How did the Cold War affect the Middle East?

How did the Cold War affect the region? Discuss with reference to one conflict.
By Libin Farah

The Suez war of 1956 was an international event whereby Britain, France and Israel launched an attack on Egypt. This essay will discuss the nature of the Cold War and its implication on the Middle East. Secondly, this essay will explore the different strategies adopted by the Soviet Union and the United States during the Suez war to achieve political hegemony.

Overall, this essay aims to argue that the actions of the superpowers themselves had a limited impact on the development of the region. Rather local actors have greater significance and a larger impact on the Cold War, as demonstrated by Nasser in the Suez crisis.

This essay hopes to emphasise that the implications generated as a result of the Cold War had a great impact on the region as it led to the rise of Nasser who dominated the region politically for at least a decade.

The Cold War was an international conflict which dominated global politics from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The nature of the Cold War can be explained by examining three key features: bipolarity, nuclear weapons and ideology (Sayigh, Shlaim 2003, p.1).

The bipolar nature of the international structure created a world order with rival spheres of influence. The impact of bipolarity is that both superpower’s balance against one another. They use the Realist logic of zero sum to explain international relations.

This means that if one power gains, then the other automatically loses. This logic fuelled the competition for the powers to actively try to shift the balance of power in their favour through proxy wars in theatres around the world.

Secondly, the technological development of nuclear weapons led to a nuclear arms race, a competition for nuclear weapon superiority. The threat of nuclear war dramatically escalated tension and suspicion between the nations.

Lastly, there was an ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism as both sides tried to advance their economic and social models as the better way of life (Sayigh, Shlaim 2003, p.1). Each superpower perceived their respective ideologies as progressive and modern and therefore incompatible and unable coexist.

These features characterize the Cold War and to understand the international relations of the Middle East during the Cold War era it is imperative to study the relationship between the external actors and the local agents (Sayigh, Shlaim 2003, p.2). In the case of the Suez crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union had a vested interest in the outcome of the crisis and naturally aimed to determine it in their favour.

However, the role of local and regional agents did not always correspond with the agenda of the superpowers as was the case with Nasser. Therefore, in order to understand the crisis in its entirety it is important to emphasise that while local actors are affected by the policies of the superpowers, they also manipulate the superpowers and determine outcomes in the region, which is clearly demonstrated by Nasser in the Suez crisis.

The Soviet Union aimed to use the Suez war to further its interests in the region. Soviet Arab policy began as a challenge to the Western position, in a region of importance to the West (Yapp 1991, p.412). The new Soviet regime under Khrushchev hoped to extend the Soviet bloc into the region.

One way they hoped to achieve this was by broadening the divide between Washington, London and Paris by proposing a coalition between Soviet and US forces to stop the Suez war (Smolansky 1965, p.593). The unilateral action endorsed by Britain and France blindsided the United States.

Khrushchev hoped to deepen the rupture between them and in doing so sought to benefit in multiple ways. The most obvious benefit is isolating America from its allies. The importance of this should not be underestimated as the bipolar nature of the international structure makes allies and alliances central to the consolidation and expansion of power of the superpowers. Secondly, had the American’s potentially agreed to this the Soviet’s would have launched an attack and secured a military presence in the Middle East.

As Egypt was their closest ally they would be able to consolidate that power and strengthen their political and military influence in the region. The last and arguably the most important benefit is rooted in the United States refusal to collude with the Soviet’s.

Khrushchev wanted to manipulate their refusal and interpret it to the Arab leaders as indirect approval of the trilateral aggression against Egypt (Smolansky 1965, p.594). This would then be contrasted with the willingness of the Soviet’s to support and defend the sovereignty and nationalism of Egypt and by extension all Arab states that sought protection from imperialism (Smolansky 1965, p.594).

Khrushchev hoped that his anti-imperialist rhetoric would turn Arab leaders away from the West and towards the Soviet Union for political, economic and military assistance. The impact of this initiative was relatively successful. Revolutionary and nationalist states such as Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Libya, Iraq and south Yemen were all, at some point aligned with the USSR (Halliday 1997, p.15).

However, these alliances did not guarantee Soviet control over the domestic politics of these nations or their foreign policy therefore the impact of the Cold War on the region was limited in this sense as local actors had a greater role in determining the development of the region than the superpowers (Halliday 1997, p.15).

During times when Egyptian and Soviet interests were out of sync it would create friction between the external actor and the local agent because Nasser pursued his own interests in spite of Cold War politics.

The willingness of the Soviet Union to use force to end the Suez war requires further analysis as it can strongly be argued that this was the decisive factor in ending the war. During the war, Arab countries severed ties with Britain and France and there was a backlash internationally from Asian and African countries.

