Discuss the idea of “Middle East” as a colonial invention?

Discuss the idea of “Middle East” as a colonial invention?
By Libin Farah

The Middle East underwent a period of colonial rule at the end of the First World War. The colonial powers, Britain and France, were able to make the Middle East a colonial invention in two ways: ideologically and materialistically.

Ideologically the imperial powers were able to determine the perception and attitudes of the Orient and subsequently through discourse. Materialistically, they were able to dominate the Middle East by controlling their economic resources and internal governance.

While attempts to challenge the colonial invention were made, the model created by the imperial powers was undeterred. The Middle East was ultimately a colonial invention because it was defined by it colonial past which transitioned the region into modernity and the language used to describe the region remains largely determined by the Occident.

Throughout history the term ‘Middle East’ has come to describe many regions around the world. When discussing the Middle East as a geopolitical region for analysis it is imperative that we specify the area in question. To this day there is no fixed image of the Middle East as some scholars include Turkey in the region which many do not or while some may choose to include Somalia (Smith, 2006 p.8).

While there is still no consensus on the geographical location, the Middle East is generally referred to countries in West Asia and North African Arab speaking nations. The term was first used by an American naval officer Alfred T. Mahan who gave the term Middle East a strategic and geopolitical cast by defining it in relation to maritime routes essential for military control of the area (Bonine, Amanat and Gasper, 2012, p. 25).

In British usages, the term ‘Middle East’ and its cognates were increasingly used to refer to India but also Persia and the Balkans (Bonine, Amanat and Gasper, 2012, p. 24). The designation of the Middle East shifted from India and its neighboring countries to West Asia due to a change in strategic priorities. Some of the countries in West Asia possessed the world’s major reserves of petroleum (Anderson and Fisher, 2000 p.11).

Since petroleum is a strategic commodity and the one upon which the only truly global industry has developed the geopolitical significance of West Asia is clear (Anderson and Fisher, 2000 p.11). This implies that the ‘Middle East’ is a Eurocentric designation with imperial origins. It was a political label that was placed on regions of economic and political value to the Western powers. It is not brand used to describe culture, race, religion. Therefore, the term ‘Middle East’ historically is not synonymous with West Asia.

In this light, the Middle East is a colonial invention because the term itself has no fixed geographical location. It is a political term that corresponded with the economic and political interests of the imperial powers. Therefore, the colonial invention is not static however the shift is controlled by the Occident which indicates that power determines which actors are able to exact influence over others. In this way, the Middle East is a colonial invention as it was created as a region for the economic and strategic benefit of the metropole.

One way the Middle East has historically been a colonial invention is through the way the Orient has been described through discourse. The history of the Orient was written by Orientalists therefore the images that are associated with the Orient are Western creations and not in fact reality (Said, 1985 p.3).

Images of the Orient include exoticism, romanticism and backwardness (Said, 1985 p.1). These idealised regressive images function as a moral and strategic justification for European intervention and thus facilitated colonialism in the Middle East (Lockman, 2013 p.57).

Discourse analysis on the Orient is fundamental to understanding the Middle East as a colonial invention as the discourse is not only the use of language when describing something but also the world views and ideologies that are implicit or explicit in such uses and define and delimit what is possible to say and not to say (Coffin, 2009 p.11).

As the substance of the discourse was constructed by the world hegemons at the time Britain and France, the negative and alien language used to describe the Orient demonstrates that there is a correlation between knowledge and power.

Those who have power are able to determine the knowledge and perception of the Middle East. This idea is reinforced by Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism in that it is a Western style for dominating, reconstructing, and having authority over the Orient (Said, 1985 p.3).

In relation to discourse analysis the authority and domination is in literary form which provides the legitimization needed for imperialism which then materializes in the form of colonialism.

The historical imbalance of power between the Occident and the Orient allows the West the create the image of the Middle East in a way that authorizes them to pursue their economic and strategic interests. In this way the perception and attitudes towards the Middle East were determined by external forces to accommodate the needs of the occident thus making the Middle East a colonial project.

As the US had become the new world hegemon Orientalism had also entered a new phase. Similar to the formal colonial powers the US deemed it necessary to step into the region to become the guarantor of stability (Lockman, 2013 p.116).

In contemporary times the Middle East is globally perceived as a place of conflict that is no longer confined to its geographical setting (Khatib, 2010 p.1). The media has depicted the Middle East as being synonymous with religious fanaticism, the War on Terror and plain brutality (Khatib, 2010 p.1).

US popular attitudes and foreign policies is shaped by Islamic obscurantism and Arab racial inferiority which had combined to produce a backward culture (Little, 2008 p.10). By drawing distinctions between the Occident and the Orient the West not only construct the image of the Middle East but through the process of doing so they create and consolidate their own identity (Lockland, 2103 p.57).

The Occident relies on the Orient as the antipode that enables the West to self-construct their own image in a superior, modern and forward thinking way (Lockland, 2013 p.57). In turn the ‘lack’ of these features possessed by the Orient makes them inherently backwards thus making them the ‘Other’ and in need of Western influence. By creating their own image against the Orient the West moved into a position of global hegemony over the non-Western states (Lockland, 2013 p.57).

Therefore, the Middle East is a colonial invention through contemporary discourse because the Orient partly functions as a counter image that solidifies and stabilizes the West’s imagined superiority which justifies ideas of intervention and hegemonic domination.

