The Middle East: a brief (recent) History

It is easy to assume that the world we see today is pretty much the same as the world of hundreds of years ago. After all, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon – they’re all in our Bibles. But to assume a continuous time-line from then till now is mistaken.  Often we will hear people say, “there’s never been somewhere called ‘Palestine'”, so to ask the question, ‘Which countries had internationally recognised boundaries prior to the first world war?’ is not pointless. For a moment let’s forget about the Middle East and think of Europe. How much do we recognise of the map of Europe in 1713 … … or America in 1800? [A version of this with maps is available for download A (Brief) History of the Middle East]

Internationally recognised national boundaries require a recognised international body to do the recognising. Prior to the establishment of the League of Nations in 1920 boundary treaties between various nations and groups of nations rarely prevented subsequent boundary disputes and wars. Often they merely postponed them.

It is often claimed that Palestine as a nation or country never existed. This is contrasted with the claim, rarely contested that Israel did. These arguments are flawed, based as they are on notions of nation and nationalism that did not exist, probably, before the middle of the 17th century. The best that can be said for the earlier period is that broadly understood boundaries existed for whichever empire held power in a particular region at a particular time. The ‘nations’ that formed part of those empires were largely tribal alliances, city states, and aspiring or declining empires.

It may be helpful at this point to say something briefly about city states. We tend to think of Empire in terms of the British Empire before World War II or the American Empire today. But for much of history empire depended not so much on total control of vast areas but on control of key cities. These towns and cities occupied key strategic points but most, by today’s standards, were relatively small with a resident population of fewer than 40 to 50,000 souls. Towns and cities existed with three primary functions: administration (i.e. taxation), provision of specialist services (building, trading, exchange), and protection.

Larger cities; Babylon, Damascus, Isfahan, Rome, developed the capacity to build and support large armies capable of holding larger territories. But we should also note that, until recently, the ordinary population might be relatively unaffected by military campaigns. They would have to supply soldiers but since agriculture was highly localised and of primary importance, (note the frequent references to famine in the Bible), except under the most threatening of circumstances, there would always be some able-bodied men on the land. As far as the working classes were concerned it didn’t matter much who was in charge. By some estimates 80% of the around 1 million population of 1st & 2nd century Rome, were slaves. So, when there was a military campaign, if you could, you just got out of the way.

For 400 plus years, until 1918, the area including Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, had been part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Saudi Arabia had been administered as a number of vilayets (provinces) divided into administrative areas called Sanjaks. Mesopotamia, (Iraq) and Egypt were separately administered but with similar systems. Persia-Iran, whilst Muslim, had not been part of the Caliphate for hundreds of years.

Through the 19th century the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the ‘sick man of Europe’, had tottered towards collapse despite the efforts of France and Britain to keep it going. (I am at a loss to understand why the Ottoman Turkish Empire should be regarded as European since only about 5% of its territory was in Europe at all).

During the 19th century Britain feared that the collapse of the Empire would open a route for Russian ambitions in India and East Africa. France had an historic role, formalised in the ‘Capitulations’, as protector of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. These had extended to include all Christian groups in the Levant; and Britain, Germany and Russia had taken advantage of Ottoman weakness to claim similar interests in the region. Both France and Britain were keen to ensure that Russian ambitions were obstructed.

In theory, although not in practice, at the commencement of the 20th century, the Ottoman Turkish Empire ruled the whole of the near and Middle East with the exception of Iran and Afghanistan. With the onset of World War I the Young Turks, who had taken control in Istanbul and abolished the Caliphate, aligned themselves with the central powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Thus the Ottoman Turkish Empire was at war with Britain, France and Russia. It did not survive. In 1916 Britain and France concluded the secret Sykes-Picot agreement dividing the Levant into spheres of influence.

At the same time, 1915-16, Britain was negotiating with Sharif Hussein of Mecca for the Arabs of the peninsula to rebel against their Ottoman rulers with British assistance creating a southern front and diverting Turko-German forces from the Eastern and Western fronts. That very broadly, and with a number of caveats, is the context within which we may understand the situation today. In November 1917, shortly before Allenby’s army entered Jerusalem Alfred Balfour wrote the letter that has come to be known as ‘The Balfour Declaration’.


Turkey emerged from World War I no longer an empire but a region under occupation. This led to a war of independence and the eventual creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The Sultanate had been abolished ending over 600 years of Ottoman rule. Originally under single party rule, a multi-party democracy was established from 1945. It was, in effect, a new nation, a new country.