However, the Soviets recognised the limitations of international pressure and ‘only superior material and military forces or the threat to use it could guarantee success’ (Smolansky 1965, p.595). The Soviet Union possessed both the capability and willingness to use nuclear arms to counter the Anglo-French-Israeli aggression.

In doing so, Khrushchev limited Eisenhower’s options in dealing with the conflict. Had American troops intervened the conflict would have escalated with the potential use of nuclear weapons. Eisenhower therefore condemned the trilateral invasion in response to the nuclear threat.

That is not to say that the US did not also have their own reasons for condemning the invasion. Eisenhower was surprised by the unilateral action taken by Britain, France and Israel in the invasion and feared that this would have wider consequences in the Cold War context. The United States feared that this aggression would draw Nasser closer to the Soviet Union and become a strategic satellite state in the region.

Nasser’s influence in regional politics would also drive other Arab leaders to follow suit. This would pose a threat to neighbouring Israel who was the military strength in the region while Egypt was politically dominant. In this way, the Cold War significantly impacted the region as a nuclear conflict between the superpowers in the Middle East was avoided.

Nevertheless, while the superpowers were trying to outmanoeuvre each other, they still had to take into consideration the interests of local agents such as Nasser due to the nature of the Cold War, reinforcing the idea that local agents shape outcomes to an even greater degree than the superpowers.

The success of the Soviet Union in the region, following the Suez war, was partly due to the West persistently trying to understand regional dynamics through an essentially Cold War prism (Sayigh, Shlaim 2003, p.33). The US assumed that the power vacuum left by the imperial powers could only be filled by either the United States themselves or the Soviet Union.

They disregarded the importance of powerful local actors in the region such as Nasser who’s influence as a political leader extended far beyond Egypt’s borders. This disposition framed the Eisenhower doctrine which aimed to provide military assistance to any country that was battling communism.

Nasser perceived this doctrine as imperialism by other means and a disguise for the Western powers to become involved in the affairs of Arab states. The suspicion generated from this ‘accelerated the drive to attain Soviet assistance and to encourage a Soviet presence, in order to stop this new imperialism’ (Sayigh, Shlaim 2003, p.33). Inevitably, radical Arab nationalism had become identified in the US minds with international communism (Yapp 1991, p.415).

The bipolarity of the international structure made Nasser, and subsequently other Arab states, turn towards the Soviet’s for assistance to counterbalance the US threat. Therefore, the United States and the Soviet Union were dependent on Nasser, his alliances and policy making to be in their favour as the recognize his value as a strategic regional ally due to his influence among Arab states.

A direct consequence of the West perceiving regional conflicts such as the Suez war through a Cold War perspective is that it saw the rise of Nasser as the foremost political leader in the Middle East (Sayigh, Shlaim 2003, p.33). The nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the victory over the Anglo-French-Israeli coalition boosted Nasser’s popularity and influence in the region.

Therefore, the Cold War set up conditions for the political dominance of Nasser in the Middle East while simultaneously diminishing Western influence. Had Nasser not had the option of the Soviet Union as an alternative pole in the Cold War dynamic, his influence arguably may not have been as far reaching or impactful (Sayigh, Shlaim 2003, p.33).

The United States tried to check Egypt’s regional dominance by becoming the principal supporter of Saudi Arabia, which became the centre of US interests in the Arab world, however he was unable to challenge the Soviet backed leader Nasser (Yapp 1991, p.414).

It is also important to stress that while the Superpowers had great influence in the region, the actions of local agents such as Nasser should not be forgotten. He was able to exploit superpower rivalry within the Cold War context to maximize Egypt’s strategic position. He did this through making deals and alliances with both the United States and the Soviet Union.

For example, the US had commitments to finance the Aswan Dam but when they later abandoned the project, the Soviets were quick to step in (Cleveland, Bunton 2013, p.293). Nasser’s willingness to make agreements first with the United States and then with the Soviet’s depict his pragmatism as a leader and his ability to manoeuvre between the superpowers.

Nasser made the Czech arms deal with Khrushchev ‘partly as a reaction against the United States refusal to supply arms to Egypt’ (Louis, Owen 2002, p.210). This arms deal, however, can be placed in a larger category of Nasser’s anti-Western stance after the Suez war.

He contrived to alienate the United States in his policy making as demonstrated by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, non-alignment and the creation of the United Arab Republic (a brief union between Syria and Egypt). In doing so, Nasser strengthened the support of the Soviet Union.

Therefore, Nasser was able to take advantage of Cold War politics while maintaining independence and not becoming a client state to either superpower.

The Suez crisis integrated the Arab-Israeli conflict into the Cold War. The Cold War exacerbated existing tensions within the region such as the Arab-Israeli conflict but added a Cold War dimension to it. The invasion and occupation of the Sinai Peninsula by Israel during the Suez war is also known as the first Arab-Israeli war.

