The modern Middle East can be divided into five eras, according to Eugene Rosen, author of “The Arabs.”
- Ottoman Empire Era. Arab countries dominated by Turks (1516-1878).
- Colonial Era. British and French dominate — they carve up countries and create artificial borders (1878-1948).
- Independence movements (1878-1967). “Al-Nahda” renaissance movement in North Africa, Egypt and Syria/Lebanon. With crucial US support, Israel is founded in 1948. Arab countries face ignominious defeats in efforts to drive Zionists into the sea. Attempt to create “Arab Nationalist” movement fails.
- Cold War Era (1948-1990), in which Soviets and Americans compete for regional dominance, quashing independence movements. Egypt invites the Soviets in, then kicks them out in the 1970s, turning towards Americans. The US engineers Israeli peace with Egypt and Jordan. Declaring a national security interest in Middle East oil, US installs or supports dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria. The US is demonized by Iranians for thwarting democracy and installing brutal Shah for 25 years. Iranians break international law by invading US embassy and holding hostages, seek to export the Islamic revolution to the region. In the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, US supports Saddam in Iraq against Shiite revolutionaries in Iran. The US supports anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan who defeat Russia but eventually merge with Islamic radical groups Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which become virulently “anti-imperialist” and anti-American.
- American dominance (1991-2014). With the collapse of the Soviet superpower, America, the only superpower, feared Saddam Hussein, when he invaded oil-rich Kuwait, would fill the power vacuum in the Middle East. The US launched the first Gulf War to free Kuwait, set up brutal economic sanctions to force regime change in Iraq, installed military bases in Saudi Arabia, which inflamed fundamentalists afraid of modernity and “infidels.” In 2003, US toppled Saddam and engaged in the eight-year war in Iraq and “nation-building.” The US led NATO in toppling Muammar Qaddafi of Libya in 2011. The US backed Israel against Palestinians; and authoritarian Mubarak in Egypt until his domestic support evaporated. The US initially supported the seemingly successful Kurdish Independence Movement in Iraq, then abandoned support out of pressure from Turkey, which felt threatened by separatist Kurds in Turkey. Exhausted from resource drain, America withdrew from Iraq and scaled back presence in Afghanistan, 2011, and showed reluctance to back rebels in Syrian civil war against dictator Assad.
I observe several more historical trends in the region, one quite short-lived:
- the Arab Spring (2011-12). Region-wide uprisings against dictatorships. Civil conflict and even civil war (lack of consensus), most prominent in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Tunisia.
- Islamic fundamentalists step into the power vacuum left by America’s exit (2013-18). ISIS emerged in Iraq and Syria; fundamentalists threatened the stability of governments throughout the region. Iraqi and Syrian armies defeat ISIS in 2018/19.
- Counter-revolution or authoritarian crack-downs (2013-17). Governments throughout the region return to authoritarianism, beef-up armies, and go on the attack against Islamic fundamentalism. Hope for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine dies as the US recognizes Jerusalem as the capital.
- Islamic fundamentalists on the ropes (2017-19). ISIS is defeated by the Iraqi army. Assad’s forces gain strength in Syria. Palestinian leadership weakens, with geriatric leadership. Saudi prince Mohammed Bin Salman seeks to modernize, and challenges old-guard conservative family network. Yet he proves reckless in apparently authorizing the blatant and brutal murder of a journalist for The Washington Post in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi coalition’s war in Yemen comes under increasing attack in the West for human rights violations. In 2017, six countries in the region blockade Qatar to punish it for supporting dissidents and Muslim Brotherhood, but Qatar survives the blockade and appears relatively unscathed.
- Return to Authoritarian Rule. Egypt is essentially ruled by a military junta. Assad survives in Syria with blatant human rights abuses. In Turkey, Erdogan crushes opposition, shuts down independent newspapers, establishes years-long “state of emergency” after a coup attempt in 2016. Gulf state monarchies use new surveillance technologies to secure power, step on and control potential dissidents. In essence, democracy is dying in the region. However, there are signs of “modernization” in Saudi Arabia, letting women drive, opening up to tourism, selling off parts of state oil company ARAMCO and making some investments public, curbing the power of the monarchy.