Moving east and south, Syria, having ceased to exist over 2500 years earlier was re-created as a nation following World War I. Under Ottoman Turkish rule it had been administered as a number of separate vilayets, the equivalent of provinces or administrative regions.

Following the British victory in Palestine in 1918 a government loyal to Sharif Hussein was declared in Damascus and Prince Faisal I became the Hashemite King of Syria, which at this time included what is now Lebanon. The kingdom, that the Hussein’s believed had been promised by Great Britain, was short-lived. In 1920, following the San Remo Conference, France occupied Syria as the Mandatory Power.

There was an interesting exchange between the French General Gourand and his secretary, de Caix in 1920. France could, said de Caix, ‘either ‘build a Syrian nation which does not yet exist … by smoothing out the deep rifts which still divide it… or cultivate and maintain all the phenomena requiring our attention, that these divisions give. I must say that only the second option interests me.’ Gourand agreed’.1 Imperial divide and rule for a non-existent nation!

A treaty for independence was agreed in 1936 but was never ratified by France. With the collapse of France in World War II the region came under the control of the French Vichy government. It was occupied by Britain and Free French forces in July 1941.

As a founding member of the United Nations it became independent of the Mandate in October 1945. When French forces left the following year the country was in the hands of a republican government that had been formed during the Mandate period.

There followed a period of instability with three coup attempts in 1949 alone. In 1958 Syria merged briefly with Egypt as the United Arab Republic (see below). In 1963 the Ba’ath party took power leading to the rule of the Assad family.


Lebanon’s history reaches back to biblical times. It’s past 3000 years has been inextricably linked to that of Syria-Palestine as a glance at a map will show. From the middle of the 19th century Lebanon was under the direct rule of the Ottomans, although in practice this amounted to little more than tax farming and gathering the military quotas.

Under the French mandate following World War I the various vilayets were grouped into ‘greater Lebanon’, approximately its current boundaries. In May 1926 the constitution was adopted for a democratic Parliamentary Republic. This was formalised by France in September although full independence was delayed until the creation of the United Nations Organisation in October 1945.

Upon the occupation of France by Germany, Lebanon came under the authority of the Vichy government who in 1941 allowed Germany access through Lebanon and Syria to attack British forces in Iraq. As a result Britain sent its forces into Lebanon and in November 1941 the Free French government made Lebanon independent. Elections were held in 1943 but the Allies occupied the region until the conclusion of hostilities in Europe in 1945.

Lebanon has a unique constitutional arrangement whereby the President is a Maronite Christian, the parliamentary Speaker a Shiite Muslim, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Deputy Speaker and Deputy Prime Minister are both Greek Orthodox.


The area we know as Jordan was, in antiquity, a number of city state kingdoms familiar to us perhaps from our Bibles as Ammon and Moab. It was administered under the Ottoman Turkish Empire within the vilayet/Sanjak arrangement as part of Syria-Palestine

During the early part of World War I negotiations between the Arabs and T.E. Lawrence, (Lawrence of Arabia) led to agreement from the British government in 1915 that the region would be part of an independent Arab state including Palestine. This is the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. It was recognised as TransJordan in 1922, including what is now known as the West Bank and Jerusalem, under the British mandate and ruled by the Emir Abdullah as the first Hashemite king. It remained under British tutelage and with British military support until 1946. Full independence was achieved in 1948. Following the 1949 Armistice with Israel, Jordan retained control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These were lost to Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.


Egypt’s borders today are much as they’ve been for the last 3000+ years, with a history reaching back much further. Becoming independent of the Ottoman’s from 1805, Egypt was ruled by Muhammad Ali as the Pasha (governor). The Khedivate was recognised by Istanbul in 1867 and lasted until 1914.

In 1881 rising literacy, a developing sense of national identity and anger at occupation by a mixture of Turkish & Albanian mercenaries and European civil servants and businessmen led to unrest and the creation of an elected government. Britain, worried that Egypt might renege on its massive debts, invaded in 1882 and established control that effectively made Egypt a colony. Although Britain declared Egypt independent in 1927, king Faud’s was a kingdom in name only. Britain retained a military presence there until 1954. In 1952 the monarchy abdicated and, after a period of instability, Egypt became a republic.


Often regarded as the cradle of civilisation, with ancient evidence of science, medicine and technology, Iraq has a history going back to 4000 BC. From the 16th century it was part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire but actual control fluctuated between the Ottomans, local tribal leaders and Persian/Iranian influence/ interference from the East.