The map of the modern Middle East as we know it today was designed by the allied powers of the First World War. The defeat of the Ottoman empire meant that the Arab provinces became a new arena for colonial empires to exert influence.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) negotiated between France and Britain carved up Arab provinces into a number of successor states, each under either British or French rule (Owen, 2000 p.6). Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine came under British rule while Syria and Lebanon were given to the French (Owen, 2000 p.6).

These new states were under imperial Mandates which were internationally recognised as spheres of influence of the Britain and France (Ismael and Ismael, 1992 p.38). The Mandates gave Britain and France overwhelming power such that they determined the new boundaries, what form of government would be established and how the region’s natural resources should be allocated (Owen, 2000 p.7).

The Middle East became a colonial project as the new states were not in control of their internal security or governance. The British aimed to protect their interests with as little intrusion as possible by appointing heads of states that advanced British interests (Smith, 2006 p.22).

In Iraq, Faysal ibn Husayn became the first King of Iraq and said ‘I am an instrument of British policy. His majesty’s government and I are in the same boat and must sink or swim together…If the British left Iraq, I should have to leave to’ (Batatu, 1978). Britain established colonial states who appeared to be semi-autonomous yet indirectly managed the states. The British constructed their colonies in a way so they could exercise colonial control without their physical presence.

In this way the Middle East was a colonial project as the political structure, economic resources and territorial borders were all determined by the colonial powers for the benefit for the imperial powers.

The colonial powers embarked on a process of nation state building in the Middle East. This is an inherently Western form of political organization that is internationally recognized and superimposed on the region.

Ideologies within the region began to emerge that challenged the idea of the nation state. Pan-Arabism represented a reaction against neo-colonialism through the assertion of a nationalism founded on the notion that, through cooperation across state borders, to challenge Western dominance (Mellon, 2002).

Pan-Arabism climaxed during the 1950-60s with Nasser in Egypt and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War which destabilized the entire region (Guazzone and Pioppi, 2012). The defeat faced by the Arabs significantly weakened the credibility of Pan-Arabism but facilitated the rise of new political movements such as Pan-Islamism (Ismael and Ismael, 1992 p.5).

These new ideologies offered an alternative vision for how the region should look in an attempt to reinvent the colonial invention. This was a direct challenge to the Western model and is an example of the Orient trying to redefine itself.

Nevertheless, both Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism were unable to succeed as they attempted to use the nation state as a vehicle for change. The idea of a nation state was not directly challenged therefore they were unable to break out of the framework of the colonial invention making the impact of these new ideologies short term and limited.

The Middle East remains a colonial invention as new ways of political organization were unable to deconstruct or replace the colonial institutions.

Nation identities must ensue after the development of a nation state. These new states had to develop what it meant to be Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian and how they were distinct from each other. These new national identities did not correspond to any meaningful identity for most of the Arab world (Rogan, 2012).

The establishment of national identities corresponded with states, borders and territories formed by colonial activity. In this way, national identities validated and gave meaning to invented borders thus reinforcing the idea that the Middle East is a colonial invention. National identities legitimised the state and as this is also a colonial instrument national identities give meaning and justify the colonial invention rather than challenging them.

In conclusion, the Middle East is a colonial invention through historical and contemporary discourse and imperial powers dictating economic and political life. The Middle East has been a colonial invention due to the power imbalance between the Orient and the Occident.

The political power of the inventor has historically outweighed that of the local political forces. In this way the Middle East was invented through the creation of new states, borders, territories and state structures based on the Western model with national identities to enhance the colonial inventions.

Attempts to dismantle the colonial invention are significant despite their failures as it is an active attempt to challenge the colonial enterprise in the Middle East.

However, the invention proved to withstand and manage disruptions to the system and in this way the Middle East historically has been a colonial invention.


Anderson, E. and Fisher, W. (2000). The Middle East. 1st ed. London [etc.]: Routledge, p.11.

Batatu, H. (1978). The old social classes and the revolutionary movements of Iraq. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bonine, M., Amanat, A. and Gasper, M. (2012). Is there a Middle East?. 1st ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, p.24.

Coffin, C. (2009). Historical discourse. 1st ed. London: Continuum, p.11.

Guazzone, L. and Pioppi, D. (2012). The arab state and neo-liberal globalization. 1st ed. Reading (GB): Ithaca Press.

Ismael, T. and Ismael, J. (1992). Politics and government in the Middle East and North Africa. 1st ed. Miami: Florida International University Press, p.38.

Khatib, L. (2010). Filming the Modern Middle East. 1st ed. London: I.B. Tauris & Co., p.1.

Little, D. (2008). American orientalism. 1st ed. Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press, p.10. Khatib, L. (2010). Filming the Modern Middle East. 1st ed. London: I.B. Tauris & Co., p.1.

Lockman, Z. (2013). Contending visions of the Middle East. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.57, 122,

Mellon, J. (2002). Pan‐Arabism, pan‐Islamism and inter‐state relations in the Arab World. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, [online] 8(4), pp.1-15. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13537110208428675?journalCode=fnep20 [Accessed 17 Mar. 2017].

Owen, R. (2000). State Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle. 1st ed. London: Routledge, p.6.

Rogan, E. (2012). The Arabs. 1st ed. New York: Basic Books.

Said, E. (1985). Orientalism. 1st ed. London: Penguin Books, p.3.

Smith, D. (2006). The State of the Middle East: An Atlas of Conflict and Resolution. 1st ed. London: Earthscan, p.8.

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