Arab states believed that Israel was conspiring against them and the attack on Egypt was proof that they were agents for Western powers (Cleveland, Bunton 2013, p.293). Their military superiority was due to American funding and arms deals so that they would become, along with Saudi Arabia, another strategic regional ally.

In addition to this, Israel was still a new state and needed to be able to defend its borders thus the United States built up their military. While Israel had American support the Arab states had the backing of the Soviet Union. Soviet influence in the region peaked during the height of Arab nationalism (Yapp 1991, p.301).

While the Soviets were content with neutralism, they exploited the prominence of Arab nationalism across the region to extend their influence. However, the credibility of the Soviet Union during the Suez war, in regards to military capability, can be questioned. The Czech arms deal between Nasser and Khrushchev supplied Egypt with the military arms, equipment and technology.

Despite an increase the large quantities of war materiel this did not modernize the Egyptian army to the extent that most countries believed it would (Skaggs 2015, p.55). The Israeli army occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula where all opposition was crushed. The Czech arms deal provided Egypt with a large quantity of arms and made the, appear as a challenger to Israeli military superiority.

However, their ability to harness their new military weapons into effective battle action was poorly displayed in the Suez war as most of the equipment supplied to them by the USSR were faulty or antiquated (Skaggs 2015, p.55). This was the case again in the Six-day war (1967) when a multitude of Arab states suffered a crushing defeat by Israel.

While Nasser was able to claim a political victory from the Suez crisis Egypt still had to face the uncomfortable truth that they were humiliated by the advanced military might of, arguably their greatest enemy, the Israelis (Carlton 1988, p.101). This greatly punctured the prestige of Egypt.

The Israelis were able to successfully maintain their military superiority in the Middle East by making arms deals with France and the United States as counter to the Czech arms deal.

In this instance, the Cold War had a significant impact on the Middle East as they fuelled the Arab-Israeli conflict by using Israel and Arab states as proxies in the region. The competition generated by the Cold War was admitted into the Arab-Israeli conflict for political and military dominance of the Middle East.

However, despite local agents operating within a Cold War framework their interests did not always correlate with that of the superpowers. Nasser aimed to use the USSR to achieve political and military hegemony in the region in order to spread pan-Arabism ideology, not communism.

Furthermore, Nasser had a strong anti-Zionist agenda. He aimed to put pressure on Israel by rallying Arab states against them and was willing to use the fame from the Suez crisis and the resources from the Soviet Union to do so. Therefore, while on the surface it may be perceived as a Cold War proxy war/conflict it is in fact tension that predates and was aggravated by the Cold War.

Once again, this is an example of local actors taking advantage of the Cold War dynamic to further their national interests. In lending support to Egypt and Israel the superpowers intensified and took for granted the potent rivalries between Arabs and Israelis which manifested itself in conflicts throughout the 20th century and are present till this day.

In conclusion, a great deal of literature surrounding Cold War conflicts often diminishes the role of local agents and focus solely on the external actors. Although, as this essay demonstrates, the development of the region is shaped more by local agents rather than external actors.

When analysing the impact of the Cold War it is imperative to distinguish the actions of the United States and the Soviet Union themselves and the implications of the Cold War context. The policies of the superpowers, external actors, had a very limited impact on the development of the region.

Rather than the actions of the superpowers themselves it could be argued that the framework of the Cold War facilitated the rise of Nasser and in doing so the crisis propelled Nasser to dominate the region politically.

His powerful presence, as a result of Cold War politics, affected the development of the region drastically as it led to the radicalization of Arab politics, the spread of pan-Arabism ideology, the strengthening of the PLO and the creation of the UAR. He became the uncontested leader of the Arab world throughout the 50s and 60s.

Therefore, the relationship between international and regional actors, one can conclude that the dominant feature was the manipulation of the international powers by regional powers (Yapp 1991, p.438). The Cold War context was a necessary prerequisite to the rise of Nasser as this framework allowed him to achieve political victories.


Bunton, M., Cleveland, WL (2013) A History of the Modern Middle East. Colorado: Westview Press

Carlton, D (1998) Britain and the Suez Crisis, Norwich: Page Bros Ltd.

Halliday F, (1997) The Middle East, the Great Powers and the Cold War, Cold War & the Middle East, Clarendon Press: Oxford

Louis, Wm., Owen, R (2002) A Revolutionary Year. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.

Sayigh, Y., Shlaim, A (2003) Introduction, The Cold War and the Middle East New York: Clarendon Press

Shaughnessy Skaggs, T M, The Czech-Egyptian arms deal of 1955: a turning point in Middle Eastern Cold War history. (2015). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 2287.

Smolansky, O. (1965). Moscow and the Suez Crisis, 1956: A Reappraisal. Political Science Quarterly, 80(4), 581-605. doi:10.2307/2147000

Yapp, M.E, (1991) The Near East since the First World War, Longman Group: London

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