When in World War I Turkey joined the central powers, Britain and France launched a campaign with British led Indian troops that took Basra in 1914, and led in 1917 to the capture of Baghdad. Under the Sykes-Picot agreement Iraq would become part of the British ‘sphere of influence’. In November 1922 the League of Nations granted mandatory power to Britain. In 1920 Britain had established Faisal I as the Hashemite king of the State of Iraq. This is the same Faisal who’d been kicked out of Syria by the French in 1920. Would we think the Iraqis were keen on having a Saudi Sheik thrust on them?

A constitutional monarchy was created in 1930 and Iraq was granted independence by Britain in 1932 with Britain retaining military bases and transit rights. (a pipeline was planned which would carry oil direct to the Mediterranean). Following Faisal’s death in 1933 there was a series of unsuccessful coups.

At the onset of WW2, strong anti-British sentiment as a result of British policy in Palestine and interference in national affairs together with the development of Arab nationalism led to a pro-Nazi party seizing power in 1941. In August 1941 the Arab Legion, supported by British armoured troops, deposed the leader, Rashid Ali al-Galayni, and restored the Hashemite monarchy to power. The British military occupation which followed ended in 1947 although military bases were retained by Britain until 1954. A coup d’etat in 1958 led to the end of the monarchy, with further coups d’etat until the Ba’ath Party took control in 1968. General Saddam Hussein took the presidency and absolute control in 1979.

The World War I creation of Iraq had left certain boundary issues unresolved, in particular the area around the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates giving access to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Hormuz. Basra is Iraq’s only port and in 1980, following the 1979 revolution and Shi’ite dominance in Iran, Saddam Hussein repudiated a 1973 agreement that had given Iran 200 square miles of land in the area, and the Tunb Islands located at the mouth of the Gulf of Hormuz. This led to all-out war in which Iraq used gas and napalm against Iran and against its own insurgent Sunnis and Kurds in the north of Iraq.


One of the earliest civilisations dating back to 3200 BC (Persia, Media, Chaldea), Iran was part of the Islamic empire from the seventh century. Originally Sunni it converted in the 16th century and is now majority Shia. Rivalry with the Ottoman Empire and conflict over border territories led to weakening of the state and territorial losses to Russia during the 19th century. However, Persia/Iran, together with Egypt, may be the only countries in the region who can properly claim to occupy their historic lands.

In 1906 a constitutional revolution led to a constitutional monarchy and a parliament, the Majlis. The constitution gave official recognition to minority religions that still pertains today, at least in theory: these included Christianity, Zoroastrian, Judaism. Upon the death of the Shah, his successor, Mohammed Ali Shah, with British and Russian support, abolished the constitution. He was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Ahmad Shah Qajar and the constitution was re-established in 1909. The constitutional monarchy was dissolved in 1925 when Reza Shah Pahlavi came to the throne.

In 1953 the recently elected socialist government of Mohammad Mosaddegh decided to audit the books of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, (Now BP). AIOC’s refusal to cooperate led the Majlis to vote to nationalise Iran’s oil assets. The UK and USA organised a coup d’etat and returned Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power. His increasingly autocratic rule, expensive lifestyle, the poverty of the people, the actions of the hated SAVAK, (secret police), and submissiveness to ‘Western Culture’ (e.g. USA) led to the 1979 revolution which established the Islamic republic.

Saudi Arabia

For all practical purposes Saudi Arabia is a modern creation. A glance at the map will show that while Saudi Arabia covers a very large area much of it is barely inhabitable. It’s importance for Islam is that it is home to the two most important holy sites, Mecca and Medina. Otherwise it is important as a major oil producer and exporter.

Except for a period between 1865 and 1902 when the Rashid family held power, much of the peninsular came under the rule of the Ibn Saud family, (but see below). Their particular brand of Sunni Islam owes much to the teaching of Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab – hence Wahhabism.

By the end of the 19th century the growing influence of nationalist Arabism and hatred of the Caliphate’s corrupt and decadent rule in Istanbul led to a movement for independence. World War I provided the opportunity, although justified mistrust of Britain and France and different British priorities slowed cooperation. The current borders date from 1932 as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia uniting the Hejaz, Najd, Al-Ahsa and Asir.

As to the rest it is important to note that the whole of the Peninsula must be seen in the context of historic Sheikdoms. Tribes were semi-nomadic and had little regard for borders which, in any case, were not demarcated. Traditional agreements between families, often dating back hundreds of years, took precedence over treaties with foreign agents. ‘Foreign’ meaning almost anyone who wasn’t ‘local’!


