be significant doubt as to whether or not the majority of the population even identifies with the Iraqi government. Is it realistic to think that the Kurds, who have fought the majority of the ISIS conflict on their own in Northern Iraq, would want to identify with the Iraqi government when they have so long yearned for independence? Do the 2011 Arab uprisings, which resulted in a Sunni led boycott of the Iraqi parliament (predominantly Shiia), signal further sectarian divides within Iraqi society? Considering that just a few months prior to this writing a mass of Shiia (!) protesters broke through the secure Green Zone and stormed Iraq’s parliament, I would again have to answer in the affirmative. It would seem that for a country such as Iraq, there is little holding the state together. Certainly, there is no strong national identify and no shortage of distrust and disappointment. Given all of these recent developments, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may soon secede its spot as the greatest disappointment in recent Middle Eastern government, and we may soon be talking about a second two-state solution.
The years since World War II have not been easy. The international community has experienced its formation, the effects of the Cold War, and drawn out conflict in the developing world — including the Middle East. Overall, it has been incredibly disappointing and turbulent when one considers the Middle East’s recent history. While Saudi Arabia has certainly remained something of a bastion for stability and, albeit slow, progressive reform and Iran has taken incremental steps into joining the international community, the shortfalls may overwhelm these gains. These disappointments are chiefly the fault of regional players and international actors who failed to effectively resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; to earn the trust of the people who live in the region; and to prevent further sectarian divides which threaten the vitality of the nation-state system in Iraq.
Whatever future might await the Middle East, it is in the best interests of governments all around the world to not negate the severity of the suffering that is people face. Men, women, and children everywhere across the Middle East suffer every day as a result of its complicated and protracted conflicts. Men, women, and children all across the globe suffer every day from these conflicts because it impedes our ability to stand as one species, with one common goal of prosperity for all.
It is certainly interesting to consider that if everyone could set aside the differences which divide the Middle East, the world would no doubt make a significant stride towards realizing the heaven which followers of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity so sincerely yearn to see.