Yemen occupies the South-Western area of the Arabian Peninsula. Its history is chaotic. With the advent of steam in the 19th century the East India Company occupied Aden as a coaling station. Various local treaties for ‘protection’ were put in place despite Ottoman claims of overall sovereignty. From November 1967 it existed as two states, North Yemen and South Yemen. Relations were unstable with fighting in 1972, 1979, 1986. Unification took place in 1990 but was followed by unrest and a civil war from 1994 with active involvement from Saudi Arabia (as now).


To the East of Yemen lies Oman with an archaeological history going back 8,000 years. Following years of autocratic Sultanate rule the present ruler, Sultan Qaboos, created a Consultative Assembly with voting rights to all citizens aged 21 and over. Election to the Consultative Assembly of Oman is open to women. Despite reforms, in practice rule is by decree of the Sultan.


In 1916 with the involvement of the Ottoman empire in WW1, Qatar became a British Protectorate. Qatar gained its independence from UK in 1971. There is a Council of Ministers who propose laws to the Majlis, but it is the Emir who makes the final decision on legislation.


Kuwait is one of the smallest countries in the world. It’s principal claim to fame is as the object of the Iraqi invasion of 1990 which led to the ‘Gulf War’ and eviction of the Iraqi invasion force. Kuwait is ruled by an Emir with policies suggested by an elected parliament and an appointed government.

United Arab Emirates

Located on the coast of the Persian Gulf and including a number of islands, UAE is federation of 7 emirates established in 1971 following independence from Britain. Known from 17th century as the ‘pirate coast’, from 1820 treaties to combat piracy led to the definition ‘Trucial States’. These treaties were extended in 1892 as the ‘Exclusive Agreement’ between Britain and the Emirs of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras Al-Khaimah, and Umm Al Quwain.

Abu Dhabi, with the largest city, Dubai, serves as capital. Government is by a supreme Council whose members are the Emirs of each Emirate.

UAR (United Arab Republic)

The United Arab Republic was a short-lived experiment in pan-Arabism. Made up of Syria and Egypt with its President Gamel Abdel Nasser it lasted only from February 1958 to September 1961.

Why is this important?

In most histories of Palestine -Israel you will read a statement similar to the this; “immediately following the declaration of Israel’s independence on 15 May 1948 the surrounding Arab nations declared war and invaded”. That sentence contains almost as many unfounded suppositions and inferences as there are words.

  • Inference 1: Arab nations couldn’t wait to declare war on the Jews.
  • Inference 2: It’s a miracle that Israel survived
  • Inference 3: Israel was an entity achieving its independence from an Imperial, colonial power.
  • Inference 4: the Arab nations were united, cohesive and powerful.

The situation of those Arab states was rather more complex, especially given that Haganah, Stern and Irgun forces were active from Autumn 1947.

  • Egypt in 1948 – Still with a British military presence
  • Jordan in 1948 – full independence only in 1948, the same year.
  • Syria in 1948 – Independent in 1945 with French military present until 1946
  • Iraq in 1948 – Under British military occupation until 1947 & with British military bases till 1954.

… it is worth asking, in what sense these ‘Arab states’ could undertake a ‘combined invasion’, especially since, before 16th May 1948 any attempt by them to defend the Palestinians would in fact be an attack on the Mandatory power, Britain.

Miracles, by definition, require divine intervention. In 1948-9 victory went to the side with the better plan (the Arabs didn’t have any), the better arms, better training, and the larger army. Whilst the fighting had been ongoing since late 1947 no-one could ‘declare’ anything with regard to Israel since, before 15th May 1948 it did not exist. And it is vital to note that the Zionist leaders ignored totally the UN definition of boundaries, as did the Arabs. It could be claimed the latter had better justification since they saw themselves as defending their homelands against Zionist invaders.

It ought also to be evident that the ‘Arabs’ were far from a cohesive force. Whereas Zionism had recognised from the early 1920s that they would have to take the land by force, the Arab nations were newly created, unstable and had until very recently been under the tutelage and/or occupation of Britain and France. Right up to the 1947 vote the Arab delegations believed that the United Nations could not vote contrary to its Charter.

The only significant Arab fighting force was the Arab Legion based in Jordan. This force, the successors of those who had fought with Hussein and T.E. Lawrence in World War I, managed to retain East Jerusalem and the West Bank, many of them using their father’s World War I weapons.

1A Line in the Sand James Barr. Simon & Schuster. 2011. p. 130

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